How Facebook Reactions Will Change Publishing

You Feeling Something Is the Story

The 5 new reactions on Facebook, alongside an updated Like button

While Facebook’s new Reactions feature allows for the diverse range of one-tap expressions users have been clamouring for, its real power lies behind the News Feed. In one swift, global move, the company has exponentially increased the volume of behavioural data at its engineers’ fingertips, and by extension, positioned itself to tighten its hold over publishers growing more dependent on the network each day. Reactions data, once shared with third-parties, will allow creators to better tailor their content not just according to the demographic or psychographic makeup of their audiences, but their emotional makeup as well. As the Like button did before it, Reactions will transform how over a billion people create, consume and interpret information inside the world’s largest walled garden.

The debut of Reactions last week was heralded with a pair of blog posts to hype its release. The first, written by product manager Sammi Krug, lauded the update as a bold new step for Facebook after years of building the Like button’s value. The other, posted by Facebook product design director Geoff Teehan, detailed the work that went into developing the new system and its five new choices: Love, Haha, Wow, Angry and Sad. Together, these posts illustrate two major points:

  • Reactions was a major initiative, overseen by Zuckerberg himself
  • It was designed to maximize reach, emotional depth and timelessness

Neither of these are particularly surprising given the company’s meticulous approach to developing new products. They do, however, demonstrate the intense detail through which Facebook’s team has thought about the underlying problem, the one that has had users crying out for a Dislike button for years. Not only has the company now moved to bridge the emotional gap the network had placed on users through limited interactions, but has turned that weakness into an asset that will both improve the network and entice publishers and advertisers to post more content in hopes of uncovering new audience insights.

“Over time we hope to learn how the different Reactions should be weighted differently by News Feed to do a better job of showing everyone the stories they most want to see.”

Already the new interactions are reverberating throughout the network, gaining traction with users and feeding the algorithms in Menlo Park. For publishers, Facebook’s tools are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. If the Like button was a vital social signal that let Facebook know the stories people cared about (and didn’t), Reactions goes far deeper, detailing not just what users interacted with but how they felt when they did. This, coupled with other data like time spent stopping and scrolling in the News Feed, means that publishers could soon unlock a much more granular level of data that was previously left untapped, and adjust their approach accordingly.

The idea of tracking users’ emotions isn’t new, of course. Anyone who frequents Buzzfeed will no doubt have noticed the list of bright yellow stickers that conclude each article with quintessentially modern phrases like LOL, Fail and Yaaass! These are powerful signals that play a key role in helping the data-driven content producer push its latest concoctions to its many properties. With Reactions, Facebook doubles down on that bet, appealing to people in across cultures, countries, and professions with its own twist on the concept inside its own borders.

People have now had a week to get acclimated to the new emotions, and they seem to have fit right in. The diversity of interactions on links to news articles is clearly valuable. But it’s important to consider how the release of Reactions also fits into Facebook’s swelling portfolio of other publishing tools like Instant Articles, Messenger, Live Videos, and the new Canvas ad format. As publishers, journalists, and news organizations continue to hone their skills with these tools, learning the best ways to deploy them, the experience of consuming news on Facebook will become even further engrained in the minds of audiences. Coupled with Facebook’s technical skill for delivering a slick user experience, it becomes increasingly clear why someone would be perfectly happy receiving and interacting with the majority of their daily content wholly through Facebook. And if you’re Facebook, that, of course, is the point.

An example of Facebook’s power for publishers when they invest in the platform.

The data generated from all those reactions from all those people on all those posts is what makes things really interesting. It takes the vast web of connections Facebook has spent a decade building and gives it a new dimension, expanding its power, its depth, its capabilities. Once this new information is made available to producers, publishers will not only be able to target who sees a post, but what type of reactions it is likely to generate — and which ones are preferable. Now, this obviously has an appeal to the lowest common denominator. The click farms and content mills that have sprung up in the last few years are sure to take advantage. But for the more serious outlets as well, Reactions data will have an undeniable allure: the chance to know exactly how different audiences tick, what piques their interests, and how good posts can become great stories with an ever-increasing reach.

Take the current presidential campaign as a testing ground. A piece by The New York Times discussing the rise of Donald Trump would presumably have a wide reach on the paper’s Facebook page, generating a number of likes, comments and shares. With Reactions, however, the Times could note that this same piece warranted an overwhelming responses of one kind or another, say “Angry,” “Wow,” and “Sad” as the top three. Using this new data, the Times could run a promotional campaign with ad sets with tweaked headlines, varying photos, etc., analyze the accompanying reactions, and drive more people to the same article. The news organization could also pair insights from Reactions with additional Facebook data to find new audiences who would be more inclined to engage with this or similar pieces based on their reactions and engagement with past stories. Repeat the process as necessary.

The value for both the Times and readers is obvious. For the paper, the half-life of the original article is increased, bumping traffic, ad revenue, and other metrics. For readers, the content in their feed is insightful, entertaining, and elicits a response that helps build affinity with the publisher. And that connection is key. As more news moves to Facebook, the data publishers extract from these interactions become fuel for sustaining a growing portion of their operation. The relationship between Publisher and Audience can deepen with these insights. And in the middle of this relationship, but standing behind the scenes is Facebook, strengthening both the publishers’ tools and the user experience.

With Reactions, the potential for publishers to both broaden and deepen their connection to audiences cannot be overstated. Although the company is moving cautiously with the new feature, not yet opening up its data to third-parties, there’s little doubt such a move will come with time. The feelings of its audience are too important and represent too great an opportunity to ignore. Which is why, rather than slap a Dislike button on every status update, engineers instead moved to evolve the network’s most used feature in a way that removes old limitations while opening up new frontiers for users and publishers alike.

Expanding Facebook’s range of emotional signals does much more than give readers new ways to comment. It yields an entirely new dimension of interaction, one that layers emotional impact over top of the demographics and psychological profiles of people already on the network. The insights to be gleaned from this new data will be powerful for journalists, letting them make the most of Facebook’s growing array of publishing tools to connect with audiences on a deeper level. Publishers can extend their rapport with readers, and they in turn can interact with content that resonates with them in a way they could not before. Facebook Reactions bridges a technical gap with human emotion, letting everyone tell their stories better.

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