Facebook’s latest change could actually be good news (or perhaps not as bad news) for Hearken partners

TL;DR — Hearken’s methodology and supporting technology helps newsrooms build direct and meaningful relationships with the public. These are relationships that newsrooms, not Facebook, own. Rather than treating the public as a consumer, focused on extracting maximum time and attention for ad dollars, our approach helps newsrooms put the public in the position of partner, giving them power in determining the news coverage created for them (which unsurprisingly, builds goodwill with the news brand). In the process, news organizations can allow the public to opt-into newsletters and become financial supporters. Facebook’s changes are still important to our business as it relates to news distribution, and their potential consequences are complex.

On January 11, 2018 Facebook made an announcement to their algorithm, values and direction that left newsrooms, their leadership and those looking out for the whole ecosystem VERY nervous, despite best efforts made by people who warned the industry about this.

In short, news publisher content doesn’t solve a problem for Facebook; it often creates problems. The company issued a statement covering broad strokes of the latest shift, namely that the platform’s algorithm and ethos is going to “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people.” Translation: news consumption (and content from companies and brands overall, not just news) is less of a priority than people getting to connect and converse peer-to-peer.

So the logic follows: if newsroom X creates a post about something they want people to know, and person Y creates a post about something they want people to know, person Y will get ranked higher by by the algorithm, especially if their post lands a lot of the signals Facebook, and our addiction to it, feeds on (likes, shares, comments).

Facebook has been signaling a shift like this for more than a year. But now those values are starkly visible and enshrined, newsrooms are right to be wishing for a time-machine to reverse their decisions to bank so much of their futures on the platform and its distribution. Or wishing for a time-machine to have used Facebook less as a distribution channel and more of a two-way conversation opportunity.

Good (or at not as bad) news for Hearken partners

This change is going to be bad for many publishers. But what if it isn’t terrible for everyone? For Hearken’s hundred-plus partners around the world, we actually see this as potentially good news (well, good news for the stories they create via Hearken at least).

From the data that’s been shared by our partners, we’ve learned Hearken-powered work performs disproportionately higher on Facebook than a newsroom’s typical content. In other words: people share, like and comment on Hearken-powered stories with each other a lot on Facebook. And Facebook is telling the world that it likes content shared by people, not brands or companies, BEST.

Want proof? Here you go.

(Because I’m putting this post up late on a Friday afternoon and haven’t obtained explicit permission from partners to share their names on every example, I’m going to anonymize the data for the sake of efficiency.)

  • In the 40 customer surveys we’ve gotten back for 2017, 35 of our partners (88%) report that our model and services helped them create higher-performing content.
  • Large local online news publisher who has a Hearken-powered series says every one of these stories is in the top 15% of their Facebook posts every week.
  • Large international newsroom shattered their brand’s Facebook share record with the first Hearken-powered story they posted.
  • Large international newsroom saw one of their first Hearken-powered stories perform 10x above average on Facebook.
  • Tiny rural local newsroom saw one Hearken-powered story perform 12x above average on Facebook in terms of reach and 55x above average in terms of click-throughs.

This trend of high-performing stories can be explained by a great study NPR did in 2013 (check out their excellent graphic explanation) about which kinds of stories travel the best on social media. Their 2016 study on NPR One story popularity showed similar learnings about Hearken-powered content.

Hearken’s model is based on curiosity, not conflict. So the journalism produced leans toward reaching shared understanding about a topic, which inspires civil dialogue and conversation (rather than stoking the fire of opinion clashes). Civil exchanges are things Facebook says it values and will prioritize in the algorithm.

But beyond performance of Hearken-powered stories being shared and commented and liked a lot more than regular stories on Facebook, there’s the fact that we help news organizations get in touch directly with their audiences.

Direct newsroom support from the public

Our technology platform and the incentive structure we’ve built for audience participation means that when members of the public participate via Hearken, they share their name, email address and sometimes even phone number with a newsroom. This means our partner newsrooms can and do get in touch with the public directly (read: not through Facebook). And our partners often invite those people to sign up for newsletters or for more information while they’re engaging. Which means the news organization can have more channels to be directly in touch (read: not through Facebook).

We’ve heard lots of evidence that our partners who have subscription and donation models have received more money because of their Hearken-powered work. Here’s one study that shows people who engaged with Hearken on a publisher’s site were 2–5x more likely to become paying subscribers. Increasingly publishers must prove their value directly to the public and ask for their financial support, rather than go for reach and volume and sell the public’s attention to advertisers (aka Facebook’s game). We are built for the direct value proposition.

“My hope is that the sunsetting of a news economy based on shallow connections and clickbait will force us to double-down on a Trust Economy for journalism, based on deep, meaningful connections to our users. It gives us an opportunity to reframe the difficult relationship between artificial intelligence and journalism, reward newsrooms who listen harder to their communities, and drive experimentation in revenue models, from subscription to membership and micropayment.” — Mark Little, Neva Labs

What we don’t know yet

There is still so much that’s not yet clear. Several of the data points cited above are “reach” successes and not “interactions” successes, which is what Facebook is telling us it will value going forward. It’s unclear whether high click-throughs will continue to be something that boosts a post in the News Feed, since that’s not an interaction between people on the platform (and is taking them off-platform).

The data we have for sharing content is based on the old Facebook system, where publishers had good “reach” and therefore could accumulate those kind of numbers. From what we can tell, it’s unlikely publishers will see the same kind of results if Facebook does not show publisher posts in the News Feed.

Hearken embeds work in Facebook Instant Articles, but many of our partners don’t use IA. And it’s not clear that Facebook will whitelist partners like us so newsrooms can do the kind of engagement our particular technology enables.

We also don’t know what this new algorithm shift will mean for all of us who counted on seeing and getting news on Facebook. Will we have to further rely on the news junkie friends in our circle who go out to hunt and gather and share the news links and stories we do see? After all, many people (myself included) have gotten quite used to Facebook being one major place they receive news content. And, will Facebook’s trend of devaluing posts that include an off-platform link mean that those individuals’ posts of the stories and news links they want to share mean that it’ll be harder for even organic, audience-driven social media promotion to happen?

What remains true

What hasn’t changed with this news is that Facebook still isn’t providing a meaningful source of revenue for news publishers, despite many promises and past high-profile efforts. (I articulated when publishers should not use Facebook for engagement which gets into that.)

So while this new algorithm change adds one more argument to the mix for using Hearken, like everyone, our fate is ultimately tied up in the publishers we work with and their fates, too. #OMGdemocracy

How Hearken can help during this time

Our whole model is built on meaningful interactions and relationships, the same things Facebook is also signaling it will now value.

Hearken’s model runs on listening to and engaging with the public. So the people involved in creating your stories (by submitting questions or voting on questions) are the people you can get in touch with off Facebook when the stories publish because with Hearken, you’ll have their email addresses. They can then forward the story around to their friends (or post it on Facebook).

We don’t just offer technology. In fact most of our value has nothing to do with platforms, it’s more about how to be in better and deeper relationship with the public. Our engagement consultants work with our partner newsrooms to develop a promotion strategy that fits each engagement effort and its intended audience. So if you need help going from treating the public like a mass, trying to extract as many clicks as you can wherever you can, to treating the public like a bunch of overlapping communities and individuals with terrific insights, and working with them to meaningfully meet their information needs, we can help with that.

“… all the resources that were diverted to feed the Facebook machine, can be focused on developing news products that directly impact the company’s activity — finding, retaining and converting loyal readers — as opposed to pursuing elusive cohorts who can’t remember the name of the news brand. The quest for quality readership will prevail over the mirage of a mass audience once promised by Facebook.” —Frederic Filloux, Senior Research Fellow at John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford

Additional reading: this fantastic roundup of reactions to the Facebook change from Charlie Beckett from the London School of Economics.

Want to learn how to better engage the public? Download our free engagement checklist guide.