Facebook: It’s Free and Always Will Be…Until It Isn’t

When you log into Facebook, there are six words appropriately placed in your field of vision as you enter your credentials: It’s free and always will be. This brief, to-the-point statement issued by the world’s most popular and trafficked social network serves as reinforcement that the communication medium you rely on for just about everything regarding connectivity would remain a free service no matter what changes transpired on the worldwide interwebs. Like the guarantee on the side of the box in the movie Tommy Boy, It’s free and always will be is staring you in the face, calling out and informing you that it’s all going to be OK.

Until it’s not.

“Free” is taking a wicked right turn for the worse.

Earlier this week, as reported by recode.net, Facebook announced changes to News Feed that will make it increasingly difficult for brands, businesses, and content publishers to get their information in front of Facebook users. These new changes put more emphasis on connection with family and friends versus brands and content.

In other words, I’m going to see more rants about politics and screenshots of weather apps than I will updates about a brand I support and follow loyally.

In other words, the News Feed I’ve cultivated over time based on the interactions I’ve made in an effort to see what I want to see when I hop onto Facebook is gone with a few swift keystrokes from the Facebook ivory tower.

In other words, Facebook is now telling you and I how we are to get value from their service.

In other words, this sucks.

Since its inception, Facebook has grown and evolved as more and more users gravitated its way. I attended a conference they hosted a few years back and many of my clients echoed the same sentiment when I asked them what they’d like me to discover for them: Find out why such a small amount of my Facebook community sees my posts.

Turns out, that was the burning question on pretty much everyone’s minds…and Facebook did a great job explaining the reasoning. These numbers (and perhaps even the supporting explanation given all the recent updates) may be outdated at this point, but the average person spends about a 10-minute period three times a day on Facebook. In those short time frames, Facebook has to determine, based on that user’s interactions + connections with everyone and everything from friends, family, co-workers, brands, and news/information mediums, what that person will want to see. Therefore, their algorithm was built to prioritize what hits your Feed in the short time you spend scrolling.

This explanation made perfect sense to me. It told me that if the community I built was going to see the content I posted organically, it had to be valuable at all times in order to trigger an action (a post click, a share, a like, a comment, etc). The more I did this, the more people would connect to my brand, thus increasing the likelihood of my content appearing in more News Feeds in any of those aforementioned 10-minute windows.

In essence, it made life easier for brands and social media managers as the Facebook brass recommended posting once a day versus repeatedly on any business or fan page. The nutshell reason why? If you post at 9:00am, then 11:00am, Facebook assumes the 11am post is now more important, thus killing any organic momentum your 9am post may have gained.

LESSON: Post once, make it valuable, and let the algorithm take care of the rest. Based on results achieved, you can use Facebook Insights to determine best content, best time of day to post, demographics, etc.

Those points, combined with spending money wisely by boosting posts and advertising, seemed like great ways to harness the power of this enormous community where practically everyone was playing. To this day, as a content producer who shares said content through various social platforms, I have no problem spending money to ensure my content casts a wider net.

But these new changes pretty much tell me that, as a small business, I’d better be ready to pony up all day, every day if I expect anyone to see my stuff. And, even if I do choose to pony up, is my content truly going to reach my target audience or will their feeds be overrun with pics of their uncle’s open-faced meatloaf sandwich he so expertly photographed because, based on this new direction, that’s what they really want to see?

The “reasoning” behind this new direction is about “conscience” and “moral character.” I don’t argue that social media can be bad for you, as indicated in this article. This pretty much represents the driving force behind these changes although many of us “skeptics” are reading between the lines quite easily. But when do we take personal responsibility for ourselves to be fucking adults that don’t let a social network dictate our disposition in life? When do we stop blaming technology for our lots in life, look hard at the mirror, and make a decision to follow a certain path and see the journey through to completion? When do we realize how lucky we are to have all this really cool technological shit at our disposal, but still have the opportunity to forge real relationships with real people at the same time?

That said, it seems a small segment who struggles with answering these questions is determining how the rest of us billion use Facebook. When you were in 3rd grade, you ever have one kid act like a jackass in class, resulting in you and everyone else not getting chocolate milk?

This small segment is that kid and, just like that time 3rd grade when I got robbed of chocolate milk, I hate that kid.

Forget that I use Facebook to share content I create. I use it for personal use, too. And over time, I’ve interacted and established rapport with the people I want to digitally break bread with, as well as brands and other providers whose content I genuinely enjoy and find valuable. When I begin my 10-minute session, I have a pretty solid idea of what I’m going to see because, as the cool kids say, Facebook gets me. But now, they’re telling me that’s not going to happen anymore?

And I did all of the above within Facebook’s rules. That’s always been a major point I’ve preached to clients, fellow marketers and content creators, and businesses I’ve worked with: Facebook is a powerful medium – as long as you play within their rules. Make the user experience as great as it can be. Give fans of you and your brand a reason to come to Facebook. Develop a budget and invest it wisely into Facebook – even if it’s small, it signifies you see value in sharing your content on their platform.

But did Facebook get too big for its britches to care about us small brands that don’t have multi-million dollar advertising and promotion budgets? It can be argued that small brands and content creators played a major role in the growth and development of Facebook. To me, being ‘free’ isn’t just about money. It’s about the freedom to get the most from the network I’ve grown to enjoy. This highly-advanced platform was presented to me, I learned to use it the way they wanted me to, and in doing so, it’s become very valuable to me on multiple levels.

But now, maybe it’s not. They can scream moral character and conscience as much as they want, but anyone can see what’s truly motivating these changes.

So what happens now? Is it time to move on? As a small brand with limited funds for advertising, do you abandon ship?

No (at least not yet). Remember, there’s still over a billion and counting utilizing Facebook across the globe. And those most loyal to your brand may take the long route of a few extra clicks to see what you’re up to should your posts not organically appear in their News Feed. And, for better or for worse, Facebook is a tremendous event management platform. 

We need to see how everything shakes out before we make any rash decisions. But, in the mean time, it never hurts to evaluate how your communicating with your audience across all platforms, including Facebook. Here are a couple things I’m looking at as we speak:

  • How to utilize Instagram in greater capacities. Yep, owned by Facebook (irony)
  • Putting more emphasis on email marketing
  • Using YouTube more frequently. YouTube is the world’s second-highest used search engine and a sound strategy in this area can be very powerful
  • Encouraging fans to turn on notifications for when you post on Facebook. If you’re only posting once a day anyway, you’re really not inundating them with content that blows up their notification screen every waking hour. You may not get everyone to take this step, but you may get enough to make a small difference…something to build on over time

You can argue that Facebook did it right. More or less, their platform is like a really good drug. And over 14 years, they’ve gotten us nice and addicted. They’ve built an incredibly sophisticated, connective, immersive experience that has transformed the way the world communicates forever more. Regardless of any policy changes or algorithm changes, it’s not easy to simply turn everything off and walk away.

But what does this latest update mean for those of us who not only share original content on Facebook, but enjoy interacting with people and brands who do the same? The long-term answer is yet to be discovered. But for the short-term, expect organic traffic on your pages to decline and the number of your cousin’s baby pictures in your News Feed to go up. 

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