By Jed Williams
Chief Innovation Officer, Local Media Association
In name, this is a column, which means it’s reserved for opinions. Except that, when it comes to Facebook and its recent seismic announcement that it will (again) deprioritize publisher and brand content in its News Feed, what opinions are left to be given? And, what opinions have enough solid grounding to even be given?
There have been ample “hot takes,” and enough frothy headlines to shut down Twitter. Please, no more “Facebook is done with journalism” or “the end of the social news era?” eye poppers. Furthermore, a number of those screeds, while stimulating and authored by smart people, are largely speculative.
I’ve spoken with dozens of local media executives since the announcement – from audience development heads to revenue leaders – and the one thing they don’t need more of is speculation. What they do need is ideas — real, tangible strategies and tactics that they can communicate to their teams and actually take action on.
Plotting these on a near-to-mid-to-long-term continuum, these include immediate Facebook adjustments, intermediate platform diversification/experimentation, and longer-term owned audience initiatives.
Among the most important and promising ideas that emerged:
- Publishers still have opportunities for exposure in the News Feed, but more than ever, they must be analytics-oriented, and focused on the shareability of their content.
- Groups are worth experimenting with, particularly around communities of interest that media brands are known for. There is also opportunity for rich data extraction.
- Platform diversification is essential! This starts with additional social networks, as Facebook traffic had already been waning, but also includes other platforms.
- There are timely opportunities to leverage your existing Facebook audience, and Facebook targeting, to promote your owned and operated brands.
[One final disclaimer: these are largely ideas, not best practices. It’s way too early for verified practices, with supporting data. Heck, even Facebook itself has struggled to give publishers specific guidance. But ideas can go a long way in shifting the narrative from one of fear and anxiety to one of experimentation and action.]
Chances are you may have seen this already, but if not, here’s a first course of action to take on Facebook: inform or remind your readers that they can actively select your brand to show up first in their news feed.
While they’re at it, they can also control whether they see posts based on popularity or recency (recency is, of course, an important value of local news):
Once you’ve taken this “Band-Aid” step, one that frankly most users probably aren’t aware of and may not follow, what’s next? How do you start making sense of “meaningful conversations” as the new metric that matters most? Here are a few perspectives from various local media, including the guidance that they are giving their newsrooms, audience development groups, and social teams.
Mid-sized TV station:
“Our most important Facebook metric was already engagement rate. That is what we look at all day on CrowdTangle. Our main strategy has been to post about, share about and talk about the things our audience is interested in, as surfaced through other real-time metrics like Topic Pulse and Chartbeat. We believe this strategy puts us in good position to stay in our neighbors feeds when Facebook pivots to family and friends. We position [our brand] as one of their friends.”
A few other tidbits shared by local media orgs to consider as you evolve your Facebook strategy:
• “Links and content shared by users won’t affect publisher traffic; worst-case scenario is milder than expected.”
• “Continue to include quality posts that focus on driving engagement. Include photos, videos, links to quizzes, polls, questions, etc.”
• “Continue to avoid the use of text and logos in your images and videos. Posts that look like ads will also hurt your organic engagement.”
Now, let’s talk about Facebook Groups. It has already become fashionable to think that Groups are “the new News Feed,” and that publishers should go all-in. Experiment? Certainly. Double down? We don’t know enough (not even Facebook does) to make that suggestion. In fact, one newspaper group has opted against rushing to Groups:
“We are going to stay away from Instant Articles and Groups, opting to slow any decline in traffic by educating our readers about prioritizing their feeds and sharing only our best, most engaging content.”
For those who opt to experiment, Groups present an intriguing extension of audience engagement and loyalty efforts that hopefully local media orgs of all sizes are already doubling down on (see more below)! Explore building or taking over Groups that appeal to strong communities connected to your brand. Consider a Group for your paid subscribers (if you have a paid content model), but also expand to broader affinities (politics? sports? real estate?). Here’s an in-depth look at how Vox built two robust Groups, and what it has learned from them:
Here are key learnings from a mid-sized newspaper group that experimented aggressively with Groups over the past couple of years:
Questions also persist about the impact of the changes on additional Facebook channels, both paid and organic, such as boosted posts and Facebook Live. Facebook addressed both of these directly with LMA, and publishers should not expect much change:
Boosted posts: “Promoted posts work in the same way they did previously, as the announced changes don’t change how ads are served. Total performance in some cases could change based on how well a given post had performed organically, before being boosted.”
Facebook Live: “To be determined to some degree, but we know Live videos often spark meaningful interactions. The shared experience of live tends to drive conversation (assuming the live story is connecting with the audience and not just live to be live for sake of driving engagement).”
Platforms aren’t a fad. They will inevitably change (as Facebook has many times), and their popularity and utility will wax and wane. Balanced local media companies understand this and proactively anticipate these “climate changes,” including how to buffer their brands against them. But the fact is that platforms will continue to be a significant part of audience discovery, development and conversion realities, and a factor in monetization as well. Will they be the primary driver? Likely not, and hopefully not. But they aren’t to be ignored either.
In the same way that a media brand can’t afford to be over-leveraged on platforms in general, it also can’t afford to be too platform-dependent on a single source. If Facebook represents more than 25-30 percent of your referral traffic, take heed. Put simply, this is all about diversification.
In fact, data from analytics platforms like Chartbeat and Parse.ly points to a “platform flattening” that has been in progress for months. Aggregate data from Chartbeat’s publisher network identifies a 15 percent decline in Facebook referrals since October 2017.
Parse.ly has detected an even sharper decline in Facebook referral traffic, coupled with a spike in Google referrals, namely through its AMP platform.
Local media companies we’ve spoken with have experienced similar shifts. One large TV group has seen Facebook referral traffic dip for six consecutive quarters (not just at the back-end of 2017), and during that time, Google AMP has passed Facebook Instant Articles as the primary platform referrer. Meanwhile, the same broadcast group is now testing the performance of many of its stations’ content on Apple News (while acknowledging the monetization challenges specific to that platform). Many others have also shared that Google has re-eclipsed Facebook as their primary referral source.
However, platform diversification doesn’t simply mean “social diversification.” Search and SEO, including and beyond AMP, are critical. Don’t forget about news aggregators like Flipboard, Pocket, and SmartNews. So too are other, newer platforms and storytelling formats that can deliver your content experiences to different audiences. Do you have a podcast? Now is a good time to build one, and the barriers to entry are low. OTT video isn’t for everyone, but assessing the pros and cons of off-platform video should be part of your strategic discussions as well.
OWNED PLATFORMS, OWNED AUDIENCES
Of course the safest, and most sustaining, bet you can make is on yourself. Your own brands, your own experiences, your own audiences. The local media industry has certainly awoken to this realization over the past 18-24 months, and Facebook’s changes will further fuel this narrative.
I could (and perhaps should) write a full series of columns on the vital importance of acquiring email addresses, appending first party data to create unique audience segments, creating a robust newsletter strategy (tied to any number of revenue initiatives), driving mobile app downloads, building out thoughtful push notification approaches, expanding upon niche content verticals, and more. They’re all critical. They’re all also worthy of their own analysis.
Here’s a convenient approach that BuzzFeed took to leverage the Facebook news to its advantage…on Facebook. Sure, the headline might be overcooked, but it gets the point across.
The Information, a reader-supported subscription model focused on technology, business, and venture capital insiders, is taking a similar tack on Facebook to heighten its brand awareness.
So, how are you navigating the changes? What are you experimenting with, and what are you doubling down on? How are you distilling signals from noise to communicate effectively with your teams? We would love to hear about your approach and learnings so we can share them with the LMA community. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.