A version of this post appeared on Medium.
Facebook announced on January 11 that it’s rolling out changes to the News Feed over the coming weeks to deprioritize posts from publishers, organizations, and businesses in favor of those from family and friends. In Facebook parlance, the News Feed will “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people.”
In newsrooms large and small, the change immediately aroused angst — and anger — among social media managers who depend on the platform to reach and engage audiences, and those feelings are deepened by competing, confusing interpretations of Facebook-speak into real world strategies.
I spend a lot of time working with small publishers —especially niche and community publications with editorial teams of less than 15 people (and usually closer to one), and with audiences of less than 500,000. They’re scrambling, amid mounting frustration and a dash of despair, to figure out what this means for their day-to-day.
Here’s the good news: The planned changes will have less of an impact on the strategies of small publishers, and significant payoff awaits those embracing the fundamentals of engagement.
So if you’re a small publisher, here’s my advice: Don’t panic. You’ll adapt to the new algorithm. Here are a few tips on how to make the most of it.
Know why you’re posting
Publishers of all sizes have to justify their time on the platform, now more than ever. In years past, the fast and relatively easy traffic was enough. But as their time spent on the platform increased, their returns diminish with every algorithm update.
In response to this update, I’ve read reactions from small publishers that suggest they’ll be turning their backs on the platform. They intend to grow their newsletter lists, or are just fed up and will focus on creating great reporting for their websites. My friend Simon Galperin wrote a great post about how to meet the challenge of a post-Facebook world, and you should do everything he says.
But let’s be clear. No one, as more than one has flippantly suggested to me, is going to abandon Facebook because of this change. Facebook matters — a lot.
Ask yourself, how are you going to get new readers to that newsletter sign-up form, or to read your awesome reporting? Diversifying your distribution to other social media channels is one idea, as is partnerships or relying solely on search optimization. But the numbers just don’t bear out. If you give up on Facebook, you give up one of your most effective tools for finding new readers.
Facebook has two billion users — the largest social network by far. Take a look at this graph:
Facebook’s nearest competitor for audience is Youtube, which is three quarters its size, and not of much immediate use for those trying to build audiences for text-based content. Instagram is a third of Facebook’s size and doesn’t facilitate referral traffic for smaller accounts. Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest and LinkedIn are all a fraction of Facebook’s size, and with very specialized audiences.
So it follows that Facebook is currently the second largest source of referral traffic to content publishers, accounting for 24% of all such traffic even after a year of steep declines. Twitter, by comparison, accounts for just 3% of all referral traffic.
Even if the amount of traffic Facebook sends to websites next month is halved from where it is now — or even quartered — it would remain, by far, the second largest source of referral traffic to content publishers.
Facebook and Google are the most effective engines of new audience growth for media companies that the world has ever seen, and this algorithm update doesn’t change that.
What it does mean is that it’s time to stop caring about driving pageviews for your stories.
Instead, ask yourself what you want to get out of your time on Facebook. If it’s newsletter sign-ups, make sure they see a sign-up box when they arrive. If it’s to bring in new readers, emphasize sharing. If tightening up your relationship with readers is important, and you want to foster more loyalty, then entice readers to comment and contribute. If it’s to improve your journalism, use Facebook to involve readers in the process.
Chances are, you want to do all of these things — and you should. A comment or a share can be just as valuable as a newsletter sign-up; maybe more so. Incremental signs of engagement can build a much more meaningful relationship over time than, say, getting a first-time visitor to subscribe to your newsletter.
Regardless of what you prioritize, Facebook’s time as an easy source of pageviews is over. But for small publishers, its value in building a community of readers that can support your journalism remains quite strong.
Now some tips on how to get there…
- On-site share buttons: Organic sharing between users is going to be the most valuable way your content gets to new readers. You should have share buttons on your posts. Are they clear and visible, especially on mobile? Do they appear when a user is most likely to share, such as when they finish the article? Are they surrounded by a bunch of clutter, or do they stand out? Here’s an example from one of my favorite hyperlocals, Racine County Eye:
- Remind readers to share. This can be on-site and on Facebook, though saying “Share this” on Facebook could get flagged as engagement bait. Use custom language that reinforces why users would want to share: to help get the word out about things important to them; to be known in their friends circle as the best-informed person, etc.
- Embrace novel sharing features. Use in-post widgets that enhance sharing. If you use WordPress, there are plugins like this one that make pull quotes shareable (Note: I’m not recommending any specific plugin, and don’t vouch for any particular one. This is just an example; search the plugin repository and read reviews before installing). You can also seek to meme-ify your news — for important stories, try including an image that has a gripping visual and some bullet points that summarize the story.
- Create an influencer circle. I’m immediately suspicious of the term “influencer,” but it’s useful shorthand here. If you’re a small publisher, you probably know a few people in your audience who lots of other people in your audience are connected to, and who have some sway over community conversations. If you’re a local news publisher, they could be the heads of civic associations, business owners, or Little League dads. When you’re working on a story you think will have impact, use Facebook messenger or e-mail and ask them to share it. You can go a step further and create a sub-community for them via a group chat, and reward them with small get togethers and free pizza. If they don’t know each other already, they’ll likely appreciate meeting other people involved in their community, and value your publication for making the connection.
- Here are some great tips from RJI’s Trusting News to deploy your fans for success on social networks.
Conversation is key
Conversation is definitely the harder part of this formula, but it also stands to be the most rewarding — on Facebook, and in your journalism.
- Recognize the value of comments. First and foremost, you need to recognize the value of conversation. When the new Facebook changes were announced, one publisher I know said something along the lines of “Great, so they want us to spend more time gabbing and less time reporting.” And as someone who has managed some toxic discussions online, I definitely understand the instinct to run in the opposite direction. But investing the time and effort into creating healthy dialogue with your community will help you in the new Facebook algorithm, and will surface new stories and additional insights that bring more context and meaning to your work. It’s much easier said than done, and you do have to balance it with your need to report other news — but what’s the point of publishing news if you’re not ensuring that the news you publish makes an impact?
- Learn best practices for civil discussions. The hardest part of managing conversations online is preventing it from becoming a dumpster fire. Fostering a quality comment section on Facebook, your website, or anywhere else online is a blog post in itself (or many), but here are a few things to get you started. Read up on Facebook’s moderation tools, including how to blacklist words. Understand how trolls work, and how to frame conversations in a way that discourages trolling. Read these best practices for journalists.
Here are a few tips on how to create conversations specifically for Facebook, and what signals the platform is looking to promote.
- Get readers involved before you report. If you’re working on a story, or even just thinking about a topic area, use Facebook to get your community involved before you begin writing. Ask them for expertise and insight. It’s a good way to gauge interest, and it’s an important way to bring transparency to your work. If you get a good conversation going, it also ensures a healthy audience once you finally do publish the story. You can drop the final link into the comment thread, and one of Facebook’s highly addictive notifications will go out to users.
- Reward commenters. In addition to citing commenters in your articles if they’ve helped you report the story, think about featuring thoughtful comments with a “Comment of the day/week” post and let them brag. Bring thoughtful commenters into your influencer circle, or create a special community for highly engaged commenters, notifying them as soon as posts go up and asking them to get the discussion going.
- Put a premium on long comments. Facebook’s new algorithm update won’t just weight the volume of comments, it’s going to try and determine the quality of the comment. For better or worse, it’s using comment length as a signal of high quality. We’ll save discussion of the flaws in that approach for another day. Still, keep in mind that probing your readers for longer, more thoughtful comments — and replies to them — is going to help expand your organic reach.
- Use the status text responsibly. The easiest way to get a conversation going is to post text that reacts to the content, and stokes emotions. That will work, but will likely lead to a dumpster fire. Instead, frame the conversation you want to have by asking questions.
- Post the first comment. It’s not clear yet if Facebook is going to count the publisher’s comments any differently from other users’ when ranking it for the algorithm. But regardless, this could be a great tool for steering the conversation to quality. If you use your status text to ask a question, try using the first comment to add more context from the article so the conversation is better informed. Speak respectfully and thoughtfully to set the tone of the conversation.
- Respond promptly, and ask follow ups. The speed of your response matters. It shows you’re an engaged presence, which both Facebook and your audience will reward. If you have a very active comment thread you don’t need to respond to everything — especially those spewing craziness; just hide those — but you do want to reward those who are contributing constructively by thanking them and asking follow ups. Always be thinking of this as a tool to generate story ideas.
Post only your best stuff
The small publishers that could be most affected by the algorithm change are those that simply post links to Facebook, usually using a service to automate the process. This minimalist strategy worked very well for a number of years. Even for bare links, the Facebook faucet was on and traffic flowed freely.
Since at least 2014, that tactic has had declining returns. It has still worked to some degree because local and niche communities are highly engaged. Posts that resonated were widely shared; posts that didn’t would sit without engagement. There was no real relationship between the two.
That’s changing. In his post about the announcement, Facebook’s head of News Feed Adam Mosseri said, “Pages making posts that people generally don’t react to or comment on could see the biggest decreases in distribution.”
It’s not immediately clear, but it seems Facebook will take into account a Page’s level of engagement across all posts when determining a post’s priority in the news feed. That means posts that don’t get any interactions, like those meeting announcements or calendar roundups, will begin dragging down distribution of your important investigation into the county’s finances.
Post only your best stuff, and put the time into making them successful discussions.
Beware the Facebook Groups dilemma
A lot of people have responded to the announcement by suggesting that Facebook Groups will be the new focus of publishers. I’ve also told publishers that they should start a group. But there are caveats here for the small publisher.
Groups will not replace your Page. If you think you’re going to create a group around your publication and all of your Facebook followers will go there to begin getting your links, you’re wrong.
Groups take a lot of work to build membership and get people involved. You can’t simply post links to your site; their purpose has to be a little more altruistic than that.
Moreover, the best groups are highly specific. If you’re a local publisher in GreatTown, USA, you might need groups like GreatTown Parents, GreatTown Cat Lovers, GreatTown GreatIdeas… and then invest time to manage all of those in ways that speak to them authentically. It will be a slog.
And then there’s another important caveat: One day when there’s too many groups with too many notices annoying too many readers…well, Facebook will be Facebook and will deprioritize Groups.
Groups are a great strategy for publishers who love spending time interacting on Facebook, and who also want to break up their audiences into specific, interest-based segments. But it’s not for everybody, and you should have a plan going into it.
There are a lot of reasons to be concerned by Facebook’s recent moves, and plenty of reasons to doubt the motives behind this announcement. But the algorithm’s shift towards “meaningful interaction” has been happening for years.
Small publishers that have placed a premium on community building, rather than traffic driving, can rest easy. Last week’s announcement is an affirmation of their strategy, and while referral traffic from Facebook may continue to decline, the numbers you’re shedding were the least engaged visitors; they were never really your audience to begin with, and now you’re free to build a stronger community without them.
Ned Berke is currently an audience development consultant for LION Publishers through a program being coordinated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Ned is also an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Tow Knight Center at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where he manages a News Audience Development Community of Practice to facilitate discussions of best practices at leading media companies. You can apply to join the Community of Practice here. You can follow him on Twitter @nberke.