As Adam Mosseri, Head of News Feed at Facebook noted in a post on Monday “There have been a number of reports about a test we’re running in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala, and Cambodia.” The test he is referring to is that of moving all content posted by brand pages (not content shared by friends) from the main user News Feed into a separate tab named “Explore”.
One of the first sources to write about the test was Filip Struhárik with the starkly titled “Biggest drop in Facebook organic reach we have ever seen”. The story has since been picked up by The Guardian (Facebook moving non-promoted posts out of News Feed in trial) and the BBC (Facebook explores, publishers panic). As you can tell from the titles, tensions are running high, which is understandable because the very people writing them could stand to be the hardest hit by another step of removal from their core audience. As you may also have gleaned, this trial is applying to organic content only, not promoted posts. It is a matter of time before someone comes up with an “-ageddon” nickname for the event, (Explorageddon sounds like a tourist board advert) but as many have pointed out the potential ramifications could be serious.
Purely from a publisher relations standpoint, this could perhaps have been handled better. As Mosseri mentions in his post “It’s also important to know this test in these six countries is different than the version of Explore that has rolled out to most people”. While it’s understandable that Facebook wouldn’t want to panic publishers by warning them of this planned test in advance, rolling out something so controversial in a limited geography and making it easily confused with something else far more widespread wasn’t a fantastic exercise in concern management. It’s akin to starting annual review day by firing the first few employees you meet and leaving everyone else to stew. It’s also understandable that any new release will come with its bugs, but Struhárik has reported page posts being removed from the main News Feed for users that don’t yet have the Explore section, meaning for those users all page posts are hidden in the Pages Feed section which I certainly hadn’t visited before today.
Change isn’t always a bad thing
It’s true that some changes that Facebook implement can make us better writers, marketers, and entertainers. The much-maligned algorithm update which reduced pages’ ability to reach their followers felt like it makes life harder, but it allowed good publishers to get far more for their money by engaging with their communities and learning from what they like, rather than just pumping out 50 posts a day to rack up those juicy clicks. Much like AMP, Instant Articles made us consider what we can pare back and peel away to give visitors only what actually matters with as little wait time as possible, and I’m actually quite interested in some of their plans on monetising chat bots discussed in this podcast, for instance sales messages being blocked if a user hasn’t actually engaged with your messages in the last 24 hours.
A step backwards
However, it’s not always the case that these changes improve the content quality. Facebook has also announced in the past that users don’t like reaching the end of their timeline, in response they allowed individual publishers to appear multiple times in a users’ News Feed, whether this improved satisfaction is debatable. In the same announcement, Facebook described users not wanting to see notifications of friends’ likes in their feed - after Facebook removed these notifications low-quality pages just pivoted to “tag a friend who” memes some of which exemplified the worst side of us on social media. More recently Facebook has gathered that users want to see more from friends and family, that is one of the reasons they have given for this latest test.
My concern is that moving this content to a separate (currently quite hidden) section and only allowing paid content into the News Feed won’t make publishers better, it’ll quarantine the terrible content but lump it in with the good. It stands to make Facebook success more like the deep-pockets-or-black-hat game that exists elsewhere and hampers the success of small but genuinely talented content producers. It’ll also mean that publishers have even more inaccurate figures about the value of a follow, making it harder still for community managers to argue the for investing in a community.
What’s more, I still don’t see it reducing the torrent of “Tag a mate who is s**t at golf” posts coming up in my feed because the real low-quality publishers already know how to get their content past Facebook’s net - get my friends to deliver it to me. There is even a host of “Tag a friend to make them open their phone and look at this cucumber for no reason” content - that’s content that is basing its success on mocking Facebook’s aim of showing you only what you want to see.
Of course, Facebook has to make money but I am far happier with the current system which stands to make companies pay through the nose to distribute uninteresting and unoriginal content. While it’s far from perfect, the current method of checking content popularity leaves more of a gap for the intelligent, well-targeted, human content to run rings around generic uninspired posts, and even gives smaller publishers a better chance. It could be argued that users going to Explore will be primed to read and engage, but the number of times I open the “promotions” tab in Gmail speaks to the contrary, and that’s ignoring the fact that the Explore section currently won’t be limited to pages I subscribed to, but will include any content that Facebook deems appropriate.
As Ziad Ramley, former social lead for Al Jazeera, suggests, this could all just be flash-in-the-pan. After the testing period, Facebook could well kill this experiment dead, or it might even roll out and have nothing like the negative impact we’re envisioning. Even though Facebook explicitly prioritises users over publishers, a stance that Techcrunch describes as the reason Facebook has survived so much change, there are certainly reasons why they might want to reverse this course of action. As Struhárikm observed to The Guardian: when we finally get a News Feed that’s just friends we may just find out just how boring our friends are. Maybe we’ll jump into the Explore section when we get sick of hearing about Clea’s “nightmare” mole operation, or maybe we’ll just stop logging in.
One thing's for sure, moving publishers out of the News Feed, even if it is accompanied by a reduction in the quality of experience, is bound to be far more frictionless than attempts to move organic page posts back in. If Facebook makes this change and usage goes down I could imagine the smartest marketers playing News Feed exposure like the stock market, waiting for the drop in interest and investing heavily while Facebook tries to gain back its lost momentum.