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The Facebook reach problem: Pay to play or walk away?


Facebook has come under a lot of scrutiny lately for seemingly forcing brands to pay to reach their fans.

One of the first reports on this issue was a March 3 article by New York Times “Bits” columnist Nick Bilton. In the article, “Disruptions: As User Interaction on Facebook Drops, Sharing Comes at a Cost,” he offers evidence suggesting Facebook’s algorithm changes have indeed affected reach.

Bilton wrote:

I recently tried a little experiment. I paid Facebook $7 to promote my column to my friends using the company’s sponsored advertising tool.

To my surprise, I saw a 1,000 percent increase in the interaction on a link I posted, which had 130 likes and 30 reshares in just a few hours. It seems as if Facebook is not only promoting my links on news feeds when I pay for them, but also possibly suppressing the ones I do not pay for.

Facebook quickly responded via a blog post, which is no longer accessible, stating:

There have been recent claims suggesting that our News Feed algorithm suppresses organic distribution of posts in favor of paid posts in order to increase our revenue. This is not true.

The post goes on to “explain” how Facebook’s algorithm works, in an effort to refute Bilton’s claims.

The full text can be found in a article titled, “Facebook: No, We’re Not Suppressing Posts To Force You To Pay For Promoting Them.”

A mere two days later, Bilton’s claims were further validated when Social@Ogilvy published a report providing evidence that organic reach for brands had decreased by as much as 49 percent from October 2013 through February 2014, and as of March hovered around 6 percent. For those with more than 500,000 “likes,” the news was grimmer.

This Social@Ogilvy graph demonstrates the decline in reach:

Since then, many articles have been published on this subject, and most marketers agree that brands are being forced to make a decision: Pay up, or bow out.

Assessing your options

There are a few approaches brand managers can take to overcome this issue.

1. The first and most obvious choice is to pay to promote your posts.

I’m not suggesting you pay for “likes,” unless you want to reach a vast audience of fake accounts in Syria that will never engage with you.

I’m suggesting you pay to boost the posts that are most important to your channel in order to reach your fans. If your content is stellar, you might even earn some new fans.

This tactic has also come under fire by a number of key influencers, but I’ve seen firsthand the effectiveness of this strategy.

When I paid to boost a few posts for SecureState, an information security company, I saw an uptick in engagement and reach. I verified the accuracy of Facebook Insights by comparing its reporting to HubSpot’s. It was clear that paying to boost the post worked.

As a result, my recommendation to Access’s clients is to pay to boost the posts that you really want people to see, and track it outside of Facebook Insights.

My other recommendation is to stop creating brand-centric content. People don’t want to be sold to, and they don’t care how great a company says their products are. They want to read about what interests them, so create content that is interesting and helpful.

Never forget you’re competing for attention among your fans’ friends and family. Is your announcement about attending a trade show more interesting than Jenny’s new puppy? Probably not.

2. Forget Facebook, and move to a different platform.

For most brands, this is simply not an option; nor would I ever recommend it. Though if you’re just starting out, and you’re not a B2C company, then you may want to focus most of your attention on LinkedIn or Twitter. Though be warned, nothing in life is free; eventually all social channels will shift their operations toward monetization.

3. Optimize your posts to maximize the organic reach you still have.

Start by auditing your content. Look at several posts over a period of time, and take note of those that performed well. Determine what commonalities those posts had, which of your top posts performed the best, and what time of day earned the best engagement.

This is a strategy you should employ for all social media channels, whether or not you pay for promotion. This will amplify your reach, drive further engagement, and boost your SEO rankings.

4. Diversify your portfolio.

If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to create and curate a mix of content on a variety of social media channels.

Facebook is no longer the only game in town. Just last year, Google+ was named the second-largest social network. And don’t believe the rumors that Google is carving it up after Vic Gundotra’s departure; as of right now, it’s not.

Every channel has its own strengths and weaknesses, so figure out what type of content works best for each and build a strategy around that.

5. Build a time machine and go back to the days before computers.

Hey, if you can do it, it’s an option. Also, could you please take me back to my prom night? I’d like to change a few things.

The hard truth

Facebook’s not going anywhere, and hopefully neither is your brand. So, approach this problem head on by employing a variety of the tactics listed above, or by paying someone like me to do it for you. Whatever you choose, simply posting about your great new offering is no longer going to cut it.

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