I tried Facebook’s revamped Notes tool for a month. Here’s what I learned

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For years now publishers have fretted over Facebook’s increasing emphasis on native content and what it means for the outbound referral traffic they’ve come to rely on. Back in 2012 I noticed that publishers, rather than pasting a link that would auto-generate a headline and thumbnail for their articles, were instead uploading a photo natively to their page and then including a Twitter-like headline and link. Here’s an example of what I mean:

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The reason? They had noticed that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm favored native photos over embedded links and would expose the native posts to a greater percentage of followers. The practice became so prevalent that Facebook eventually rolled out a major update to its algorithm to encourage publishers to go back to embedding links.

Recently, Facebook has introduced two new native content products that have caused no small amount of consternation among publishers: video and Instant Articles. Once Facebook implemented auto-play for videos, page owners almost immediately noticed a huge disparity between the newsfeed exposure of native vs third party video players. An experiment carried out by Search Engine Journal found that native Facebook video is exposed to double the number of users compared to posts linking to YouTube videos.

Meanwhile, some media watchers have gone so far as labeling Facebook Instant Articles the final death knell of the news industry. By favoring Instant Articles over outbound links, this thinking goes, Facebook will eventually force all publications onto its platform, at which point they will have lost any remaining leverage they had and would now be trapped in Facebook’s playground. Writing for the Awl, John Herrman argued that it “will have transferred economic competition into an environment managed by one other company [Ed: Facebook], which is itself engaged in a separate economic competition.” To bolster these arguments, critics point to recent data showing that Facebook referral traffic to top publishers has fallen drastically in the last year.

But there’s been one native Facebook offering that’s received considerably less attention: its revamped Notes tool. A vestigial, long-neglected leftover from the days when status updates had strict character limits, Facebook gave Notes a facelift late last year so that it now has the same basic functionality of a blog. Though the press covered these new offerings upon their launch and even ruminated over whether this would result in more longform blogging on Facebook, I haven’t encountered much follow-up coverage, nor have I spotted many Notes in my Facebook newsfeed.

Unlike those who argue against “digital sharecropping,” which is when you build a following on a platform you don’t own, I’ve long been an advocate of uploading native content to platforms that allow it. Back in July I argued that you should crosspost every blog post to LinkedIn and Medium, and since implementing this practice I’ve seen a dramatic increase in readership for my articles. A recent profile I wrote on Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, for instance, received 4,000 views on Medium and 35,000 on LinkedIn. It received nowhere near that level of exposure on my own blog.

So needless to say, I was pretty excited when I heard about this new functionality and eager to find out whether uploading my articles to Notes would provide me any kind of home field advantage not afforded to me when I simply link to my articles elsewhere. So starting in January I began uploading every article I wrote to Notes. I have my personal profile that’s set to public and has around 600 friends and followers, and I also run a professional page with an additional 300 followers. Thus far I’ve published three articles to Facebook Notes. Here’s what I’ve observed so far:

Should you publish Notes to your personal profile or page?

One question I’ve always struggled with is whether to place more emphasis on promoting my personal profile or professional page. Back when Facebook only allowed mutual friendships on personal profiles, the professional page seemed like a no-brainer, but then Facebook began allowing users to follow personal profiles without mutual friendships (similar to how the follower relationship works on Twitter), so I’ve constantly faced the dilemma of how I should manage the two differently.

At first glance, it seemed like the Notes tool wasn’t available for pages, thereby forcing me to first publish the article to my personal profile (which, again, is set to public) and then from there share the article to my professional page (to understand what I mean, here’s an article I published to my profile and then later shared to my public page).

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But then, after noticing that the Guardian had somehow published a Note to its page, I investigated further and found out that you could publish a Note to a page if you knew the specific URL. Here it is: facebook.com/YOURPAGEUSERNAME/notes

After I made this discovery I published my next article to my professional page and then shared that note to my personal profile.

So which is better? I don’t know! My first article I published to my personal page received the most engagement and views compared to all subsequent articles, but that may just be because a source I tagged in the article then went on to share it to his network. I think moving forward, however, I’m going to continue publishing the notes to my professional page.

If there’s a home field advantage to Facebook Notes, it’s small

The main question I wanted to answer with this experiment is whether my content would see an explosion in Facebook engagement. Typically, my articles haven’t performed very well on Facebook, and given that it’s by far the largest social network I certainly would have welcomed some sort of boost.

If there was a boost, it was slight. For the month of January, my articles on Medium and LinkedIn collectively received 60,000 views. On Facebook, they received a paltry 263 views. I also didn’t see any indication that they were being shared outside Facebook, whereas my Medium and LinkedIn articles are often widely shared on Twitter and other platforms.

That being said, if I had instead simply embedded the links to the articles published elsewhere I doubt I could have driven 263 clicks from my Facebook page and profile, so there may have been some advantage. But it certainly didn’t have the snowball effect I was hoping for.

You can’t run a Facebook Note as a targeted native ad

Occasionally I like to boost my Facebook posts with between $25 and $100 in targeted advertising. Results have been mixed, but I’ve seen this lead to a substantial number of organic shares if I’m targeting correctly.

But Facebook doesn’t give you this choice with articles published as Notes. When you’re in the Facebook ads manager, it won’t even acknowledge that your Note exists. I found this to be a real bummer since a paid boost would have given me the opportunity to really take Notes on a test drive and see what happens when they’re exposed to a larger audience. It’s hard to tell whether this was a conscious decision made by Facebook admins and if this functionality will be made available in the future.

The blogging functionality is similar to what you’ll find on Medium or LinkedIn

I first heard about the revamped Notes tool months before it was actually released to the public, and I was immensely interested in what kind of blogging functionality it would contain. Facebook has long eschewed hyperlinks, for instance, and has restricted how you can present photos. Would Notes operate like a true blogging CMS and allow for more flexibility?

Yes, it does. While the slick look and feel is very similar to Medium, I actually think a better comparison would be to LinkedIn’s blogging platform. Notes prompts you to input both a cover image and headline (Medium encourages both but requires neither). It allows you to include hyperlinks as well as basic font modifications (bold, italics) to the text. You can blockquote sections and provide bullets. It even allows you to use right and left alignment as well as captions for photos.

It doesn’t appear that you can edit with HTML, however, so it doesn’t have the same level of functionality that you’d find on, say, WordPress. For instance, what if I wanted to embed a widget that would allow you to sign up for my newsletter without clicking out of the article? I can easily do that on my WordPress blog, but doesn’t appear possible on Notes. It’s still not even clear to me whether I can embed a YouTube video into a Note.

Analytics are sparse

Facebook will give you a basic count for how many people viewed your Note (as well as the number of comments, likes, and shares), but that’s pretty much it. Compare that to LinkedIn, which will show me an industry and title breakdown of members who viewed my articles, or Medium, which tells you how many people read to the end of the article as well as referral sources.

Of course none of this compares to what I get from Google Analytics on my website blog.

Conclusions

I think it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from this experiment. For one, I’ve only published three articles so far, which is a tiny sample size. Also, I don’t have a huge following on Facebook, and it would certainly be interesting to test out Notes on a page with tens of thousands of followers (that being said, I didn’t start out with a huge following on LinkedIn and yet saw a pretty sizable impact from publishing there).

Ultimately, I still plan to continue publishing content natively to Facebook. I don’t blame publishers for growing wary of the walled garden Facebook has created and the increasing stranglehold it has over the open web, but at the same time I want to bring my content to where the people are rather than attempting to corral them back to my own website. As much as I’d love for you all to hang out on simonowens.net, I know you all have better things to do. No hard feelings.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.