It’s time to stop our obsession with Facebook page reach

FACEBOOK-MONSTER

I belong to a number of Facebook groups devoted to social media marketing, and the most consistently-posted question to these groups is something along the lines of: “Has anyone else seen their Facebook reach go down recently?” These are marketing professionals who spend a significant portion of their workday hitting the refresh button on various analytics dashboards, addicted to the adrenaline rush caused by a sudden spike in social media activity. Doing so, day in and day out, has immersed them in a state of perpetual paranoia that is augmented by the opaqueness of a system they don’t completely understand. Sure, your tweet didn’t get any retweets, but at least you understand that Twitter displays all tweets in the feed in reverse chronological order, so you can sleep soundly knowing your tweet is given as fair a shot as any other in the Twitter ecosystem. But Facebook employs the use of an algorithm, one that you don’t have access to, so you’re left crying out in the dark, seeking out other individuals with similar situations so that you know that Facebook didn’t tweak its algorithm in the precise way that would punish your page and nobody else’s.

I know what it’s like because I used to be one of these individuals, vacillating between rage and elation when the algorithm gods chose to bless or damn my page’s posts. And it’s certainly not a phenomena that’s new to Facebook. For more than a decade, Google has spawned an entire cottage industry of addicts who comb through obscure SEO forums, searching for any edge they can gain to understanding the hundreds of signals in the search giant’s algorithm. They read horror stories of businesses that have been completely ruined  after being devalued in search engine results pages and become terrified by a single thought: “That could be me.”

Sometimes, the anxiety and pressure become too much to handle. We saw that when Eat24, a food delivery company, wrote an open letter announcing it was quitting Facebook and focusing its marketing efforts elsewhere. Sure, by doing so it was forgoing a social network that has the world’s largest userbase and quadrupled the traffic it sends to other websites in the past few years, but hey, at least the company’s marketing director no longer needs to bolt awake at night, heart racing from nightmares of 1 percent page reach.

Why has this paranoia reached such a fevered pitch within the last two years? Two reasons:

1. Page moderators have seen a decline in reach for many of their posts. How much of a decline varies depending on who you talk to. Some will say they used to get 50 percent or higher reach (by reach, I mean the number of people who see a post divided by the total number of likes of the page. So for a page that has 10,000 likes and publishes a post that’s seen by 5,000 people, that post had 50 percent reach). These days, most their posts are seen by less than 10 percent of their followers.

2. Right around the time that page owners started seeing a drop in reach, Facebook launched the “promoted posts” advertising feature and started sending promotional emails encouraging page owners to purchase promoted posts in order to reach more of their followers.

Though #2 did have unfortunate timing, I think it was mostly a coincidence. As for #1, it can be pretty easily explained: your page is seeing a decline in reach because it’s simply competing with more and more content in the newsfeed.

Back in 2011, according to a Facebook data scientist, the average user had 190 friends. And while this isn’t a strictly apples to apples comparison, the Pew Research Center found in 2014 that “among adult Facebook users, the average (mean) number of friends is 338, and the median (midpoint) number of friends is 200.” (In 2011, the median was 100, though again, not apples to apples). And those are just friends. It doesn’t include the number of pages the average user likes. People are increasingly using Facebook as not just a means to keep up with friends, but also as an RSS feed used to stay abreast of news and entertainment. In fact I find myself liking pages more and more often on Facebook precisely because I’m more likely to see their posts, since the Facebook newsfeed is less noisy than Twitter.

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I’ve always told people who complained about declining Facebook reach that if Twitter were ever to release metrics on tweet reach, these complainers would view their Facebook reach as a godsend and stop whining. And lo and behold, Twitter did recently begin displaying tweet reach for those who knew where to look. If you’re reading this right now, pause for a moment and check out your own stats at ads.twitter.com. If your metrics are anything like mine (and I bet they are), you’ll see that the average engagement (number of impressions divided by total following) is less than 4 percent. And there are probably plenty of tweets that see well below 4 percent engagement. Now take it one step further and look at your bit.ly data for the number of people who actually click on your links. I have 4,400 followers on Twitter and most my links are clicked on fewer than 10 times. That’s a click-through rate of .2 percent, only slightly above the average CTR on banner advertising. According to ads.twitter.com, my tweet engagement rate is 2 percent, meaning only 2 percent of the less than 4 percent of people who actually see my tweet end up favoriting, retweeting, or replying to any given tweet.

So if you’re a social media marketer for a brand or news organization, what should you do? Just relax and try to create high quality, engaging content. As David Higgerson recently pointed out in a blog post on this subject:

[Facebook’s] Liz Heron points to a four-fold increase in traffic going to publishers from Facebook in the last 12 months. There’s no doubt Facebook has made news more obvious on Facebook – through related articles and trending feed – but I think a lot of newsrooms have realised that the effort v reward relationship is very evident on Facebook.

There are hatfuls of rumours of ways to game Facebook’s algorithm. My favourite is that sticking the word ‘congratulations’ in a comment under a post instantly lifts it. But like some of the darker arts of SEO, once word is out, the owner of the algorithm takes action. And as long as Facebook keeps doing that, good quality journalism will win.

Just as I’ve always said to people that “great content makes for great SEO,” the same can be applied to social media. Sure, there’s a number of tricks you can employ to give you an edge, but if you find yourself steadily clicking the refresh button on your analytics dashboard, trying to glean some new insight that will squeeze out a few more clicks, then you’ve bypassed the world of marketing and landed in the realm of agitated paranoia. Your nerves deserve a break.

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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.

Image via JESS3