Social Enterprise

Are SMBs near the end of organic reach on Facebook?

Say goodbye to overly promotional posts on Facebook starting in 2015. Here's what it means for brands.

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Image: James Martin/CNET

It was bound to happen.

In a recent blog post, Facebook announced a change to its algorithm that will effectively squash "overly promotional" posts from brand pages, starting in January 2015.

"A lot of people have taken this most recent move by Facebook, saying brands are going to show up less in the news feed and are going to have to buy more ads, as a bald attempt by Facebook to do a bait and switch," said Altimeter analyst Rebecca Lieb.

In short, the freemium has given way to pay-to-play. Navigating this new model could be sticky for brands depending on Facebook as a place to reach audiences for free, though Lieb and others said this shouldn't have come as a surprise.

"This has been telegraphed for a while," said David Vanderpoel, senior director of product innovation at agency Sparks Grove in Atlanta, Georgia. He cited reports from Forrester and Ogilvy, featuring organic engagement numbers sliding farther and further down.

If a brand's social strategy hinges totally on using their fan page as the content hub and the source of all the value they expect to extract from the system, he said, then yes. This change is going to hurt.

Lieb also said that looking back the path other internet giants have taken, Facebook is right in line.

"We saw this exact thing happen when Google introduced paid ads," she said. The fear at the time was that brands would be totally lost in search results if they didn't pay up.

Lieb thinks there two important points to keep in mind. The first is that neither Google nor Facebook launched with the advertising products they later offered. When they were developing those products, they were experimental, and they were free.

The second distinction she made is that many advertisers have yet to distinguish between content marketing ("the marketing of attraction, by posting stuff on Facebook or on other channels that people want to read because it's interesting or fun or entertaining or useful") and ad copy ("click here, buy now.").

Facebook talked in its blog post about how their research showed dissatisfaction among users regarding what was showing up in their feeds, and it wasn't the ads — it was the brand posts.

"My belief is that what Facebook is saying to marketers is if it looks like an ad, and sounds like an ad, you're going to have to pay for it like an ad," Lieb said.

Along those lines, Gary Cooke, social media manager at Serious SEM said the change could force marketers to get better at their jobs.

"Your promotional story in a news feed is at odds and butting heads with people's personal stories from friends and family members. Those are the stories people care about, and a brand needs to find a way to fit into that flow and not disrupt a user's experience," said Gary Cooke.

Though, whether it will be enough to craft better messages that are actually, as Lieb said, that's fun, entertaining, is uncertain.

"It feels like a fairly weak argument to say that this is all about content quality, because what we should see then is this really wide range of variants of some brands have 85% reach, and some brands have 0% and it's all qualitatively driven. We don't see that, we actually see a lot more consistency," Vanderpoel said.

One other challenge this change could bring for those in social media marketing positions is communicating with the C-suite the details of what these changes will do to their monetary investment and what value the brand will get from that investment in the platform.

"I think that's the biggest struggle for them, proving the value to those they have to report to. Most of the time the C-suite just fears change, and when you're talking about a platform that's changing almost monthly, that's a difficult thing to help them understand," said Samara Anderson, business strategist at Nashville-based ad agency redpepper.

Going forward

There are several pieces of advice social media professionals are giving clients when looking toward 2015.

Diversify

While Facebook may be one of the heavyweights, it's not the only option for social, obviously. Both Vanderpoel and redpepper's Tim McMullen are telling their clients to treat their social presence like a portfolio of both the more established platforms and the new emerging ones that might align with your brand strategy.

"It's inherently risky if all of your toys are in someone else's sandbox," Vanderpoel said.

Remember this isn't the open web

Vanderpoel advised keeping an awareness that even if a platform like Facebook feels like the open web, it's still the proprietary web, and in many ways, those platforms can do whatever they see as beneficial to their business model.

"Facebook can always change the rules," Vanderpoel said.

Embrace segmentation

Facebook does offer tools to help with things like audience segmentation. Customizing messages for specific audiences can mean being more effective and smarter about money.

"There's a ton of data that Facebook provides you. You don't have to spend tons of money trying to reach every single one of the people in your database," Anderson said.

Reverse the flow

Think of Facebook not as a source for brand content, but a destination, Vanderpoel said. Sparks Grove is telling clients to look at their off-Facebook experiences, be they apps or email. Find those audiences in other parts of the web drive them to carry your content back to Facebook.

Influence modeling

One way to do that is through influence modeling. Identify who your top influencers are and connect with them. That way, Vanderpoel said, "you've got the masses carrying your message around as opposed to you being a big broadcaster and just being limited by whatever the mathematics of your reach is today,"

Regardless of the new strategies brands embrace to deal with the change, there's one chief lesson Vanderpoel thinks is important to glean from all this: It's a moving target.

Even the best workarounds will eventually be limited in effectiveness and it will be time to adapt again.

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About

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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