What does Facebook’s visibility squeeze mean for your business?

In the summer of 2012, the marketing community reacted strongly to Facebook’s revelation that only 16% of people who liked business pages were seeing the posts published by those brands. Advertisers had worked hard to build these communities of followers, sometimes spending thousands of dollars a month to create a significant number of page likes. Naturally they felt ripped off that Facebook was restricting who would see their posts.

Now, to be fair, what Facebook originally said was that “organically, only 16% of people were seeing your posts.” Some marketers argued, correctly, that even if your post went out to 100% of your followers, only a small number were likely to see it because it would have scrolled off the news feed depending on the amount of time between when you posted and when those people were on Facebook.

It soon became apparent that Facebook was, in fact, purposely limiting the visibility of posts. Facebook claimed that if they didn’t do something there would be too many commercial posts in a typical news feed, destroying the organic nature of what Facebook was supposed to represent. Perhaps what galled marketing managers the most was that they were being asked to pony up significant dollars to show their post to the rest of their followers (known as promoting your posts). If Facebook was really that interested in protecting newsfeed integrity, why would they sell out that integrity so easily? It smelled of opportunism. Eventually the uproar died down, but the issue hasn’t gone away.

Earlier this week, Time magazine reported on a study of 100 brand pages by ad agency Ogilvy & Mather which found that only 6% of companies’ posts are now reaching their followers.

Valleywag, a tech publication, reported that Facebook is planning to dial this down even more, so that eventually only 1-2% of followers will see a company’s posts. Unless you pay, of course!

Only 6% of companies’ posts are now reaching followers. Facebook plans to dial this down to just 1-2%. Unless you pony up cash.

Facebook declined to confirm these figures when asked by Time, but they did say that they are focused on delivering what the company deems to be “high quality” content. Facebook says the average user is inundated with 1,500 posts per day from friends and Pages, and Facebook picks 300 of these to present in the News Feed. That’s why you may have noticed that some posts you saw earlier suddenly seem to disappear on another visit to your news feed.

It’s understandable that Facebook wants to ensure a quality news feed. But the reality is that most corporate pages do not post very frequently. Indeed, most businesses post less often than individuals (friends) do. While it is recommended that businesses post several times a day for maximum reach and impact, this takes a serious amount of work and can only be done with the help of a specialized department or vendor, at significant cost. So, most businesses and especially small consultancies, realtors and other companies only post a handful of times in a week at best unless they’re exceptionally social media-savvy.

Having helped companies build their page likes, I know how hard it is to build a community of followers. So the idea that only a tiny fraction of these people see what you post is disturbing. If Valleywag’s report is true, then a brand that pushed hard to create 1,000 followers would see only 10 to 20 people exposed to each of their posts when Facebook reaches that minimal threshold.

A brand that pushed hard to create 1,000 followers would see only 10 to 20 people exposed to each of their posts.

Even more disturbing is that Facebook recommends using advertising to promote your posts. So, in their view, the solution to the problem of too much “low-quality” content is to present paid advertising instead!

Facebook created $7 billion in ad revenue last year and is expected to increase that by $10.7 billion in 2014. This revenue stream comes from aggressive pricing. Promoting a post can cost between $25 and $1,000 depending on how many people you want to reach. A small company posting daily could thus expect to pay upwards of $750 a month just so their Facebook posts can reach the people who like their page.

That’s big money. In my view, many business owners are not going to want to be held hostage like that, and won’t work to build a following only to have a handful of those people see their communications.

So what are your options?

First of all, don’t panic. These realities don’t mean you should abandon Facebook or worry that social media is dead. Far from it. The simple fact is that one in every seven people on earth has a Facebook account! As a public company accountable to shareholders, Facebook could reverse course on these things if revenues begin to fall. If that happens you wouldn’t want to find yourself with no fan base just because you dropped the ball. Continue with your Facebook presence and keep posting content. But I don’t recommend that businesses, especially small ones, spend mega bucks to gain Facebook followers, since you’ll only reach a tiny percentage of them. Instead, grow your Facebook fan base as organically as possible, with promotions through other methods that won’t amount to buying each and every fan (especially in light of revelations like this).

Expand your reach. Diversify your marketing program with other tools that will increase your reach with much more impact and lower costs. There is no doubt that Facebook has some unique qualities not found in other social media options. But I believe the main reason it has grown so dominant is its simple, easy-to-use interface. People don’t want to struggle with figuring stuff out! This has given Facebook huge market share, but there are other environments.

Google+, though it has potential and an online juggernaut behind it, may be too awkward at this time to make it a serious player (for example, I’m still trying to figure out why Google has two different personal profiles for me, both with the same email address). Growth of this platform has been tepid. But post there as well because its influence is likely to grow in light of what’s happening with Facebook.

LinkedIn is a great connection tool for business use. Its news feed is pretty good and there are some good features. It’s a business-focused tool which limits much of its potential in reaching consumers, but it is growing in value.

The focus of Twitter is somewhat different from that of Facebook, due largely to the 140-character limit of its posts. Nevertheless, marketers would be smart to use it to reach those who prefer Twitter.

There are other platforms as well, including Instagram, Pinterest and startups like Zurker. The point is to use all these other social media tools more aggressively.

Increase frequency
You should post more often than ever to counter the Facebook strategy. Schedule your posts. Keep them interesting and useful so you don’t burn out your fan base. Remember that the figures we’re talking about are averages. Some posts may reach much higher numbers and others lower, depending on circumstances. Remember also that the people seeing your posts are selected at random, so it’s possible that the next time you post it will go to an entirely different group, but it’s also possible that some of the same people will see both the earlier post and your repost. That’s why you need to avoid repetition by modifying the content each time.

I use an app called Buffer, which allows me to post simultaneously to multiple social media platforms. Buffer lets you schedule posts in the future, and has great browser plugins that make it easy to post and schedule material directly from the web. HootSuite is another awesome posting environment with similar features. You can post to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ all at once, covering all your bases (just be careful that your content doesn’t get weird, like using Twitter-style RT tags on your posts to other platforms). These are great apps for ensuring that your posts reach as many people as possible. As the reality of Facebook’s declining impact sinks in, people will be more likely to start interacting and engaging on these other platforms, so it makes sense to settle into these environments as soon as possible.

Keep it relevant
Facebook puts emphasis on images and links because that’s what people share the most. So try to include these in your posting behavior as much as possible. Don’t just link to your own stuff because that gets tiresome to fans and looks self-serving. Post to anything that might be of interest and value to the people who follow your business. The more you provide content that matters to them and improves their lives, careers or businesses, the more they will remain loyal to your brand.

Email still the best communication tool

Email has not lost its influence. All indications are that email is still the best way to engage people with your message. It lets you craft your messages in creative ways. It reaches all of your followers (though some messages may end up in spam folders, they still arrive). And people respond to Email much more than they do to social media messages when it comes to actual buying decisions.

Email reaches all of your followers.

The Direct Marketing Association reported that 66 percent of online consumers made a purchase as a result of an email marketing message, a figure that’s higher than the number of consumers who made a purchase as a result of receiving direct mailings like letters, catalogues, or postcards. Furthermore, the age demographic with the highest percentage of purchases was the group aged 45-54, making a whopping 71% of purchases influenced by an Email marketing message. That’s great news, because this is the demographic with the most discretionary funds available to spend!

If you think that young people don’t use or respond to email anymore, think again. 65% of those aged 18-24 made a buying decision as a result of email, proof that Email marketing is the best way to reach your audience and influence them to believe in your brand, regardless of age.

Email is still the best way to engage people with your message, with 65-71% of people making a purchase decision based on email.

I believe that email will continue to grow in its importance given these changes with Facebook. Do you have an eNewsletter? You should be sending one at least monthly, and sending more than that won’t hurt. According to Campaign Monitor, the ideal number of email messages is 2-3 per month. You need to send frequently to have people open your messages, but not too often or they get tired of your “spamming.” After the sixth campaign, almost half of email subscribers have seen at least one of your campaigns and at least 13% of people have clicked, says Campaign Monitor. However, note that sending too frequently increases unsubscribe rates quite dramatically. I don’t recommend weekly for most marketers, though some are very successful with such a high frequency.

The sweet spot for getting the most people see your emails without burning out your subscriber list is one message every two weeks. Make sure your Emails are designed to be mobile-responsive so that they look as good on mobile devices as they do on a computer screen.

Keep your eyes open

Business people need to create communities of followers in these times. They will not just sit down and accept a stranglehold from one media source like Facebook. Chances are good that a new social media player will emerge on the scene as these frustrations over Facebook become more noticeable in the months and years ahead. Keep your eyes on Diaspora and Zurker in particular, though both are currently very clumsy and overly complex. If they can streamline their interface, or if someone else comes along with a tool as elegantly designed as Facebook we could see the environment changing almost overnight. It will be interesting to see what develops as we go forward into this rapidly changing world.

What do you think?
How will you respond to these changes? If you’re a social media guru, what do you recommend companies do? Please share your insights using the comment area below.

George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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