Facebook’s Chokehold on Social Media

Remember those days on social media when you could actually reach your fanbase?

Once upon a time, bands, small businesses, non-profits and others had a place where they could connect with their fans on social media, as well as interact with friends on a personal level. That place was called Facebook. Before that, there was a place called Myspace which, for all it’s faults and glittery backgrounds, was an awesome way to connect. Say what you will about Myspace, but at least if you had 2,500 fans you could be reasonably sure that they were seeing what you  posted about your band, or whatever your page was about.

For all intents and purposes Facebook has destroyed the ability for small bands, small brands, pages made just for fun and special interests to reach their fans — at least for free.  In June of 2012, Facebook introduced a little thing called “Promoted Posts”. We knew this was trouble when we saw it, so much so that we wrote about it days after Facebook introduced it. We noticed back then that our Facebook traffic fell dramatically at the time of launch. Of course, NorthWest Music Scene has decent numbers on the world’s largest social media site, so we always get traffic. But what about the page that has 1,000 fans? Being able to only reach 10-50 people seems unacceptable, and honestly, pointless. Facebook has again said they will further reduce the organic (read: free) reach for fanpages. Since the changes, most people that have fanpages have been lucky if five percent of their fanbase sees any one post. That’s how Facebook’s fan pages are now. Soon, it will be reduced to about one or two percent, according to Facebook.  Also, take into consideration that many page owners  have already paid Facebook to help build their pages. Then Facebook charges them a second time if they want to actually reach them. We talked to science guru Derek Muller about buying fans, and if that is beneficial – which he also so brilliantly explained in this Veritasium video.

Derek: How it started was I had a friend who was already working with Facebook so I gave him $50 worth of free ad money that Facebook had offered me. He took that on and he spent the 50 bucks and then he went on to spent another $1,500, and he didn’t know anything about targeting ads or anything about click farms, so to him a Like was a Like. At that point, and it was in May or June 2012,  my Facebook account quickly grew up from 2000 to 80,000 in the span of just about three months, and it just so happened that those Likes were not from genuine people who were interested in what I do. So that’s really what killed it for me. I wasn’t so annoyed by the algorithm because, like I said, I wasn’t even looking at it. I wasn’t even looking at Facebook to do anything. Probably when I noticed that the algorithm switched was in December, where I went from getting low levels of engagement to getting really terrible levels of engagement, and that was the point where I was like, “Hang on, why is this happening?” And then I sort of started digging into the engagement and demographic, and that’s when I started to discover what had happened two years previously, so  that’s what made it more apparent to me that there was a real problem here.

How has Facebook’s newsfeed chokehold affected Veritasium’s Facebook page and the ability to connect with your fans?

Derek: I had a meetup here in Stockholm recently and a number of people came up to me and said “We didn’t know about this meetup”. To me that’s upsetting because I posted it and limited the post to Sweden, so that I’m just posting to like 700 or 800 people who follow me in this country. I was hoping it would get a decent number of them, especially with the kind of engagement that we had; I got great engagement out of that post because everyone in Stockholm and Sweden is saying “Yay, he’s here”. But still, it didn’t get out to all of the people that would have liked to know, and so some people missed out on that meetup because they just didn’t find out about it. Some of the people only found out through a friend or something. It’s disappointing to see what could be a very useful avenue for building community and interacting with other people who really care about what you do, to see it turned into something that’s really commercial and it’s just like another flogging avenue.

We originally talked to Dallas Maverick’s owner Mark Cuban via email about contributing to this article and he referred us to his expert in this field, Rob Kischuk of perfectpost.net, here’s what Rob had to say about the affect the newsfeed changes and what he’s observed.

Rob: We’ve definitely seen a decline in reach across our client’s pages. We’ve been able to help mitigate some of the decline by automatically optimizing the time and format of their posts, but it is definitely tough. The biggest opportunity has been the new format for link posts – with high-quality photos and good content, these posts are attractive and effective. This may be the best time yet for driving clicks and purchases from Facebook.

We spoke with Matt Marshall, the editor of the American Blues Scene, the most popular blues music website in the world. The business amassed over 100,000 active blues music fans on Facebook, creating a vibrant outlet for lovers of the genre to come together. Marshall says despite effective content, excited fans, and high activity numbers, the reach on the fan page now is less than when the page had ten thousand fans.

Matt: There was a reciprocal arrangement with Facebook for a number of years. The owners of fan pages encouraged their visitors and users to utilize Facebook to see what was happening with them. Facebook benefitted greatly by businesses and entities, large and small, across the world asking their friends & fans to use Facebook, and those businesses and entities benefitted by gaining fans, a fair number of which regularly saw their content. It was a symbiotic relationship that benefitted both, while providing free marketing for Facebook, who were expected to make a profit from showing ads to their visitors. That reciprocal arrangement has now been nixed by the company holding the key cards, establishing that the benefit of millions of businesses placing Facebook’s logo on their advertising, and brands encouraging people to use Facebook’s site, is functionally worth negative money to Facebook. Through this arrangement, Facebook says that it feels brands, bands, non-for-profits, causes, and businesses should be paying the company for the privilege of giving Facebook free marketing and helping their own page within Facebook in the process.

In a twist of irony, we used the Northwest Music Scene fanpage to ask  a few other page owners that have really been affected by the inability to reach a certain group of people, their fans… fans that want to hear from them.

Stop Euthanizing: I admin an animal-advocates page that shares shelter animals that are on death row because the shelter just cannot fit this pet in anymore, or they cannot afford to take the time to help them recover from an illness (which could be as simple as a sneeze) so they will kill them to make room for new ones. And they will kill them at the first sight of illness. A few weeks ago, I posted asking for help for this two month old kitten who needed to be taken out because its hold time was up and the shelter would kill it the very next day to make room. The page I posted this desperate plea on, has over 1.3k fans, many always more than willing to spread the word or help when they can.The post I made to ask if anyone could save this kitten, reached only 42 of my followers because I was unable to pay to ‘boost’ my post. The next day the kitten was killed to only make room for another who would also be killed because I couldn’t get the word out to find a foster or an adopter. I completely blame myself for the death of this kitten simply for the fact that I could not pay facebook the fees they require for me to reach out to my own viewers…

Rock and Rally for the Troops: Unfortunately, it’s now up to fans to remember to check their favorite pages daily or they will miss all the updates. They can no longer rely on their newsfeed. As a page when you have over 2,000 fans, but only 10 people see a status, it’s a lost opportunity for both the band/event and the fans.

Blue Clouded Gray: Thanks, Facebook, for keeping our music a secret!

Seattle Sound Live: It is beyond discouraging to have people want to see my content but can only do so if I succumb to the pressure to use the promote post feature. The choice should be up to the viewers in regards to what they see and what they do not see, it should not be left to the powers of facebook to decide what I read and from who.

Legendary Goodtimes: In essence, what has happened is Facebook has restricted you from seeing feeds from things like bands and pages, which you have taken the time to like, and replaces them with ads for products and pages you don’t connect with or even care about. We used to see hundreds of “seens” and received dozens of likes and comments on each our posts. Now only 1/3 of our fans are even seeing updates about our band. It is pure and simply extortion, on Facebook’s part, and its aimed at small business and bands. Its as if Wal-Mart is now in charge of Facebook and we are all the mom and pop stores its putting out of business.

Ethan Freckleton Band: FB fan pages has been pretty much the ultimate bait-and-switch, and a very expensive one who bought into Like campaigns over the past few years. Cost of acquisition was already greater than the returns and now it’s much worse. Where’s the partnership?

Jeni Wren: Facebook is one of the only places you can reach out to a personal network. Yet their choice to make it a financial incentive makes using it seem a waste of time. Yet industry insiders still keep an eye on these numbers, so avoiding it is also a questionable decision. So, we’re left in a circle where the up and coming artist is getting screwed on all ends.

This was a small example of the people that responded. Click here to see more. Of course, much has been written about the subject and Facebook continues to maintain that they didn’t implement the stifling of the newsfeed with motives for profit — rather they did it to save us from ourselves. They care so much about us that they have decided that they want to think for us and control what they think we want to see, though people are complaining that they just want to see what they came for. The claims that this new methodology will lead to a higher quality of newfeed content just don’t appear to be true.  Derek and Rob doesn’t seem to think so either.

Derek: My sense with what’s happening at Facebook is that they’re claiming that people are posting a lot more stuff and that’s why your message has a tough time getting through, but people are posting more because of how difficult it is to get through, so there’s kind of a “chicken and egg” problem. Whereby Facebook kind of instigated this by really throttling the reach of pages and posts, and pages have responded by posting more posts out there to try and get one through, that kind of thing. So, it really is a real chicken and egg issue, and I don’t think it results in greater quality, it just results in greater quantity. I think Facebook’s trying to artificially create this dilemma of too many things in the feed so that they can intentionally create a problem, so they then can say, “If you want to get that reach, you can pay us for it.” So they’re manufacturing the problem because they can charge for the solution.

Rob: It’s a mixed bag right now. There are definitely posts I find later that I am glad that I missed, and some good posts that they really should be showing. The biggest imbalance right now is over-indexing of news posts. I don’t think most people come to Facebook looking for click-baiting headlines about the things their friends are outraged about. I’m sure the data shows high clickthrough rates, but I think most people would rather see more personal content from their friends and pages.

Some people have jumped into Facebook’s pocket and insist that since it’s free we should be happy with what they give us. While that’s partially true, the hard work of fan pages in making Facebook a place to see the latest from friends and businesses, causes, bands, and events that they cary about is what built Facebook into the monster that it is. If they would have been transparent from the beginning, many people would likely not have spent years and budgets building a following. For a number of businesses and pages, spending time building their fan pages was anything but free.

Yes, Facebook is trying to create a profitable company for their shareholders and that is understandable. But in this decision, they have wiped out the ability for so many smaller bands, not for profit pages, as well as  mom & pop businesses to reach the small customer base that many of them created by spending countless hours and often times money. More from Derek and Rob.

Derek: I totally respect the need for a public company to make revenue or make a profit, I don’t think that’s bad. I just think the model and the way they’ve gone about it is bad for virtually all of their stakeholders, and I think that’s resulting in a real decline in user sentiment about a platform, and I think you can measure that user sentiment through things like just how popular my videos were and how “Liked” they were; I would make videos about science and they wouldn’t get all that many Likes, even though I was reaching out to science people, so it’s amazing to see the kind of user sentiment everyone’s so negative about where Facebook is headed. I’d love to see Facebook turn this around a little bit and help out non-profits and people who are using that for a grass roots reasons and musicians, absolutely.

Rob: The Veritasium video obviously struck a nerve. Sophisticated marketers are using complex ad targeting to reach highly profitable audiences, but Facebook doesn’t give that playbook to people, especially small page managers that they entice to “boost” a post or “get more fans”. The default settings for these ads are harmful and draw an audience that can be unreachable. We’re constantly examining how to democratize these best practices for everyone.

So what is the solution? Twitter is great, but it does have a 140 character limitation, which makes spreading some messages challenging. Although with the advent of photos being visible in the stream it has become much more stimulating than before. Other websites like Google Plus and Pinterest are growing, and are viable options, though nothing is on the scale that Facebook has become. See the Top Ten Social Media Sites. Almost everyone on this rock has a Facebook profile these days, so how helpful is it promote to these other sites when the people we want reach are on Facebook? It is woven into the fabric of our lives. Don’t believe me? Go to your pantry or your kitchen cupboard and pull something out. Read the label. Many companies have included the address to their Facebook page on the valuable real estate of their brand’s packaging. Starting to move towards the idea of a possible solution, we asked Derek and Rob if they thought some sort of subscription-based model for pages would work, one that allowed, say, a for-profit page to pay a monthly subscription, but a non-profit page would get a sort of quasi-scholarship.

Derek: I don’t know. I mean, it depends on how much these pages are willing to pay for reach. To me it seems like one of the solutions is having users who are really informed about what’s happening. I think one thing is that a lot of users didn’t know that they weren’t seeing things, like they didn’t think their feed was troubled in any way. So I think once that becomes more common things can change. I’d like to see the whole thing  streamlined so users can select pages who perhaps they won’t see everything from. Maybe you can do that, but I haven’t looked at these things that much. If Facebook would consider a set cost for a page maybe, because if there’s a page that’s spamming, they’ll want to block that page, but if there’s a page that’s putting out genuinely great content, that page shouldn’t have to pay very much. So I think there’s going to have to be that balance. I don’t know how that works. I don’t really know what to say the solutions are, here.

Rob: This is really interesting. Following that thought, you’re basically asking if certain pages can get a “bonus” in the news feed. Guaranteeing to show your post to people for free wouldn’t work out, so I think what we really need is for Facebook to make it easy to “Subscribe” to a page. I may “Like” movies like “Gladiator” to show my friends things I enjoy, but that doesn’t mean I want posts from a 14 year old film crowding out tour announcements of bands I like and updates from my friends.

Some ambitious and fed up people have decided to stand up to Facebook and, if nothing else, make their frustrations be heard. One of the initiatives is called Pages Fight Back. We asked Derek and Rob one final question: Do you think if enough Facebook users assembled in a sort of social media revolt, would make a difference?

Derek: That’s really tough for me to say. I think if sentiment declines as it has been, if it continues to decline, if people start abandoning Facebook, I think there will be kind of a bottom line reason to change their strategy. So that might be the only way for things to start to turn around, if they start to see their bottom line going in the wrong direction.

Rob: Facebook is tremendously data driven. If the revolt showed up in data, where fewer people visited Facebook, spent less time on the site, and clicked fewer ads, I think they’d adjust. Without a shift in metrics, I don’t think they’d pay much attention.

Perfect Post is putting it’s money where it’s  mouth is, working to help independent bands not only retain, but continue to engage with it’s fan base in an effective way during the upheaval from Facebook’s new policies. “we are willing to help bands through these changes with our base plan,” says Rob from Perfect Post. “We normally charge $500 a month for our retailer clients on a pro plan, but would be willing to offer our standard plan to indie bands for $200/year.”

One thing is very clear: there is no easy solution. But Facebook was built and promoted heavily by users they should be treated better than this.

Check out more from Derek Muller of Vertasium at Youtube

Check out more from Perfect Post



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