Several weeks after Mark Zuckerberg dropped the blog post heard round the world, even publishers working closely with Facebook are trying to figure out what all the changes mean for media distribution. After all, most large-scale publishers rely on the social network to drive a considerable share of traffic back to their sites.
Following Zuckerberg’s proclamation that his platform was shifting favor back towards posts from family and friends, Facebook’s VP of product management, Adam Mosseri, confirmed in a follow up statement that that fewer “public” posts would be in the feed and that most publishers would see reductions in their video and general content referrals.
In a letter to publishers, the company’s head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, was at once specific and vague. “This update means that people are likely to see less content that comes directly from publishers, brands and celebrities in their News Feed,” she wrote. “News stories shared between friends will not be impacted. Still, some pages may see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic decrease as the updates roll out over the next couple of months.”
Brown also wrote, “This change will take some time to figure out.”
Indeed, there is some indication among those who have been speaking with Facebook that some of the uncertainty around these changes are internal as well. It’s unclear exactly what changes will be rolled out, and when. And there is no data to predict the impact on media. Moreover, people within Facebook who work directly with publishers seem to still be getting up to speed on what all of this means.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions, and people will have to be very focused on their data,” Matt Minoff, chief digital officer at Meredith Corp., tells Folio:. “I will be interested in seeing the implementation. Will it be broadly applied or to specific publishers that focused on click bait, spamming? That is the question. People don’t really know.”
The most common questions publishers are asking seem simple enough: To what degree will media posts be depressed in the News Feed? How will that work in tandem with Facebook’s recently announced parallel effort to crowdsource and filter in “trusted sources” of content? Most agree that publisher content sparks conversations among users, so will those posts continue to enjoy higher priority? Or instead will publisher posts be generally more suppressed in the algorithms, which in turn could reduce the number of active conversations on the platform?
Then there is the video strategy Facebook has been pursuing so aggressively, if chaotically, for the past two years. How does all of this relate to Facebook Watch, the recently added video tab that often relies on promotion of video from the News Feed?
“There is a lot of speculation out there, and a lot of things being reported,” says Jonathan Hunt, digital strategy and audience development at National Geographic, inarguably one of the most successful magazine brands within the social media landscape. “But a lot of us don’t know specifically.”
Facebook reps appear to be assuring publishing partners that this might not be the media apocalypse some have been fearing, and for now are urging media to focus on content that provokes conversation. This is moving publishers like Condé Nast to “focus on thought provoking and unique content that has a strong point of view,” says Stephanie Fried, Condé’s EVP of research, analytics and audience development. “We believe our strong voice is what will enable us to fare better than most. People care deeply about our content and want other people to see it.”
At Nat Geo, Hunt anticipates these changes in feed priority will encourage publishers to think about “things like building up community and more of a dialogue than a monologue, and how to build brand and engagement… It is not just transactional.”
The full impact of Facebook’s News Feed changes won’t be clear until the changes are apparent and enough data is collected. Still, legacy media brands generally feel they are in a better position to weather the changes than are the social native publishers that tried to build brands on social distribution alone.
“We should fare much better due to our strong brand equity and loyalty, our referral diversification and our strong engaging content,” adds Fried.
Hunt has similar sentiments. “If you read into Mark’s [Zuckerberg’s] post, what is being prioritized is trusted content.”
Another important question still regards how these changes will impact publishers’ marketing and advertising partnerships that rely in part on social distribution. Many of these campaigns relied on media companies to redistribute branded content, sponsored posts, and product placements through combinations of organic and paid reach on Facebook.
Fried tells us, “There shouldn’t be any impact to campaigns on Facebook or branded content. They will be featured in the feed as they always have according to Facebook.”
Minoff is not so sure. “I think this is going to impact gross margins more than anything. You will have to spend more money to get content seen on social. Those that had good organic reach, they just had to spend less on reach. Now, you will have to spend more to reach the same number of people.”
Magazine media brands point to their greater diversification in distribution as another advantage over the bright shiny social-first media that rode the Facebook wave for years.
“We have continuously diversified and our share of visits from Facebook has declined in the past year,” Fried says. “Our SEO growth has been tremendous and we have also focused on newsletters where we have extremely strong engagement and open rates.”
In fact, while the general media frames this story as yet another example of the duopoly’s inordinate power over media new and old, Facebook is really pivoting into an existing trend—its diminishing media distribution power.
“To be honest, I think it is a continuation of what has been happening,” Minoff says. “It is no secret that the reach per post has continued to go down in past months.”
According to Parse.ly’s network of over 2,500 media sites, as recently as January 2017, Facebook had been responsible for about 40 percent of referral traffic, leading Google’s search refers of about 35 percent. A year later, the power of Google search referrals has stormed back, now responsible for close to 45 percent of refers, while Facebook’s share has fallen to about 25 percent.
“These trends have been happening for a while,” Hunt says. “It should have been a red flag that this was coming.”