Continuing charm offensive, Facebook creates tool to boost news publishers’ reach on the platform


Continuing its charm offensive with news publishers, Facebook has been testing a tool with five publishers including BuzzFeed to help them improve their reach on the platform.

The organic content testing tool lets publishers test up to four versions of a piece of content, with variations in elements like headline, description and image, in real time — something publishers would otherwise have to pay for by boosting a post. Using the tool, the publisher can see data like interactions and click-through rate and predictions of those metrics in real time so it can pick the best-performing version to show all its followers.

Facebook said it was too early to share any test results, but Mollie Vandor, a Facebook product manager under Alex Hardiman, head of news products, said that more than half the time, publishers in the test have ended up selecting a version of the story that was different from the one they would have originally used. This suggests that the tool is helping publishers get more traffic back to their sites. (That’s because for now, the tool is limited to testing link posts that take users back to the publishers’ sites rather than Facebook Instant Articles, which keep the reader in the platform.)

Facebook has been lavishing a lot of attention on news publishers over the past year or so. It’s created a breaking-news tag so that they can put on stories to help them stand out in the news feed, and it’s testing a subscription tool to help paywalled publishers, cracking down on fake news and paying publishers to create news shows for its video section, Watch.

It’s also angered publishers by deprioritizing publisher content in the news feed and by creating a political-ad-labeling policy that treated promoted news articles as political content. To publishers who remember Facebook punishing them for using clickbait to game its algorithm in the past, a tool to help them optimize for the algorithm might come off as ironic if not suspicious. “Is it some kind of trap?” wondered one.

Asked about Facebook’s motivations in creating the organic content testing tool, Vandor said it was all about helping publishers.

“This tool is a way to maximize how they pitch their content to people on Facebook,” Vandor said. “Instead of us saying, ‘Here’s a list of universal best practices,’ we’re trying to give publishers the tools they can use to develop their own best practices.” Asked how much of a difference she thinks the tool could make, Vandor said: “My hope is that this tool gives publishers a better sense of control and ability to make the best possible use of their investment in Facebook. Ideally, this tool is flexible, easy to use and is a value add.”

Facebook wouldn’t identify the other publishers in the test, saying only BuzzFeed gave permission to share its name. Fran Berkman, deputy director of news curation for BuzzFeed News, said the tool has helped BuzzFeed News validate its assumptions about how to optimize stories on Facebook and that based on the test results, the publisher has made some tweaks in how it posts content. But he said it’s not exactly a game-changer.

“This comes as everyone’s traffic on Facebook has gone down a lot, so it’s good to be able to get the most out of our posts, but we’re still getting a lot less,” he said.

There’s no timeline for extending the tool to other publishers, but Vandor said Facebook is “actively exploring that” as it works to make the tool easier and less resource-intensive to use.

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