Facebook has been enlarging its role in the publishing ecosystem, from trying to handle publishers’ ad targeting to its controversial pitch to getting them to post their articles directly to the social network.

Now comes interest targeting. In December, Facebook rolled out a feature that lets publishers target their editorial content to a subset of their followers based on their being a fan of a certain Facebook page, such as an athlete’s or TV show’s. So an interest-targeted article will only appear in the news feed of someone who has already indicated an interest in the article’s topic and not to others.

Interest-targeted posts by definition will reach a smaller audience, but according to Facebook, it’s a better audience. These posts are getting more likes, comments and shares than those that haven’t been targeted by interest.

The New York Times is using the tool. It has used interest targeting for arts and culture coverage and, to a lesser extent, sports, to people who have signaled an interest in narrow topics.

Using interest targeting, this story about pop singer Ariana Grande’s concert got 40 times as much engagement as the average Times post and about 40 percent of the traffic to the story came from Facebook, said, said Cynthia Collins, editor of social media at the Times.

At Ariana Grande’s show at Madison Square Garden last night, the cat ears worn by thousands of girls in the audience lit up in time with the music.

Another post about the TV show “Empire” got 13 times more visits when it was just surfaced to fans of the show and of similar interests, as opposed to the Times’ whole following. The interest-targeted post also drove 28 times more Facebook engagement than the average Times post, Collins said.

What is it about Empire that makes the show so addictive?

Posted by The New York Times on Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On the one hand, interest targeting can be seen as serving the reader by reaching the right people and, just as important, not reaching the wrong ones.

“You’re going to get people who are knowledgeable and passionate about this topic,” Collins said. “If we didn’t do any targeting at all, you might see a comment like, ‘I don’t care, I don’t watch the show.’ When you interest-target the post, you don’t see that at all. It’s anecdotal, but there seems to be more interaction between people. This is seemingly providing a better experience to all our readers.”

On the other hand, interest targeting lets publishers use their Facebook feed more efficiently. Now, the Times can post a greater number of articles, knowing not all will be put in front of all readers. Beyond targeting people by their passions, the Times is also finding that interest targeting can give new life to stories that are a few days old, as Collins said the Times did with one about “Mad Men” through the lens of pop culture over the years.

Bleacher Report has had similar success using interest targeting to surface stories to team fans. “We can send that team content just to folks who really care about it versus forcing that content down the throat of everyone who likes us on Facebook,” said general manager Dorth Raphaely.

Jason Stein, CEO of social media agency Laundry Service, said for publishers, interest targeting is a free distribution perk they don’t have to pay for, and by informing Facebook’s algorithm, it helps the network better target content to its users.

Not everyone is sold on the idea. The more publishers depend on Facebook, critics argue, the more they might suffer if Facebook changes its formula for surfacing stories, as it’s been known to do in the past. Also, publishers aren’t able to monetize the additional time people are spending commenting on their stories on Facebook.

“There’s economic incentive for Facebook to make decisions based on the algorithm, and those incentives aren’t always aligned with publishers,” said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, formerly the Online Publishers Association. “They should experiment. But ultimately, the economics have to work.”

For her part, Collins acknowledged that “there’s a downside in that we do have readers communicating on these articles” on Facebook rather than the Times’ own site. But the Times’ view is, if those “Mad Men” fans don’t see the Times’ story, they’re going to seek out someone else’s. And the Times is still seeing rich comments on its own site, too.

Then there’s the echo-chamber issue. Research has shown that Facebook and other social media platforms can contribute to a phenomenon where people elect to expose themselves only to the viewpoints that fit their worldview. The more people comment, like or share an article on Facebook, the more Facebook will serve them content from that publisher.

Facebook stresses that interest targeting is meant to be used sparingly, though, and so far, publishers seem to be taking heed. The Times is limiting its use of interest targeting to 5 percent of its Facebook posts; for Bleacher report, it’s under 20 percent “You would risk potentially an echo chamber for more serious news,” Collins said. “But if someone doesn’t watch ‘Mad Men,’ they don’t need to see that article in their feed.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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