Publishers had plenty of warning the Great Facebook News Feed Purge was coming. That doesn’t make the news any less painful for many. Digiday spoke to several publishers about who wins and who loses in the aftermath.
Facebook evened the playing field for publishers. It was what enabled overnight traffic sensations like Upworthy, ViralNova and Elite Daily. But for big publishers, losing Facebook audience will be less traumatic, only because the biggest publishers are by nature big everywhere. Their ubiquity when it come to platforms protects them from changes to one.
Earlier this week, Meredith Artley, editor-in-chief at CNN Digital, recorded an episode of the Digiday Podcast and spoke to this before the news broke about Facebook deprioritizing publisher content.
“We don’t put all of our eggs in the Facebook basket,” she said. “This ubiquity and the focus on your [owned and operated platform] is everything. It is the thing that you control. The media industry collectively freaks out when Facebook makes a change that impacts your business. Well, what were you expecting? It’s their platform, and they’re not in the news business.”
Publishers with well-established brands independent of Facebook will fare less badly because people will keep sharing those publishers’ content organically, and it’ll get surfaced in people’s feeds that way.
“I would be OK from the CNN perspective to have Facebook less involved,” Artley said. “It’s on us if we put all our eggs in that basket. Let’s control the things that we can.”
Entertainment publishers and celebrities
Many news reporters confuse “publishing” with “news.” There’s a broad world outside the latest Trump outrage. Facebook has already been signaling its unease with news publishers in its important media initiative, Facebook Watch. Facebook has emphasized celebrity and entertainment shows in Watch, such as “Ball in the Family” with LaVar Ball.
“They are not going to do any Watch show without a celebrity in it,” said a publishing exec. “I think they’re saying, ‘F publishers, we’re going to go to personalities.’”
Another publishing exec said Facebook has for months been asking them for more “personality-driven” video. Similarly, lifestyle and entertainment publishers are poised to fare better with the engagement Facebook is emphasizing. Users are more likely to share and comment on uplifting, humorous and identity-related posts than a local news story about a kidnapping.
“Who’s going to suffer the most are publishers that put out videos and articles that basically nobody wants to comment on and nobody wants to share,” one publishing executive said.
It isn’t all good news for lighthearted content, though. Clicky content about sex, for example, performed well on Facebook, but people who click on those posts don’t typically wish to telegraph that fact with likes, shares and comments. Publishers that have seen success posting more “personal” content on Facebook could see a hit.
Media brands with loyal audiences
Facebook has long enabled giant audiences, but the connections media brands have to these audiences is flimsy. In the news feed, publisher content sits astride fake news, baby photos, viral memes and all manner of ephemera. It’s hardly the place to build brand loyalty and daily habits. Media companies like Barstool Sports, which have rabidly loyal followings, are positioned well in what comes next in digital media. Facebook could go away tomorrow, and “Stoolies” will still be obsessed with the brand and its cast of personalities.
“Brands who have a point of view and command their own engagement will be OK,” said Erika Nardini, CEO of Barstool. “The closer you are to a friend, the better.”
Twitter as a media platform
Many publishers grouse about the power of Facebook, hoping an alternative will emerge other than Google. Apple News has shown flickers of hope. Snapchat has mostly disappointed. But with Facebook clearly pulling back on news content — let’s face it, Facebook doesn’t need the headaches — there’s suddenly one platform perfectly suited for news: Twitter. In the past year, publishers have seen more signs of hope out of Twitter. Witness Bloomberg’s decision to launch a live video news platform on Twitter, not Facebook.
“Twitter is now on its own as a news and media platform,” said Jason Stein, CEO of Cycle Media. “Nobody else is playing in that space at all.”
Facebook’s credibility with publishers
This isn’t the first Facebook rodeo for publishers. For years, they’ve followed Facebook’s lead with its ever-changing platform. When Facebook wanted shares, publishers delivered them, often with cringeworthy tactics collectively known as clickbait. When Facebook wanted live video, publishers ginned up live video. The same happened when it wanted in-feed video. The list goes on.
Facebook is trying to calm publisher nerves over this latest, biggest change by reassuring them they will be just fine so long as they emphasize engagement. But many publishers have seen this movie 15 times already. One media CEO spoke with a Facebook rep after the news and received reassurance they’d be fine based on their high engagement. The rep couldn’t then answer questions about why reach had still declined noticeably lately. The Facebook machine is now so big that publishers have lost trust that their point people at Facebook even know what’s truly going on.
“I don’t think they’ve treated people well,” said the exec. “Publishers are pissed. They do a lot of explaining, but they’re still really opaque. They use words like ‘engagement’ when it was really they’re cutting publishers out of the feed. They just lipstick it all the time. And they don’t give you the best practices.”
News feed addicts
Upstart digital publishers and local news publishers will be disproportionately hurt because they have a higher chance of getting a lot of their referral traffic from Facebook, said Andrew Montalenti, co-founder and CTO of web analytics firm Parsely. “If you went full native, I think you’re losing pretty big right now,” he said.
Big ones could be hurt, too, if they have a main page with a big follower count that used to deliver reliably high reach because Facebook will now prioritize content that people share or comment on. “They used to reliably be able to say, ‘If we put a new post on that page, we’ll get a reliably high engagement,’” he said. Reach of those pages could decline in favor of smaller, topic-specific pages that people feel more invested in.
Repurposed TV commercials and 90-second “how pencils are made” videos aren’t going to cut it in the news feed anymore. Anything that people consume passively as they’re scrolling through their feed is unlikely to see real engagement in terms of comments and shares, and will likely be deprioritized as a result. Publishers that have relied on those tactics to rack up massive “view” counts in recent years could find themselves coming back to earth with a bump.
“I have a hard time feeling too bad for a publisher,” said Stein. “To depend on Facebook for organic reach is not a strategy.”