A lot has been said about Facebook’s new algorithm – mostly bad. I’m not going to spend an hour waxing nostalgic on the “good ol’ days of the platform” and I’m not going to defend Facebook’s new algorithm (though I think the page owner dismay has gotten a bit out of hand in recent weeks). Instead, I’m going to talk about my own experiences, both good and bad.
You see, I own and operate two sites that consume the majority of my non-day job hours. One has suffered mightily under the rule of the new algorithm while the other has actually improved its engagement numbers. These recent insight numbers have made me question both my sanity and the “damage” caused by the new algorithm used by the social media giant.
I’ll be upfront about it: I’m far from a social media guru. I’m not particularly good at engaging new people (though I’m improving rapidly in this regard) and I don’t spend large chunks of time on Facebook, G+, or Twitter. Dammit Jim, I’m a developer, not a salesman. What I’ll talk about in this article is the trends I’ve noticed both in my own sites and what I’ve gleaned from the social media team at my day job (I work in the IS department at a quite large corporation as a web developer).
First, the bad. The new algorithm has completely crushed my comic book engagement numbers. In the past, I advertised using Facebook to strengthen my page likes for SelfCentEnt, peaking around 325 likes sometime last year. Small numbers overall but enough to see the impact of the new algorithm, as engagement has dropped to less than 1% on most posts. For this site, Facebook has become nearly useless for me and I wish I could undo all that advertising I spent in past years to bump that number to its peak of 325 (I’ll explain why I regret advertising later in the article).
Here are my last five posts and their engagement using Facebook Insights. Sad face.
As you can see, my reach is pathetic. My engagement is pathetic. Users simply aren’t interested in my content. And that’s my fault, not Facebook’s… Mostly my fault, anyway. What I’ve noticed with the new algorithm is that it punishes casual interest in a product. By spending money to expand my reach in past years, I have actually hurt my ability to engage with the people who really like my product (provided those people exist at all).
The way the new Facebook algorithm works is this: you post a new link to your site. Facebook will show this link to roughly 4-5% of the people who like your page. If someone engages with your link (clicks on it, shares it with friends), then Facebook says “Hey, someone finds this content interesting! Send it to another 4-5% of this page’s fanbase!” Rinse and repeat until the link runs out of steam and people stop clicking and sharing (the influence of post likes seem to have greatly diminished under the new algorithm, and for good reason… Likes are the lowest order of reader engagement, with clicks and shares gaining influence over post reach).
By diluting my fanbase through advertising, I’ve actually crippled my own reach. Let’s say that 50% of my likes came from advertising (probably a pretty accurate statement). I have no idea what kind of interest in my page those 50%ers really have… It could be “very little”, it could be “zero”. By infusing my page with “casual” fans (or possibly not fans at all, or uninterested family members, etc.), I have kneecapped myself in regards to engagement. Because only 4-5% of my fans see the new link right off the bat, any casual or non-fans are wasted eyeballs… In fact, they’re worse than wasted. They’re taking up valuable space in my initial audience, causing my reach to stall out before my “real” fans even get to see the page.
Well, that sucks. My advice is simple: don’t advertise on Facebook. If you do choose to advertise, do your research. Make sure you do whatever you can to only reach high quality, engaged fans. How do you do that? I have no idea… So my immediate answer is “don’t advertise”. If you have insight on how to successfully target an engaged audience, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Enough bad news, on to the good segment of the article.
On the other hand, I run a much larger baseball-centered site that has blossomed under the new algorithm. It took me a year to convince my partners to aggressively pursue Facebook as a traffic stream but earlier this year, we started to do just that and saw huge rewards for dedicating time and effort into the platform. Due to outside influences and some smart social media management from the writers on this site, its Facebook likes have ballooned from 300 to 800 in just two months (though that’s a side point to this article as a whole). Now that we’ve somewhat stabilized at 800+ page likes, the numbers tell me interesting things.
Well, shit howdy. Look at those numbers. They certainly tell a different story than my comic book numbers. The page likes for this site are just a touch over 800 at the moment, lower than 800 when a couple of these posts were created. My reach has hovered around 50% for the majority of links I’ve posted from this site, even higher in some cases. One of the things I was worried about when this page’s likes exploded was the influx of the “casual user”, which could have been the death of my reach. Instead, by growing this site 100% organically without advertising, I’ve seen consistent 40%+ reach because if someone likes my page, they have interest in what I’m shilling. With paid advertising, that may not be the case.
This site has taught me a few things:
1. It’s all about timing.
Timing is key. Find out when your audience is active. I did this by studying my own site analytics and monitoring traffic for several weeks. My site traffic is highest between 9am-11am central time. I not only study when my traffic is highest but I also examine average time spent on the site, knowing that is the time when my audience is not only online but idly browsing the internet (in other words, they have time to randomly click on links). I do not post in the evening (as you can see, one of these posts was done in the evening and suffered mightily for it). I do not post on weekends. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am. Your mileage may vary here… Rely on your own numbers and post accordingly. There is no right answer for everyone, as all our audiences are different.
A strategy used by the social team at work is posting during key idle times for your audience. Is a big football game happening that your audience is surely watching? Post just moments before halftime of the game. Is your audience huge Game of Thrones fans? Consider posting just minutes before the episode ends, as people are probably going to pick up their phones and tablets once the credits begin to roll. Try different strategies, go granular and post smarter, not more often. You might be surprised by the results.
2. There’s a reason clickbait exists. It works.
I abhor clickbait. It’s one of the plagues of the modern internet… But it’s successful, which is why it exists. Thankfully, you don’t need to be an awful person to use the best parts of clickbaiting; you can use the best elements without being a social troll. You don’t need to use “See this amazing thing! You won’t believe your eyes what happens next!” to be successful in social media but you do need to spur curiosity. For example, in one of my articles I could have listed which players were cut from the Twins MLB roster during Spring Training in the link description. I didn’t. I mentioned players were cut but didn’t go into detail, which spurred reader curiosity. Curiosity spurs clicks. Clicks further engagement. Everybody wins. Of course, this is only key if your content is good. Don’t be a clickbait dick (a dickbait?). Provide something quality on the other side of that click.
On this site, the average post gets 2-4 likes, despite reaching several hundred people… But it’s getting a ton of clicks (between 40-70 clicks on average), which is ramping up the link’s reach to 50% or better. What this tells me is that likes have been relegated to persona non grata status in the new algorithm. What matters is shares and clicks; do whatever you can to get users to meaningfully engage with your link. Focus on what interests your readers when they’re most active and try to milk as many clicks and shares as possible. Post when they have free time to engage with your link and share it. Focus on your link text blurb and make it as interesting as possible to spur curiosity. That’s what is going to make the algorithm work for you instead of against you.
4. High quality, relevant images are your friend.
Users love images so be sure to use a good one for your links. This should be common sense but posting an entire page might not be the best option if you’re a comic creator. Posting your logo is a huge no-no. If possible, create an image based on the most dynamic part of your page and show that to readers. Again, it’s all about the clicks. Couple solid, interesting text with a solid, interesting thumbnail to help convince readers that your link is worth reading.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m far from a social media expert but I’m getting better at it. There are surely other – more advanced – tricks to getting Facebook to work for you and as I learn more about success stories from the social team here at work, I will incorporate those strategies into my own pages. But if you’re really struggling with Facebook’s new reach algorithm, it doesn’t hurt to re-examine your own posts and see if some of the fault lies with you, not Facebook.