The Free Ride is Over

Juan González's picture

Partner & Director of Client Services

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The Free Ride is Over

Mar 18, 2013

Juan González

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Recently, I had to re-create my Twitter account and decided to let all of my Facebook friends know about it. So, I went ahead and posted a status update to Facebook hoping that most of my friends and connections would hear the news to re-follow me. I quickly discovered that my status posting was reaching only a tiny fraction of my friends and virtually none of my second-degree (i.e., friends-of-friends who liked my posting) connections. It was then that I quickly remembered that over the past few months, the free ride upon which so many individuals and organizations have relied -- Facebook -- had come to an end.

Even when it was free, though, it was far from a sure thing that your postings would be seen by your friends and fans. Facebook, like Google, routinely recalculates its algorithm to determine who sees what posting. So, for example, when you post a status update, only certain friends will ever actually see that status posting on their Facebook News Feed at a given time, and only for so long before it is consigned to the dustbin of Facebook oblivion. This algorithm, called EdgeRank, determines your post's maximum Facebook "Reach" potential - or the likelihood that your post will ever be seen by anyone. Back at Facebook's founding, all of your friends would see all of your posts; but today, there are four factors that are used by the EdgeRank algorithm to determine whether or not a user will ever see your status update or page post:

1. Interaction
Has your target ever interacted with your posts before? If a friend or fan "likes" every one of your postings, the chances are higher that your next posting will appear on their News Feed.

2. Blackballing
If the Facebook public doesn't like your postings (e.g., they never interact with your posts, they ignore them, or worse, report them, complain about them, or block you), your posts are less likely to appear for other users.

3. Similar Interests
Users who like photos more than they like videos are more likely to see photo status updates and posts than they are to see non-photo status updates and posts. The same is true for users who like lengthier status updates over shorter ones, and status updates that are posted during certain times of the day. The EdgeRank algorithm captures nuances including size, timing, media type (including links), and even frequencies in order to try and feed users more of what they already like and less of what they don't.

4. Complaints
If users complain about your postings, they can effectively "bury" it so that it never, or rarely, ever sees the light of day for typical users, fans, and friends.

Given these factors, it's little wonder that any organization attempting to engage users over social media can find success. At EchoDitto, our messaging approach to online engagement over services like Facebook and Twitter centers around high quality content that promotes sharing and contributes to potential virality. But this is an uphill battle, especialy as of September of 2012, when Facebook changed its EdgeRank algorithm to essentially punish the "free riders" -- essentially, every organization using Facebook Pages to build and communicate with fans -- by ensuring that only publishers who paid for "promoted" status messages would get their content seen by a larger swath of their fans and friends.

For brands, companies, and organizations that have made the strategic blunder of using Facebook as the only real channel for engaging with customers and constituents, Facebook's commitment to its shareholders to maximize profit by forcing free users to start paying to get their statuses seen is nothing short of catastrophic, especially since Facebook (like Google) keeps the EdgeRank algorithm secret and ever-changing. This leaves so-called "optimizers" peddling about tips and tricks that might only ever work for a few weeks before the algorithm changes, rather than tried-and-true best practices of creating compelling content.

But for organizations and individuals alike, the time has come to realize that on Facebook, if you have a message that you want as many of your friends and fans to see, the path of least resistance is to simply buckle down and purchase a promoted ad for your status. This can very quickly become an expensive proposition (and Facebook certainly wants promoted statuses to be a lucrative revenue stream, as does Twitter for its promoted tweets). Worse, social media is rarely about taking action (such as buying products or signing petitions) and is principally about projecting a message, so the return on investment for purchasing these promoted tweets or sponsored status messages may be invisible.  Most engagement plays on Facebook and Twitter have to rely upon the organic acceptance of audiences (and their willingness to share alike with their connections, co-opting their digital footprints on your behalf), and this begins with focused, timely, consistent, coherent messaging.

The consequences of Facebook's relentless weakening of organic reach in favor of paid reach and advertising are predictable: organizations that have invested months and years into building online followings on their Facebook fan pages are suddenly witnessing dramatic declines in the numbers of users who read and interact with their postings. Rather than start second-guessing a sound messaging strategy (such as publishing content that is highly relevant, timely, and rich in media), organizations should dive deeper into the analytics and consider whether EdgeRank has reduced their effectiveness. And this is where EchoDitto can help.

Meaningful and sustainable online engagement begins with an examination of audiences, grounded in stakeholder analysis and validated by interviews and market research. If you know your audience, you can lay the foundation for compelling conversations that can lead to an enduring online community - on your website.  Social Media, like Facebook and Twitter, offer channels to broadcast your content and should never entirely replace your primary publishing presence. For organizations, companies, government agencies, and even individuals who have neglected their websites and eschewed them in favor of a well-crafted Facebook page, these changes to EdgeRank should represent a wake-up call to a simple message that reinforces why you should never outsource your primary messaging channel to a third-party: the free ride is over.