Is Free Facebook Marketing Coming to an End?

Facebook marketing has been a booming business for some, and a dismal failure for others. Algorithm changes have significantly lowered the success rate of this marketing strategy already, and according to a number of recently published stories, it’s about to get worse, especially for those of us in political and philosophical circles.

For the mere mortal facebook user with just a personal profile, this doesn’t really apply to you. This is more about brand pages, but since a lot of the content that you enjoy is being pushed out by brand pages, it has a very real effect on your enjoyment of Facebook. To explain the situation a bit, you’re never really sure how many people are seeing your posts. Your only measurement is how much engagement the post gets in the form of likes, comments, and shares. For those of us with brand pages, we get some useful analytical data that shows us, among other things, how many people saw our posts. We get a pretty good idea then, of what our audience likes by comparing the number of people who saw the post compared to the amount of engagement with it.

What we can also see, is a dramatic decline over time of how many people Facebook is showing our posts to. Facebook has announced more than once that it has already lowered this number in the past, and it is expected it to lower it even further.

According to [email protected];

In 2012, Facebook famously restricted organic reach of content published from brand pages to about 16 percent. In December 2013, another round of changes reduced it even more.

By February 2014, according to a [email protected] analysis of more than 100 brand pages, organic reach hovered at 6 percent, a decline of 49 percent from peak levels in October. For large pages with more than 500,000 Likes, organic reach hit 2 percent in February. And Facebook sources were unofficially advising community managers to expect it to approach zero in the foreseeable future.

The idea behind this is to get those brands to purchase advertising, of course. Page managers “boost” posts by paying Facebook in hopes of getting their message out there. This is how Facebook makes money, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with that. On the other hand, it’s already beginning to radically alter the marketing strategies of many people and businesses. If Facebook dials the organic reach down even further, it’s going to lead to the end of some of your favorite content producers, especially those of us in political and philosophical circles.

Some Marketing Basics

To understand what is happening you have to understand a thing or two about marketing. Generally speaking, marketing channels are divided into three categories, paid, owned, and earned. Check out this infographic from HootSuite.

Facebook Marketing is Becoming a Paid Channel
Facebook Marketing is Becoming a Paid Channel

There’s a mistake in the graphic, in that it calls Facebook an owned channel. In a lot of ways, Facebook acts like an owned channel, but Facebook owns Facebook, not you. Every so often they remind us of this by changing things without our consent, and screwing up our Facebook marketing strategies.

The greatest “bang for the buck” comes from earned channels. Hearing a commercial over the radio and hearing something from your friend are obviously worlds apart in terms of impact on you. And of course, radio commercials cost money every time, whereas you talking about our product/service/content is free.

Facebook Marketing In Decline
Facebook Marketing In Decline

Facebook has acted as a hybrid paid/earned/owned channel. Even though the ownership is really borrowed. Lot’s of us built our Facebook pages without buying advertisements, others bought ads to build their audiences, but the end game was always earned marketing. The idea being, I post something to Facebook, other people talk about it, something else happens, and then we profit.

Facebook essentially lured brands in by letting them use the platform as an owned channel for free. Countless dollars and manhours were poured into building audiences, because it provided a huge return on investment. Now that those brands are so invested, Facebook is making its move, and revealing that the plan was always to make it a paid channel.

What the Facebook Marketing Changes Mean for Retailers

For brands that sell products, this isn’t the end of the world. Paying for advertisements was always a part of their business plan. So ending the temporary discount that Facebook once provided, just brings marketing plans back to normal. Unless of course they spent a crippling amount of money planning on having that free channel forever, in which case this failure to plan may well ruin them.

What the Facebook Marketing Changes Mean for Content Producers

For content producers that rely on pay per click advertising models and that sort of thing for revenue, this is a bigger problem. Facebook charges us per impression, and can’t even tell us how exactly many impressions we’re going to get for our money. There is absolutely no direct return on investment here for us. We simply have to hope that when (if) we buy an advertisement, it generates enough shares (earned marketing), or direct subscribers to our content (owned marketing) to pay for itself. This generally doesn’t pay, for example, you’ll almost never see a YouTube video promoted on Facebook unless it’s a commercial for a product/service. YouTube content producers who get paid through AdSense won’t pay to promote their videos on Facebook because the impressions we get cost more than the ad revenue we receive. We are on the other hand more than happy to post memes a few times a day to build and entertain a Facebook audience to seed our content to, because that has driven us a lot of traffic.

A large part of what makes Facebook fun for you and your friends, is people like us who are producing content that you engage with. We have put a lot of time and effort into building Facebook audiences to share that content, because we get paid to do so, and aside from the time, it hasn’t costed us anything. Now that Facebook is cutting us off from our audiences, and trying to get us to pay to reach them, we have to find other earned channels to market our content to. 

What the Facebook Marketing Changes Mean for Activists

The other thing that is going to take a big hit is what some have referred to as “Facebook activism”. Facebook was, and largely still is, a great activist tool, because it’s an efficient way to get a message out to a lot of people. Changing the way brand pages interact with their audiences, limiting the capacity of them to do so, drives up the opportunity costs. If somebody wants to hold a demonstration of some sort, they very rarely make any money from doing that. Facebook has been an effective way of promoting such events because it hasn’t costed us anything. If we’re going to have to pay to promote those events, there will necessarily be fewer of them promoted on Facebook.

What are the Alternatives to Facebook Marketing?

In some ways I think these changes are going to be good in that it will drive content producers and marketers to push users into other outlets that still offer a lower cost alternative to paid Facebook advertising. Facebook would not be the powerhouse that it is today if brands weren’t giving them all the free advertising in the world by telling their audiences to follow them on Facebook. Facebook has really been leveraging its position as the most popular social network, assuming it will have these users forever, and people will just cooperate with their bullshit to reach them. My hope is that as content producers spend less time providing Facebook with content, users will follow the content producers to other outlets that still allow us to leverage the size of our audience without paying a third party.

If Facebook starts losing users, it will start losing money, and hopefully reverse some of these changes in hopes of regaining the content producers and their audiences.

Twitter and Google+ are the main competitors for Facebook at present. They don’t use crazy algorithms to decide who sees what. You subscribe to a user, and that user’s content shows up in your feed, the way a social network is supposed to function. Some of us did well with Facebook’s algorithms keeping our content at the top of user’s streams for hours and days on end, but it’s becoming obvious that those days are almost over, and we’ll have to compete by publishing more content if we wish to keep our names in front of our audiences.

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Christopher Cantwell comedian, writer, voice artist, and Patriot.

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