The rumour had been around for a while amongst the social media professionals crowd; in January, Ogilvy’s Marshall Manson published a widely commented white paper aptly titled ‘Facebook Zero: the death of organic reach’ based on systematic observation of over 100 Facebook brand pages (thumbs up for the smart cross-agency data analysis). Three months down the line, the consensus seems to be officially that Organic Facebook Reach (also known as Unpaid Reach) is no more, at least for Facebook Brand Pages.
An analysis by Social@Ogilvy of 106 country-level brand pages found the average reach of organic brand posts had plummeted from 12.1% in October 2013 to 6.2% in February.
IS THE DECLINE OF FACEBOOK UNPAID REACH A SURPRISE? NO
Over the last couple years, many industry observers had written on the danger of “digital sharecropping”, a complicated-sounding concept which can be summed up as “Facebook, with its easy management and relatively inexpensive advertising, is creating a honey trap for brands big and small but remember that the only digital property you fully own [display, engagement, analytics] is your own website”. The argument was sometimes tinged with dubious antagonism towards Facebook as a company- which is is fairly pointless- but some of it was nonetheless valid, as the recent development showed.
SO, IS FACEBOOK EVIL?
As every other platform, Facebook went through a (more impressive than every other platform) cycle of growth based a “free for all” (people, brands, publishers) model which allowed it to gather the biggest user base on the Internet; then it started selling display advertising space; the monetisation of exposure for branded content to its user base was just the next logical step in Facebook search for a viable business model.
Whether you’re a big brand or a small business, you’d better stop whining and start thinking how to handle the shift.
WHAT CHANGES? BACK TO THE FUTURE
From what has been circulating so far, it is fairly simple – companies will have to “pay” (in one of the many formats and options that Facebook now offers) to reach the very same people that “liked” their page back then – in the days when a giveaway or a clever Facebook app would reap thousands of fans and all it took to keep them entertained was a post of a smiley dog every Friday – never mind if you were selling life insurance.
In those same days, “Facebook experts” mushroomed around the Internet, trying to lure small businesses around the world into paying them for nondescript services in exchange for the chance to reach thousands of customers and prospects “for free” and without having to set up mailing lists, websites or a proper CRM process.
Whilst big brands and their agencies had to quickly come to a realisation that some media spend was required to grow an audience, most SMEs and cornershops were happy with just making use of Facebook as a cheap alternative to a website, occasionally dabbing in a small-scale Facebook Ads campaign. Those business, together with big brands who failed to diversify in a consistent, multi-channel content+reach strategy and just put most of their eggs in the Facebook basket, are going to be hit the hardest by the change if they don’t react quickly.
In a way, with this move Facebook is accelerating an industry shift which was already taking place, led by some of the most forward thinking brands and agencies – by forcing everyone to realise that content is king, but without distribution it is a king with no kingdom. And that neither content nor distribution are free.
Media budget managers and media agencies are probably now very happy, but does this spell doom for (good) content producers?
IS THE END OF FACEBOOK ORGANIC REACH GOOD FOR SOCIAL MEDIA?
Well this is my opinion at least: hell yeah, for the simple reason that it will raise the bar for social media content in a way that no regulation could ever do: by making it necessary for companies to put their money where their mouth is, literally. Hopefully, by now most marketers (from the C-suite and below) have realised that “social media is free” is the new “build it and they will come“: naive at best, dangerous at it worst.
Good content will need to be supported by paid reach, so hopefully sloppy, routine content will be abandoned to focus on the one which is worth supporting with serious media $$$.
With our News Feeds increasingly cluttered by an annoying “background noise” of silly chains, spammy tagging, fake sensationalists news and lame attempts by brands to hijack the latest meme, this may be welcome news.
Facebook acknowledged in December 2013 that it had tweaked its news-feed algorithms to surface more links to articles from media organizations, especially to users on mobile devices. That has helped yield a massive spike in referral traffic to publishers like Buzzfeed [...]. (Ad Age, March 2014)
“Brand as publishers” will be more and more the name of the game – and with higher stakes in play, we will likely see a new and better model emerging with more companies taking cues from Red Bull, Coke and Dove and producing content with the potential to go viral, and committing the financial and creative resources to make it happen.
The latest short movie from Dove, “Beauty Patch”, was launched simultaneously in 65 countries with a considerable paid media effort to kickstart its viral potential.
What do you think about the death of Facebook reach? Let me know in the comments
P.S. when I was halfway through editing this post today, Ogilvy’s James Whateley (AKA Whatleydude) wrote for The Drum on the same subject. We seem to agree on a few points about the drop in Facebook reach and its impact for brands, and I take it as a confirmation that I am not the only one to welcome this change. You can read James’ insghtful piece here.