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For Brands, Facebook Is Now a Content Publisher — Not a Community

facebook-content-publisher-nt-communityIt’s time for marketers to treat Facebook as the publisher it has become.”

Earlier this month, at Content Marketing World Sydney, I made this exact statement in response to a question I received — and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Much has been made of the decline in organic reach for Facebook brand pages. Most recently, EdgeRank Checker published research on April 1 (and it was no joke). Organic reach for most Facebook pages currently hovers around 6.5 percent — down from 17 percent a mere 24 months ago. Some have theorized that this is simply the middle of a longer process — where organic reach will ultimately decline to right around 1 percent. And some (namely Veritasium — a science education media organization) have even suggested that it’s a shell game, where Facebook is double dipping — getting brands to pay for “likes,” and then pay again to reach those fans.

Personally, I see no indication that Facebook’s organic reach decline will stop at 6 percent. And once it’s at (or near) 1 percent, it may as well be 0 percent — the point at which brands must pay for each and every view they get from the “community” they have built. The transformation will then be complete: Facebook will be a fully developed, ad-driven content publisher, with customers who have sunk so much money into building their leased platform that they have no choice but to pay the landlord.

How would this impact content marketing?

I wanted to share more than just my own perspective on the issue, so I reached out to a few experts — including someone who I think is truly at the top of his game when it comes to social and content marketing strategy for enterprises: Jay Baer.

I asked Jay to share what he’s advising his clients to do when it comes to Facebook, and we wound up having a fun and robust email exchange on this topic. Incidentally, Jay is simultaneously publishing our conversation on the Convince&Convert blog — with his own perspective and commentary. So, if you want another angle on this, you should check that out as well.

Our discussion

Our conversation started when I emailed Jay to ask how he was advising clients on the decline of organic reach on Facebook. I (admittedly) totally “led the witness” by coloring the conversation with much of what you read above. The following are highlights from our chat:

Jay Baer: So, the Reachpocalypse post I wrote represents most of my current thinking. But, essentially, yeah we’re getting screwed by Facebook. But, they have a right to screw us, and marketers should have seen it coming.

The way we talk about it with clients is similar to how I talked about it in my post — there are four options to address declining reach on Facebook:

  1. Get better at Facebook by publishing things that are more worthy of attention.
  2. Pay to play.
  3. Get customers and/or employees to carry more of your messaging burden on Facebook.
  4. Start building community elsewhere.

These are the things we are telling clients. Those that have existing, thriving Facebook communities don’t want to give them up and are paying (at least some of the time) for organic reach. Those that were never completely committed to Facebook, or those that are just starting (very often B2B organizations) are very much in the “bring on Google+” camp.

Robert Rose: Agreed, and we’re saying similar things to our CMI clients — perhaps with a bit more emphasis on your fourth strategy. But I’m actually not convinced that Facebook hasn’t backed itself into a corner here. Many of my Wall Street friends and clients really doubt future growth without acquisition. That feeds right into a quote from your excellent blog post where you say, “If you think they aren’t going to eventually pull the EXACT same move on Instagram you are naïve.”

Jay: Indeed, there is a difference between future growth and future usage. Future growth is going to be a problem, if for no other reason than Facebook is almost universally used now. Where does Facebook’s growth come from? Convincing Amish to give it a try? When you’re at 60 percent+ penetration and your average user logs on for 30 minutes a day, you don’t have a lot of room to grow organically, other than acquisition. So, what they have to do is better monetize their existing user base, and get financial growth (if not user base growth) from that. Thus, the Reachpocalypse. They are trying to dramatically boost revenue per active member, and so far it’s working. I’m not sure for how long it can last though.

Robert: Exactly right. The question is for how long? That really brings into play how much money we, as marketers, should chase down the Facebook rabbit hole.

Jay: It all depends on whether there is eventually a backlash against promoted posts/native advertising. The integration of advertising and content works for Google search because on Google search you are actively seeking information/resources so the ads are almost inherently useful. It’s a different psychology on Facebook. People aren’t using Facebook at all times to find products or services. Sometimes, sure; but not all the time. That’s why I think they are actually smart to make it harder to succeed with inferior content on their platform, with moves like increasing ad prices, the 20 percent text rule, and Reachpocalypse. These moves favor bigger/smarter companies that might more often actually create ads that people like/want to see.

It’s counter-intuitive, and perhaps not infinitely scalable, but it’s the online version of the cheesy infomercial vs. savvy product placement juxtaposition you see on cable TV. Hyundai inserts its brand into The Walking Dead and it’s smart and tolerated. ShamWow less so, and it’s relegated to the insomnia time block.

Robert: I think you’ve got the key there: It’s now an ad play, not a social play. [Facebook has] backed itself into the content publisher corner — where the idea is to get ads in front of eyeballs (native or otherwise). That puts it squarely in competition with other publishers doing the same — and with no better (in fact in some cases worse) qualitative reach. Ultimately, it’s a race to the bottom from a margin standpoint (not to mention a quality standpoint). And, meanwhile, it is disenfranchising the very smart brand content providers it is trying to leverage. So, Hyundai now moves money to The Walking Dead, and ShamWow then moves money (temporarily) to Facebook.

So, in the short term, Facebook is a great place for me to put ads to pull people back into my owned media properties (promoting content or otherwise). Over the long term, Facebook becomes like regional TV — where local car dealers fight it out with Devry Institute in covering hyper-local DMAs.

To me, the whole thing could have been avoided if Facebook had only made the “like” really worth something. You know, limited it in some way (e.g., gave a quota of “likes” for brand pages). By doing that, it could have made “likes” a currency — and sold that to brands. Instead, the only way for it to make money now is to extract higher revenue per-subscriber.

Jay: Yes, the Facebook-as-a-content-publisher concept is very interesting. It’s a known business model leap. Look at YouTube going hard into the original content game. Or Amazon, for that matter. However, I’m not sure Facebook sees its competition as other publishers, especially online. I think it sees its competition as broadcast and spot TV: Nothing but TV has Facebook’s reach. That’s why the video ads on Facebook will be so critical, and aren’t getting talked about enough.

A continuing saga

Ultimately, there are no doubts that Facebook wants to be the default of where users go online: Zuckerberg himself has said as much, asserting that he wants to create “a dial tone for the internet.” As Jay, himself, very appropriately pointed out on his blog, this is one of the drivers of the WhatsApp acquisition. Facebook, as he says, is really more like a telco provider than a social platform.

From my perspective, it may also very well be what Facebook has in mind for the Occulus VR acquisition. Basically the company wants any interface that connects people online to be behind a Facebook-branded door.

The immediate question for any brand starting a Facebook page is, “How will it help you build an audience you can reach?” I suspect the answer may now lie only in advertising.  And, for any brand that already has a Facebook page, I believe the question over the next year or two will be, “What’s the switching cost?” Yup, it’s getting more and more like a telephone company every day.


Cover image via Bigstock