Facebook throws the curveball media should have seen coming

When it comes to Facebook I’ve always felt like a bit of a social media pariah in the media industry. I see the value the platform offers for publishers, but have preached that they should be cautious. This is particularly true for local publishers.

I’ve argued passionately against using newer services like Live, Watch, Marketplace and Instant Articles. Facebook has always wanted a stronger foothold in local revenue streams and each of these is a way of making local media more dependent on an ecosystem they have zero control over.

I’ve argued that media organizations who depend on Facebook for traffic are foolishly putting their own business model at risk. And given Facebook’s culture statement as a “hacker culture – an environment that rewards creative problem solving and rapid decision making,” I think I have a right to be skeptical.

So when Facebook announced this week they would start to emphasize friends and not news in its News Feeds, I wasn’t surprised. Also, they have been telegraphing this for years and began testing this past October.

To be clear though, I don’t think Facebook did this to screw media organizations, that’s too shortsighted for any organization, let alone one this size. They did it because their analytics are telling them it’s what’s best for users.

With that said, it’s hard for local media organizations not to buy what Facebook has been selling. Just look at some of these numbers from this post on Zephoria from December 2017:

  • 1.37 billion active users per day
  • 1.15 billion mobile active daily users
  • 25 -34 is the most common age range – a highly coveted age segment for marketers, advertisers and media alike.
  • 20 minutes is the average length per visit
  • 20% of page views in the United States occurs on Facebook

These numbers are staggering to the biggest media organizations, let alone one in a small community struggling to get a few thousand users per month, who likely spend on average less than two or three minutes per visit.

To their credit, publishers have taken advantage of Facebook’s preferential treatment to publishers for years.  The downside has been that the bulk of these users are passerby users – on average contributing fewer page views and lower time on site per visit that a website’s average visitor.

Most publishers even recognize that Facebook traffic is mostly garbage, contributing pennies on the digital dollar. However, publishers have insisted that their marketing acumen will carry the day and they’ll eventually convert those users into core users and brand loyalists.

There have always been a few problems with this plan though. First, most publishers drastically overvalue their own marketing acumen.

Second, publishers overvalue their brand in the digital ecosystem. This is not to say these brands don’t have value, they do. Publishers just need to understand how far the stock has fallen, and that the market has completely changed.

Third, most don’t fully grasp the complexities involved in walking a user through the funnel of passerby reader to brand loyalist- let alone getting a paid conversion. Simply put, getting a user to your site is not enough.

Finally, publishers do not want to spend the required marketing dollars that it will take to fix any of these shortcomings.

Publishers have many challenges ahead of them, and many will see this as one more nail in the coffin. However, I’ll fade the public on this one.

I think this could provide a new sense of urgency for publishers. No longer can they use a post-and-wait strategy.

The worst among us will throw their hands up and cry woe is me! It’s what they’ve done for over two decades now.

However, the best among us will understand that we’ll need to become the top-tier marketers we believe we are. They will take the necessary steps to grasp the complexities, build a long-term strategy and execute the tactics to build a modern business model.

At least I hope they will …

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