Creating journalism to engage as well as to inform

The media world is in full freak-out mode about the changes at Facebook, both the changes in the news feed but now its decision to let the Facebook “community” decide which publications are credible. For the record, I find the latter move much more problematic, but I want to focus on the shift to reward engagement. Like a lot of people, I see the shift as an opportunity for news organisations rather than a threat.

The change in the news feed is only a bad thing for news organisations addicted to passively playing the algorithm for cheap clicks. Even if it juices the pageviews for a while, the end of 2017 showed that simply chasing scale without a method to convert those users into loyal, returning users will not deliver a sustainable business model.

Meanwhile, a model built on winning loyalty was winning. As The Economist pointed out last autumn, many successful news groups are succeeding by working hard to convert the casual users, often from social media, into loyal users, loyal enough that they become subscribers. Those groups have married an engagement strategy with data science. Moreover, as Digiday pointed out with Aftenposten, your content strategy is very different if you focus on keeping paying subscribers happy rather than chasing traffic.

The challenge for many groups will be that as they have with many digital innovations, they treated Facebook as just another channel to passively share their content. They didn’t make an effort to engage with their audience, but rather, they prayed to the gods of virality that their posts would be shared widely. Virality would lead inexorably to clicks, and advertising would lead to revenue. As I said, the end of 2017 put paid to that strategy. It doesn’t work.

What to do?

Martin Giesler highlighted the conundrum for news publishers in a very good post on the feed changes. Jump to his immediate, medium and long-term steps to take to respond to the changes. He said:

As there’s no point in betting on traffic, many publishers will now focus on engagement. The problem here is that journalism is not primarily intended to generate interactions. Rather, it is primarily a matter of informing. In a journalistic sense, passivity is not a bad thing – quite the opposite of Facebook logic.

Exactly. Years ago when I was the blogs editor at The Guardian, the New York Times’ Sewell Chan met with me as he was launching the paper’s city-focused blog. I put the shift in publication to conversation this way.

A piece of journalism takes reporting and ties together as many threads as possible as quickly and efficiently as possible. A blog post teases out those same threads as the basis of a debate, discussion or conversation.

Slapping a comment box on the bottom of an article or column opened up a return channel, but especially on news articles, there are no calls to action. The intention of the content was to inform. What response did we expect from people?

Now, we need to think about content formats designed to engage.

  • We need a range of products and features that engage people whether they want to lightly engage or more heavily engage. Think of the range of engagement on Facebook itself. For example, news site Rappler in the Philippines has mood reactions on its content, giving people a lightweight way to engage.
  • Think of social media as the top of your engagement funnel and develop strategies that convert people into more durable, direct relationships with you and your journalism.
  • Work to convert users to products like an app, newsletter, podcasts, and events.
  • Develop novel ways to monetise that attention across the range of engagement products.

Successful media organisations have been doing this for years so should take Facebook’s changes in stride. You could never entirely base your business on the someone else’s business, especially one that introduces opaque changes so frequently as Facebook. Facebook is just pushing you to make necessary changes to end your dependence. Embrace it!

Are Facebook ads good value for money?

I’ve never used Facebook to advertise anything to do with Ada Lovelace Day, but I thought I’d give it a go with a post about Ada Lovelace Day Live, just to see what happened. I assumed that FB would be quite effective at delivering my post to a large, relevant audience, but that’s not what happened.

When I set up the ad, FB said I’d reach 2,700 – 7,200 people, but in fact it only reached 1,588. The idea that FB somehow can’t find 2,700 people in the UK, over 7 days, who match my audience profile (ie, graduate or higher, in all the STEM-related fields they have) is absurd. Indeed, FB itself says that the potential size of my audience is 28 million, but it couldn’t find more than 1,588 people. Sure. Right. I totally believe that. *cough*

Of those 1,588 people reached, 25 “reacted” to it (ie used the like button), two commented (one of those comments is a guy being an asshole), five people shared it, and six people clicked the link.

These are not particularly impressive figures to me.

Now, I know that I only spent £10, but I run ALD on a shoestring, and that £10 was a test to see if it would be worth spending more. Frankly, I can’t say that I’m confident that it was even £10 well spent.

I had assumed that FB would be a cost-effective way to reach lots of people, but at £1.67 per click, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Frankly, it feels more like a rate-limited con than a useful service.

Kevin is more sanguine than I — he thinks 1,588 is good for a low-follower page (we have 124 likes on our page), and he has more experience than I do with the way that FB works. However, the point is that the whole reason for paying for an ad is because our page has few followers, and because FB has destroyed organic reach in order to force us to pay to reach more of the people we previously would have reached anyway.

But they’ve done a shit job of up-selling, because I would have invested £100 in ads, and would have expanded my ad horizons to include merchandise and similar if FB had delivered on this test. They didn’t deliver, so they’ve lost a potential advertiser and, sadly, I’ll have to just battle on and try to grow my organic reach.

This is a huge shame. The promise of social networks was that it would level the playing field, and that the smallest organisation or the least famous person still had the opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. There is, of course, now a huge issue with noise which didn’t exist at the dawning of the social media age, but that’s not the problem with Facebook.

The problem is that they have deliberately locked small folks out of building reach organically in order to drive ad revenue, but are not providing good value for money when people with limited resources pay a small amount for ads. Had they delivered even the lower end of their estimated reach range, I might have considered investing more. Had they delivered 7,200 people, then I certainly would have, even though I still think that’s an artificially low number given that they said my audience is 28 million.

What rankles most is that not only is there no good reason for limiting ad reach this severely, but also that it hurts the very people that social media was suppose to help: those of us stuck in the long tail without the resources to spend loads on advertising.