Facebook algorithm changes again to ensure brands pay

If you thought Facebook was pay-to-play before, it's even more so now.

Facebook just can't make up its mind.

Much to the chagrin of brands and to the benefit of the social platform's bottom line, Facebook again made a major tweak to its News Feed algorithm today that will limit brands' ability to reach their fans without a deft paid strategy. Since Facebook's inception, brands have simply wanted to join the party, but Facebook's feed changes make for a resoundingly loud reply: You've got to pay for that. In every instance.

A brief history of the algorithm changes:

December 2013: Facebook begins cutting reach for brands, urges them to buy ads 

March 2014: Facebook slashes organic reach, emphasizing engagement (likes, comments, shares)

June 2014: Facebook prioritizes video

April 2015: Facebook emphasizes friends over brands

April 2016: Facebook prioritizes publishers, wants to see more editorial content

May 2016: Facebook makes distinctions about what it considers "branded content"

June 2016: Facebook removes the slant toward publishers, wants to see more content from people, and will emphasize engaging content from family and friends first 

Whenever Facebook has news about their dreaded algorithm changes, it is posted conspicuously on their Newsroom blog, with added language about "doing this for the users." In today's update, "Building a better News Feed for you":

"Our aim is to deliver the types of stories we’ve gotten feedback that an individual person most wants to see. We do this not only because we believe it’s the right thing but also because it’s good for our business."

After these Newsroom posts come the "real talk" summaries from sites like Mashable, with headlines like "Facebook is changing the News Feed again, and publishers should be worried":

"[They don't] say whether publisher posts will be demoted because of the change, but the "friends and family come first" approach has clear implications: Since publishers (including Mashable) depend on Facebook for a significant portion of their audience, the change will affect media brands' ability to reach that audience."

These are frankly two different stories; a White House press release vs. a New York Times exposé. Facebook has softly admitted these changes mean more money for their business, and they do it under the guise of pleasing their users (many users have lately called for a chronological feed, throwing back to the platform's infant years). The way it works now, a user will see a post from yesterday next to a post from 5 minutes ago, because that's what happens when the priority is on engagement. Facebook works on a relevancy ranking system for both brands and people, which takes into consideration sentiment, content type, engagement and other factors.

In its post today, Facebook says "Your feed should inform. Your feed should entertain." This is something we've been teaching our brands at Olson for years, but it's interesting to see it come down like a demand. The bottom line: Facebook gets more popular and more money when it makes brands pay and ensures that people are being entertaining as well. Shares have always been a dominant marker of success for the platform, and they're sticking with it: The more a post gets shared, the more FB will serve it up to people. From their own mouths:

"The feedback we’ve gotten tells us that authentic stories are the ones that resonate most.That’s why we work hard to understand what type of stories and posts people consider genuine — so we can show more of them in News Feed. And we work to understand what kinds of stories people find misleading, sensational and spammy, to make sure people see those less."

This means what it's always meant, it's just been varying degrees of serious. What's clear now is that Facebook means business, quite literally.  

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. In all cases, content from a user's friends and family will come before content from brands and publishers. (Interesting considering a mass exodus by high-school aged kids who don't want to engage with family on social).

2. Brands and publishers won't necessarily be de-prioritized beyond being behind actual people in ranking, but they won't be prioritized, either.

3. Content will have to be, above all, shareworthy.

4. Content type matters. Right now, video is the most prioritized type.

5. As a rule of thumb, the more effort it took to create the content, the more dollars should be put behind promoting it.

6. Unless you post without any expectations, all posts should have paid dollars behind them.  

7. If more brands begin to pay for Facebook inventory, it will cause costs to rise (there are only so many eyeballs), so be prepared to address that in your budgets.

8. Post less often and with more creative effort to avoid over investment. For many of our brands, we recommend just 1-2 posts per week.

Olson's ethos, Think Like People™ holds true here in spades. Post content you think people will want to engage with, and if you're a brand, put paid behind it, too. Brands not willing to do this will need to reconsider their strategies on the platform. Brands that do will have the best chance of meaningful maintenance and potential growth, aided by a nimble and creative content approach.

Content Strategist Sam Campbell and Connections Strategist Jaxon Trow also contributed to this article.