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The Limitations of Organic Social Media Organic social media has an important role. But it has so many pitfalls that it can't be relied on to drive business goals.

 
 

Summary

Don’t expect organic social content to drive your business results. It still has some value, but should be used in conjunction with paid advertising and other marketing efforts. Part of this article lists the many pitfalls of organic content.

Overview

On January 11, 2018, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would change its algorithm to make users' news feeds more focused on friends and family, rather than posts from businesses and media companies. This was largely described as a push to make the Facebook experience more like it was when the site began – and brands were not yet a part.

The announcement specified that users could expect to see more content from their friends, family and groups. They would see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media.

What many brands did not recognize then - and still don’t recognize - is that this update is not a significant change from what brands observed in 2017. In fact, it isn’t a significant change from the state of organic content in 2012. 7 years ago. That is when brands acknowledged organic reach had hit rock bottom. That remains true in 2019.

The reality is that brands must leverage paid social media to guarantee new audiences are reached. They must also continue to be thoughtful in creating a compelling brand experience and value - not just content or ads.

This is the case across social platforms, as the popular platforms like Instagram and Twitter use an algorithm similar to that of Facebook - but fewer factors are crunched.

Organic content still has some value, but should be critically considered:

  • Organic content can be part of a greater whole, particularly for startup brands.
  • Organic content sees greater reach through specific placements and emerging channels. For example, video content, Instagram Stories, Facebook Groups, and sites/forums where there is real conversation.
  • Organic content can form a “halo.” That is, the pinned posts and most recent posts that users see on a brand’s profile, after first being exposed to social media ads.
  • Organic content published monthly helps indicate a brand is still active on the channel

Timeline of Feed Updates

The organic reach of content published by brands on Facebook might someday hit zero. This has been the trend since at least 2011, when brands began to observe a steady decline in their metrics.

In 2012, Facebook restricted organic reach to about 16%. In December 2013, this was reduced even more by another round of changes.

In 2014, the news feed was updated to show fewer text updates from pages.

By February 2014, according to a Social@Ogilvy analysis of more than 100 brand pages, organic reach hovered at 6 percent. For large pages with more than 500,000 Likes, organic reach hit 2 percent. Other agencies and brands saw a similar change.

Facebook’s official statements were veiled and carefully worded, but its sales reps and brand partners were already unofficially advising brands that organic reach would continue to decline.

Later that year, overly promotional posts from pages were punished.

In 2016, Facebook made a news feed update to news feed that sounded very similar to the 2018 announcement:

“Our top priority is keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to — starting with the people you are friends with on Facebook. That’s why today, we’re announcing an upcoming change to News Feed ranking to help make sure you don’t miss stories from your friends.”

With each passing year, and even now in 2019, Facebook continued to make changes that improved its user experience. Brands and ads that used click-bait or engagement-bait were penalized. Controls were tightened in response to political meddling by third-parties and fake news. And so on.

The Pitfalls of Organic Content

  • Organic content sees extremely low reach, and that is almost entirely to existing followers.
  • Brands cannot control which users see their organic content, nor how many. As they cannot control the environment of content delivery, brands cannot test what content “works” or “performs better.”
  • Following a page is not a strong enough indicator that someone is truly interested in the brand, has a sustained intend to purchase (or other action), or is likely to move closer to an action
  • Many different people follow a page over time. Even if they fall within the target audience at the time of following, their interests may change. People unfollow pages as well, so the overall audience segmentation changes over time.
  • Many different types of people follow a page over time. Even if they fall within the target audience at the time of following, their interests may change over time.
  • Even if a page has a billion followers, it doesn’t mean the page will reach more users than a page with 10,000 followers. It doesn’t work to publish more content, to seek a best date/time to post. Each new post is treated the same way: the social algorithm crunches thousands of factors (and those factors differ per each social user), before delivering content to feeds. There is no way to “game” or “hack” it.
  • Users rarely think to visit a brand’s social profile, until they see compelling content / word of mouth. They are unlikely to just stumble upon a brand’s social content, nor browse through much of its most recent content.
  • As brands publish new content on a social profile, the old content gets buried.

Recommendations

Facebook’s offering for marketers has changed over time, but this primarily delivered added value to users. While organic reach has gone down, it was never a guaranteed method of reaching all a brand’s followers – much less a relevant audience. Facebook has introduced new ad formats, placements, and opportunities for optimization.

Other social channels followed suit, but in 2019, Facebook’s platforms remain the most robust vehicle for reaching a relevant audience with compelling content.

The 2018 Facebook announcement adds little to what has been known for years, and what brands should understand today. Paid support is crucial on Facebook (and other platforms), in order to:

  • Reach new, large, targeted audiences
  • Create a framework for testing and learning

The Potential Future

In October 2017, it was revealed Facebook was testing an interface separating Page-generated posts from ads and posts from friends. The trial was underway in six countries - Bolivia, Guatemala, Cambodia, Slovakia, Serbia and Sri Lanka. Local Pages – particularly news publications, saw dramatic drops in organic reach.

While the coverage has long passed, it is possible Facebook could perform similar tests in the future - or has already. This is how other changes eventually became permanent.

Advertising is still one of Facebook’s primary revenue drivers, so the company cannot alienate marketers. I expect that Facebook will allocate advertising space to different sections of its platforms for a long time to come.

Additional Reading

Facebook Zero: Considering Life After the Demise of Organic Reach

Facebook overhauls Pages to remove ‘Likes’ and streamline user interface

Chris Walker on Organic vs. Paid

Social-Media Algorithms Rule How We See the World. Good Luck Trying to Stop Them.

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