Time to Declare Independence From Social Media?

The reason that Facebook has become such a powerful and important social media outlet is its wide reach and ability to drive lots of traffic and conversation. But as Facebook changes its strategy once again, here's a question worth asking: What would your marketing look like if you deemphasized Facebook in a big way?

I use my Facebook feed to read news—with sites like Gawker, Vox, and Mental Floss near the top of the list.

And that meant that the company’s most recent algorithm change—which inexplicably decided to play up friends’ social shares over what I was actually reading—really made my feed take a deep, immediate drop in quality. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who felt that way.

Facebook at least was forthright when it admitted its action: Having been burned by its efforts to curate news for its users, it doubled down on the idea that you should primarily be focused on your friends and family when using the feed, and that was its guiding philosophy. Anything else is of temporary interest to the company.

“Facebook was built on the idea of connecting people with their friends and family. That is still the driving principle of News Feed today,” the company wrote in a document titled News Feed Values. “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 if it’s from your friends, it’s in your feed, period—you just have to scroll down.”

While Facebook still aims to inform and entertain, the company emphasizes that it is in the business of keeping you connected to your friends. That’s great and all, but the decision to reverse course like this? Well, it feels arbitrary and ill-timed, coming months after an exploding watermelon incident seemed to suggest that brands would have to focus on video over any other kind of content. It also comes just a few weeks after a Facebook executive implied that the company expected this magical feed would be all video within a few years.

ROI? Only if You Pay to Play

Perhaps that’s still the case, but to me, it doesn’t scream “all video.” Instead, it suggests that Facebook no longer cares about a return on investment for companies that use its platform—unless they’re willing to cut a check and pay for the right to be on your feed.

Facebook should be seen in a similar light as a major-network TV show, with different seasons, constantly changing story arcs, stunt casting, and an intense focus on ratings.

(It also implies that Facebook should be seen in a similar light as a major-network TV show, with different seasons, constantly changing story arcs, stunt casting, and an intense focus on ratings. They will never stop changing in the quest for maximum eyeballs.)

Ad agencies see that shift as a good thing, apparently. The marketing site CampaignUS asked a number of marketing execs their opinion on the algorithm—and most responded that it was a positive change, because it encourages more paid marketing.

One comment in particular stood out to me: Julian Cole, head of communications planning at BBDO New York, said this would spell the end of “organic reach” (the total number of unique people who were shown your post through unpaid distribution), which he says will improve the quality of content being produced.

“The vast majority of brands are still holding on to an old view of how social works, which assumes organic reach is a valuable channel,” he argued. “This will hopefully help put another nail in the coffin of this outdated view.”

As a user, I find Cole’s statement bothersome. And as someone who wears his journalist card close to his chest, I find it troublesome from a free-speech perspective. The idea that the most popular distribution mechanism would simply turn on the news industry one day didn’t happen during the print era.

All this has me wondering whether media outlets and other content-producing organizations—especially smaller ones—should give Facebook what it apparently wants. That is, I’m wondering if Facebook should take a backseat as an online marketing outlet of choice.

Time for a New Direction?

Now feels like a pretty good time to consider stretching out strategically from centralized social media outlets—not getting rid of them entirely, but putting in the time to actually own your audience. Most likely, that means a shift in your content strategy.

It might be worth experimenting more with acquisition through email, doubling down on your private network offerings, beefing up your search engine prowess, or emphasizing other social networks that you might have previously ignored. If you do choose to keep Facebook near the top of your list, you may want to recommend to your users that they follow the steps highlighted in this Next Web article, so that they see your latest content near the top. (Either that, or you may want to seriously discuss a budget for promoting content through the platform, if you haven’t already.)

Ultimately, centralized content distribution, as highlighted by Facebook, is a trend of the current era of the internet—one that Medium and Twitter founder Ev Williams recently compared to the monopolization of the railroad system. It’s seen as such a big problem in some circles that the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has been working with a number of digital activists to figure out a model that better distributes the internet’s power.

“The web is already decentralized,” Berners-Lee told The New York Times last month. “The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging. We don’t have a technology problem, we have a social problem.”

So where does this deeper intellectual conversation put association marketing and communications professionals charged with spreading an association’s message? To me, the solution is clear: Lean too hard on one social network or digital platform and you’re bound to get burned. Instead, try a host of options and vary your tactics.

In an era of increasing media centralization, you can’t rely on just one road, or even two. Instead, your delivery trucks need a presence on as many of the big paths as you can afford. That’s doubly true if you choose to avoid toll roads altogether.

And in case you hadn’t noticed, Facebook has become a toll road.

Facebook made a lot of brands unhappy last week. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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