Publishers Adapt To The New Realities Of The Facebook News Feed

Publishers are rethinking their Facebook strategies in the wake of LittleThings’ sudden shutdown on Tuesday.

While LittleThings is the first pub to fall victim to Facebook's news feed algorithm change, it is likely not the last.

Many pubs play Whac-A-Mole with the news feed, optimizing article and video content to fit the whims of a fickle Facebook algorithm.

But while pubs might be able to A/B test their way to success within the Facebook environment, those who’ve relied heavily on referral traffic from the social media giant could have a tough time weaning themselves completely.

After all, Facebook’s audience of 2.2 billion is substantive, and publishers rely on it as a major driver of distributed reach.

Upworthy, a viral publisher that preceded LittleThings, is no stranger to algorithmic uncertainties – it took a huge hit in referral traffic when Facebook altered its algo in 2013.

But this time around, Eli Pariser, Upworthy’s co-founder and co-CEO, seems unfazed so far by Facebook’s latest algorithm change.

“We haven’t been too concerned so far since our business model isn’t focused around arbitrage or programmatic content,” he said, though Pariser noted it could take "weeks" to determine the full impact.

Although LittleThings, too, ramped up original video content like Upworthy, it was a heavily programmatic shop that had more recently moved into direct sales.

Since Upworthy merged with Good Worldwide, it has doubled down on its branded content and made a concerted effort to move away from viral tactics, instead going back to basics to tell stories that earn “trust and attention.”

“Our videos are well-suited to Facebook’s new reality,” Pariser claimed. “At its core, Facebook is a social engagement platform. They want people to interact with each other, and by creating content, even branded content, that speaks to the values we all have in common, you’re able to future-proof yourself from algorithm changes over the course of time.”

Facebook has lured publishers with new products like the video portal Watch – pubs ranging from Refinery29 to BuzzFeed all develop original content for it – but it’s still a part of the same ecosystem that both giveth and taketh away.

And sometimes, the best way to navigate Facebook’s algorithmic headwinds is to find other revenue streams to supplement it with.

Food52 maintains a Facebook presence, but it’s not the be-all, end-all for the boutique food publisher.

While it’s aiming to increase visibility on users' friends and family feeds with engaging content and even reducing links back to its own site in some cases, it has always maintained a multichannel mix.

Organic search and direct traffic compose more than 60% of Food52’s total traffic, while social – like Facebook and Twitter – is responsible for less than 15%-20% of traffic, according to Sam Stahl, chief revenue officer for Food52.

“Because Food52 has developed multiple revenue streams over the past nine years with both our Shop [commerce] and our content business, we have never had to depend on just one third-party source for our audience,” Stahl said.

Food52 also uses channels like email, where it has more than 1 million opt-in subscribers, to drive commerce revenue, as well as additional engagement with its content.

BuzzFeed is also seeking to diversify its channel mix.

“We saw referral traffic [on Facebook] begin to decline in mid-2017 and took steps to grow referrals from other sources,” said Michelle Kempner, VP of operations for BuzzFeed Entertainment. “Having a diversified strategy to bring audiences to our owned-and-operated properties is important as it helps us weather an ecosystem where platforms are always changing.”

Despite the shifts in the news feed, BuzzFeed continues to invest in longform, episodic video content, partnering with Facebook to create video series like "Relationshipped" while distributing 60-second versions of the program to Instagram.

Refinery29 also began diversifying its referral traffic two years ago to put stronger emphasis on search, newsletters and other platforms like YouTube, said Amy Emmerich, Refinery29’s chief content officer.

That strategy appears to be paying off, with search traffic now up almost 50%, indicating Refinery’s audience is willing to engage with its content away from Facebook.

Even so, the platform is still very valuable for driving video engagement, Emmerich said, so as long as pubs create relevant content users want to share with friends and family.

Despite Facebook’s algorithm changes, publishers aren’t completely declaring their independence.

Instead, the pendulum may end up swinging from one duopoly to the other: Google.

Google is driving more traffic for publishers through formats such as fast-loading Accelerated Mobile Pages.

And, Google is working to push subscribers to pubs by powering digital payments similar to the way it surfaces news content in search results.

If successful, Google could assert partial ownership over an audience that publishers once held sacrosanct.

Facebook did not immediately respond to request for comment.


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