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Interview with Shaul Olmert

Guest Post: Facebook’s Relationship Status with Publishers

Playbuzz CEO Shaul Olmert describes how consumers’ desire for engaging content will continue to define the relationship between publishers and Facebook.

Since November 2014, Playbuzz has garnered more Facebook shares each month than any other publisher tracked by NewsWhip. But even the Playbuzz team does not claim to have cracked the viral algorithm – getting user engagement will always depend on producing engaging content, which can come in many shapes and forms.

In this guest post, Playbuzz CEO Shaul Olmert describes how consumers’ desire for engaging content will continue to define the relationship between publishers and Facebook.

 

Facebook’s Relationship Status with Publishers? It’s complicated.

Those of us who spend our time pondering the state of the digital publishing industry know all too well that Facebook currently reigns supreme among audience acquisition channels. Many large publishers report that up to 60% of their traffic comes from Facebook. That means that our businesses are all heavily dependent on the leading social network. Twitter’s strength may be in real-time news monitoring, but this represents a tiny portion of publishers’ referred traffic, because users tend to read the headlines on Twitter but not necessarily click through to the stories themselves. Other social networks? Not even close.

As a result of this dependency, publishers know to prominently position Facebook’s “Share,” “Comment” and “Like” buttons on their pages, encouraging as many users as possible to spread their content on Facebook and maximize social reach. The ubiquity of these buttons has surely helped to establish Facebook’s position as the place for audiences to discover great content. Most of us rarely type in websites’ URLs manually nowadays – we trust that that the coolest and most trending content will be shared by our peers and will therefore find its way to us in our Facebook newsfeeds.

These dynamics ultimately put content publishers in a vulnerable position. Every change that Facebook makes to its newsfeed algorithms – determining which posts from friends, page owners and advertisers will be make it through to whose newsfeeds – rattles publishers’ traffic metrics like a roller-coaster.

 

Sorry – No Secret Sauce

 

Publishers may try to reverse-engineer these algorithms in order to optimize the exposure of their posts, but the truth is that no one – not even Facebook – can figure out once and for all what makes a post worthy of appearing in your feed. The media describes Facebook’s ongoing process of perfecting the newsfeed algorithms in almost Wizard of Oz-like terms, whereby a mysterious engineer stands behind a curtain, pulling levers that grant more exposure to certain types of content.

In reality, Facebook is constantly trying to optimize its algorithms in order to optimize the user experience (and, of course, the monetization) of the feed, but results are unpredictable, often surprising the Facebook team as well.

With so many publishers trying to trick the newsfeed’s gatekeeping algorithms using clickbait headlines and misleading images, Facebook and the publishers that seek exposure on Facebook are playing a cat-and-mouse game to protect end users from low-quality or irrelevant content.

According to NewsWhip, Playbuzz.com is the most shared site on Facebook since November 2014. We often get asked about our “secret sauce,” and we were even approached by a potential buyer who thought about acquiring us with a fat check, just so he could own the recipe for hacking Facebook’s algorithms. The truth, however, is that it’s counterproductive to even try and crack these ever-evolving algorithms. The secret lies in genuine user engagement. Facebook’s goal with all algorithm adjustments is to ensure that the content that will generate the most user engagement will rise to the top.

Publishers that try to fortify their product with viral hooks and artificial supplements in order to increase virality may gain some short-term exposure, but soon thereafter, they’ll disappear. Publishers that create content that truly resonates with end users, will continue to see traction.

 

In-Feed Volatility

 

Today, rumors suggest Facebook will soon start featuring publishers’ content inside its newsfeed, which will displace at least some outbound linking to publishers’ sites. The publishing industry is understandably worried. Publishers envision the steep traffic decline to their own sites and speak of the initiative as being a doomsday scenario, a “Faceboocapalypse.”

Since no formal announcement has been made, there is room for speculation and anxiety. However, assuming the rumors are correct and Facebook will indeed start featuring more content inside the newsfeed, the kneejerk panic is premature.

Over its 11 years of existence, Facebook has tried out many new features, each triggering a similar wave of anxiety. “Facebook Credits” for instance, the social network’s own currency for in-app purchases, was hailed as the end of credit cards payments. In practice, this initiative failed to deliver value to users, app publishers and other components in the Facebook ecosystem, and it was therefore shut down.

Remember “Social Reader“, which saw publishers creating newsstand-like interfaces within Facebook apps? Or “Facebook Deals“, its coupon engine? When experiments don’t work out for users, Facebook will end them. This is, after all, the company that likes to “move fast and break things.” Meanwhile, there have also been plenty of other Facebook experiments that were successful and therefore continue to thrive.

Many questions are yet unanswered about the in-feed content hosting experiment – questions about publishers’ opportunities for monetization, control over the user experience, the ability to promote product features and build brand equity.

The details of Facebook’s hosted content program will need to provide adequate solutions to these concerns. If the solutions are there, then in-feed content will likely be embraced by publishers and become a new standard for content discovery and consumption on Facebook. If the experiment falls flat, it will be quickly buried.

 

Not an Island

 

No one company, even as strong as Facebook, can force its model upon the entire industry. America Online had a similar approach to content ownership two decades ago, and this de facto monopoly ended pretty quickly, as it served nobody but AOL. While Facebook’s experiments may cause significant short-term instability for the inbound traffic and business growth of publishers, in the long run I believe it will continue to exist only if it serves publishers’ needs as well.

As much as publishers depend on Facebook and will therefore adjust to Facebook’s new models of content promotion, Facebook can’t afford to risk losing its position as the leading content discovery platform for end users. The Facebook management team will make sure that their models are aligned with publishers’ needs, so that publishers will continue to encourage our audiences to share our content on Facebook.

It’s fair to assume that Facebook’s leadership remembers previous giants that lost their reign when trying to monopolize the industry. Therefore, they will likely experiment with tact and great care, to avoid falling into the same pitfall.

On the publishers’ side of the equation, making sure that the content we publish provides a genuinely engaging and therefore share-worthy experience will ensure we continue to thrive no matter how social media evolves.

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