The algorithm claimed a publisher.
We were saddened to hear about the closing of LittleThings this week. The “feel-good, happy news” publisher’s success story was one we watched closely, welcoming Editor-in-Chief Maia McCann to speak at our events and on the blog about how LittleThings was inspiring users through positive content.
At its height, the four-year-old publisher had 12 million followers on Facebook, and 275 million monthly video views. Facebook even cited LittleThings in its case studies.
So what happened? According to a memo from the company, Facebook’s “prioritisation of friends/family content over publishers was the last straw”. The publisher’s organic traffic was obliterated, something that is echoed in our own data analysis of social engagements:
“Our organic traffic (the highest margin business), and influencer traffic were cut by over 75 percent,” the memo reads, “No previous algorithm update ever came close to this level of decimation. The position it put us in was beyond dire.”
Digiday put it a bit more metaphorically, “LittleThings decided early on to ride a tiger, in its case Facebook, only to have the tiger turn around and eat it.”
Where can other publishers go from here?
Publishers like LittleThings were already at the whim of a single platform. According to Digiday, the LittleThings team had daily meetings on how to navigate the continuous tweaks to the Facebook algorithm.
We’ve seen this played out in varying ways before. Publishers like Upworthy were forced to reorient back in 2013, and LittleThings lost more than 40 percent of its monthly active users following an algorithm change last August.
Relying on one source as your be-all, end-all, is no longer sustainable.
Publishers are diversifying. LinkedIn has grown tremendously as a content distribution platform. Twitter videos from publishers are seeing record views. Publishers are on Reddit, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Instagram, and beyond.
In our 2018 predictions report, which came out ahead of the Facebook algorithm shift, publishers were already cautious.
“Publishers that are overly reliant on Facebook may be in for challenges in 2018,” said Sarah Marshall, Head of Audience Growth at Vogue International, and many others echoed her, including Renan Borelli, senior editor of digital storytelling at the New York Times.
“In 2018, Facebook will make key shifts and decisions that will impact everyone that creates or publishes content for these platforms,” said Borelli.
While Facebook still drives the lion’s share of engagements, publishers need to find how these platforms can supplement their offerings, rather than be their entire business.
For LittleThings, the changes may have come too fast, too soon. As we said last week, communities can still be cultivated platform to platform, and debate can be encouraged on Facebook posts, but there’s a need for a holistic approach now.
Prioritize your owned space
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Despite the algorithm shift, social sharing is still enormous on a peer-to-peer level.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than 67 percent of Americans now get some news from social media. So more than the direct sharing of content from a publisher’s Facebook Page, there is plenty of sharing of news.
As we noted in our rankings for January, average engagement rates for English-language content as a whole has declined slightly on Facebook in the last few months. Despite this, the top two publishers, Fox News and NBC, actually saw their engagements grow in January.
More and more publishers are revitalizing their owned channels.
We see this with NowThis reviving its homepage, platforms building out owned content that in a more social-friendly format, and pursuing new revenue streams.
Most publishers only see about 50 percent of the engagement of their site content through their Page engagement, while the rest comes from “personal sharing”, the stories you or a friend found on the web and shared yourselves.
Publishers are looking for real monetization. The promise of Instant Articles and monetization hasn’t been fully worked out, and now with less to gain from the news feed, publishers are taking matters into their own hands.
As data becomes more advanced, we’re seeing publishers like the Wall Street Journal personalize its paywall based on how likely each individual visitor is to subscribe.
Of course, the bigger players have an advantage in asking for money. LittleThings was self-funded, while other ventures, like the similar feel-good publisher Humankind, is backed by Gannett’s extensive network of reporters and funding.
More publishers are attempting to offer more to subscribers, including going offline. We spoke to Esra Dogramaci last year, and she told us about Monocle Magazine:
They arrange a handful of meet-ups around the world and in July  hosted their quality of life conference in Berlin, where readers could meet the editors and contributors in person. That kind of offline engagement creates brand loyalty; subscription fees buy you something more than the magazine, and you become part of that group.
Facebook itself is testing options for helping local news publishers get more subscriptions, as part as their initiative to create stronger local communities, but this doesn’t leave an opportunity for a publisher like LittleThings.
Navigating experimental formats
LittleThings invested heavily in Live video, which may have been ahead of its time.When we looked at the top 100 Facebook posts in January, Live video posts comprised only 1 percent of the top 100.
While Facebook recently launched Watch to drive long-form video viewing further, the adoption of it isn’t fully in the mainstream yet.
Live video has had a tumultuous go of it. It stagnated in adoption once Facebook stopped incentivizing the format. We still see native videos regularly outperforming Live video, though, with the algorithm changes to prioritize meaningful discourse, this could again change.
In our post-algorithm analysis, we saw that news-focused posts with a high percentage of comments were indeed Live video. While this works for breaking news coverage, it doesn’t necessarily translate for lifestyle publishers, at least not right now.
According to Digiday, “at one point, fully 75 percent of LittleThings’ show views came from live viewing.”
Who is your audience? Does the platform make sense for them?
Is your audience proactive or passive? Mark Zuckerberg wants to decrease passive scrolling in the newsfeed, and is tweaking things based on that.
So now it comes down to not only knowing your users on each specific platform, but also knowing your users’ behaviors. On Facebook, are they scrolling past content, or do they actively share and comment?
According to Sarah Vander Wal, the Head of Brand at Cultura Colectiva, she told us they haven’t had the same impact from the algorithm change as other publishers.
“Our community is very engaged, and if a brand’s videos suddenly disappear when they normally watch 130 a month from us, they’re going to notice when it’s suddenly not [in their news feed],” Vander Wal said.
Looking more closely at Cultura Colectiva, we can see an uplift on average comments per post on its Facebook Page, notably unchanged by the algorithm.
What about other more general viral publishers like BuzzFeed, the Lad Bible, the Dodo, and many more? How are these publishers surviving under the weight of the algorithm?
We’ve been analyzing them over the past month. Some of the smaller publishers are definitely feeling the impact on their Facebook Pages, while others are surprisingly doing okay:
While there’s been a decline, these publishers haven’t seen the same devastating drop in their average engagements as LittleThings. Again, the algorithm change was just another step in the direction Facebook was already going.
We’ve seen viral publishers branch out in unique ways — BuzzFeed started selling actual products last year, and sold out on its first run, with products to be placed in Walmart.
We’ll be exploring these publishers in the coming weeks to really understand how they’re staying afloat on native platforms.
Keeping a pulse on your audience
Understanding the trends and topics that are pushing the needle on social is increasingly important. LittleThings tried to be an oasis away from anything political.
While LittleThings’ mission was noble, it may have struggled against the digital noise on the platforms as peer-to-peer sharing pushed out publisher content. Post-algorithm, web stories may have had a leg up on Page content.
There’s a way to incorporate what your audience cares about in their day-to-day lives, even when contending with filter bubbles. We’ve noted before that the Hill has done remarkably well on Facebook by being neutral in its coverage.
Some publishers have taken risks here and leaned in. MTV! News told us that its audience responded best when sharing political news without any sort of angle.
Teen Vogue saw nine out of its top ten engaging web stories in 2017 come from politically-charged articles. (Note: despite this, the Teen Vogue Facebook Page is now also feeling the impact of the algorithm, possibly because its Facebook posts aren’t related to its top web stories).
Brands have remarked more and more on current affairs as well.
Is anyone else at risk?
Looking at other publishers, who else could be at risk of following LittleThings to the grave? We’ve been watching Facebook Pages closely after the shift, and we’ve noticed a few things.
Despite the initial panic, it doesn’t seem like other publishers are seeing the extreme dive off of the deep end. In fact, hard news publishers have relatively weathered the algorithm change. Here’s a look at 10 Pages:
Going into March, some of these news publishers have actually started to recover from the initial algorithm drop, such as USA Today, NPR, and HuffPost:
Those at risk are those that may have toed the line between engagement-bait and what Facebook deems meaningful. And of course, those who have struggled with building an audience off of Facebook.
Some Pages that our data showed a more serious decline in average engagements were UNILAD, 9Gag, 5-Minute Crafts, Cosmopolitan, Met Daan Creative, Architecture & Design, and I f*cking love science.
There’s no question of how important social media is to the spread of content and information. Publishers and brands will still stand to benefit by meeting their audiences where they spend time.
LittleThings was a publisher that poured its heart and soul into sharing a little sunshine. Regretfully, that sun rose and set on Facebook.