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Time well spent | Facebook’s newsfeed changes alter the game for sport

  • Newsfeed changes are intended to ‘make sure the time people spend on Facebook is time well spent’.
  • Brands and rights-holders may be expected to ‘pay to play’ for newsfeed visibility.
  • Micro-communities and more targeted interaction could be the future of social marketing. 

When YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki recently told a Silicon Valley conference that rival tech giant Facebook should “get back to baby pictures”, it was probably intended more as a crowd-pleasing put-down than as sound business advice.

From its roots as a way for US college students to keep in touch, Facebook has grown into an all-encompassing content service. For many of a certain age, Facebook is a portal to the rest of the entire internet, serving as home page and news aggregator, social network and media platform. Its newsfeed serves up videos, photos and other updates not just from friends and family but brands and rights-holders.

Changes announced by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg earlier this year, however, seemed to take Wojcicki’s advice on face value. “We want to make sure the time people spend on Facebook is time well spent,” said Zuckerberg in a January statement, indicating a significant change in the way the newsfeed would operate. Though the inner workings of Facebook’s algorithm are a well-guarded secret, the previous version rewarded interaction, in the form of shares or likes, meaning the more popular a post became, the more likely it was to show up in a user’s feed.

The result of this was a weighting in favour of big brands with big social budgets producing easily consumed, if ultimately throwaway, content. Zuckerberg’s mission for 2018, he said, is to ensure ‘meaningful social interactions’ are prioritised over ‘relevant content’ – a bigger push for baby pictures, a reduction in viral videos.

The move is an attempt to counter accusations that social media platforms such as Facebook have fostered division rather than helping to bring people closer together – as Charlie Beall, senior consultant at digital sports consultancy Seven League, puts it: “There’s a growing view that social channels have become unhealthy and unpleasant places for users – with critics citing fake news, divisiveness, filter bubbles, addictive tech practices and mindless content as contributors to an overall negative experience.

“Facebook is chiefly in the firing line and is taking the criticism seriously: their recent, proactive announcement that it will try to make time on its platform ‘time well spent’ is a case in point. One reading of Zuckerberg’s announcement is that any video or image which is designed to be consumed passively – and, let’s face it, this is a lot of what’s out there – will be punished. This means that for many sports bodies, a wholesale content strategy redesign for Facebook may be necessary.”

While there exists another school of thought which believes that the majority of content shared by sports-related brands and rights-holders is already original and engaging enough that it could remain untouched by the newsfeed changes, the industry has nevertheless been put on alert by the developments.

“From a business perspective, a lot of the fallout from this has been that the newsfeed is dead, organic reach is dead, and that from now on it’s all about paid advertising on social for big brands,” says Luca Massaro, chief executive at digital sports marketing agency WePlay. “That’s not the case – though obviously it won’t hurt! But what will definitely happen is a change in social strategy. I think that would have happened without the Facebook changes.”

WePlay – which manages more than twenty Facebook pages for various brands across the sporting world, followed by over 60 million between them – employs three different kinds of content, Massaro explains.

“From a content strategy perspective, we start with what we call ‘cornerstone content’, the very best of what you’re putting out there,” he says. “Then you have ‘informative content’, which is all about making sure that you add value; and finally then there’s ‘hygiene content’ – the low-level stuff you post just to keep the account active and get engagements.”

It is this last kind of post – referred to as ‘low-viral content’ by Facebook – that is being targeted by the company and toward which Massaro says brands will have to change their strategy. “The newsfeed changes are essentially trying to stop people from posting crap content,” he says. “It doesn’t add enough value for the user, all it does is just interrupts their experience and takes up their time.

“You have to look at the content that you’re creating. If it adds value to the experience, then Facebook will prioritise it in the newsfeed. If it doesn’t add value – and unfortunately most of the content that is put out on Facebook has very little value – it’s just there to collect clicks and views and engagement, rather than improve anyone’s experience.”

Pay to play

While WePlay recommends its clients start to think more seriously about setting aside an “amplification budget” – spending on promotion to ensure that content is prioritised in the algorithm – Massaro says that it is not all about money, but ensuring that the content you put on social media is good enough that when it is seen, it engages with and retains and audience.

“Unless you’re a superstar or an athlete or a musician and you put up content to an engaged organic community, then you need amplification budgets,” he says. “For brands and publishers today, ultimately they don’t have loyal dedicated followers. Even football clubs – how many brands in the world have followers from four-years-old right the way through to when a person dies? Not many. But football clubs are even struggling, because they’re just pushing commercial content.”

Sarah Swanson, who leads the NFL’s marketing operation in the UK, concurs that it has become increasingly difficult to engage fans through organic reach alone. The social media landscape, she says, is “ever changing”, with the NFL “always trying to figure out the best way to get the most eyeballs on our content. That’s very difficult to do”. Particularly in its international markets, the NFL has relied on Facebook

“More broadly, across social media, we spend a lot of time looking at what people respond to,” adds Swanson. “From a strategic standpoint we spend a lot of time thinking about players and teams and local relevance. Ultimately fan growth is about giving somebody a reason to care about a sport, about a team, about a player. Social gives us our broadest platform to create reasons to care.”

The key for brands and rights-holders, Massaro says, is in precisely that: creating content that is about more than just generating revenue for themselves, and about which the fans can be passionate. For all that Facebook’s announced changes have caused some panic among those who depend on the platform for audience interaction, the newsfeed remains one of the social network’s most lucrative streams and, as Massaro points out, Facebook is not going make a strategic shift that harms its own bottom line.

“You have to remember that Facebook is a business,” he says. “If you’re using their platform from a commercial perspective and Facebook isn’t commercially benefiting from you, if they look at your Facebook ad account, your business manager, and see that you’re not spending any money, then they are absolutely going to be making sure businesses that are cannibalising the timeline and not spending money are going to be some of the first to lose out.”

Beall agrees that while the move is about more than inflating Facebook’s revenues, “sports organisations, alongside other media, have gotten used to getting reach for ‘free’ on Facebook”, and says that the prioritising of friends and family could be a a first step in “migrating brands away from this expectation.

Could reach increasingly be ‘pay to play’? It’s not an outrageous thought.”

Micro-communities

For an organisation like the NFL, particularly as it targets new fans in growth markets such as the UK, such investment is likely to be worthwhile. But Swanson also believes a change in the type of interactions could reap rewards.

“The goal of everything that we do in this market is fan growth,” she explains. “Everything we do, from television to digital to our games and certainly social media is about fan growth. There’s two levels of fan growth – there’s growing the number of people who are engaged with the sport, and then there’s deepening each fan’s engagement.” Social media, she says, has become one of the key drivers of the former, but Facebook’s shake-up is expected to encourage brands and rights-holders to focus more on the latter. The use of groups and Messenger bots, which will allow page operators to target specific sectors of the audience and individuals, rather than just pumping content out to the entire following, is likely to be one way in which brands and rights-holders navigate the newsfeed changes.

“What Facebook’s doing is very clever,” says Massaro. “It’s saying that there’s a macro place where you can talk to everyone, but if you put out crap content then we’re going to limit you. If you spend a bit of money, you can talk to everyone, you’ll appear in the main newsfeed. It’s also saying, there are other tools where you can create micro-communities, and they’re forcing brands and marketers to be a bit cleverer in their strategy. Rather than just pushing this onto Facebook and giving it to everyone, they’re saying: ‘segment’. Facebook is telling brands that a strategy should never be about reaching as many people as possible, it should be about reaching the most relevant people as possible.”

Swanson concurs, and says that the NFL’s use of groups, particularly in its international markets, has been something the organisation has been ramping up for a while.

“The newsfeed algorithm works in such a fashion that you don’t know what your fans will see, which is a constant challenge,” she says. “Groups are a bit different because that is all community-moderated and community-created content within that group. You ask to get in and you have to be accepted and it’s conversations within the page, so it is much better at fostering that sense of community.

“We worked with Facebook to come up with the right solution for us. We’re certainly not alone in this – a lot of brands are going through the same kinds of conversations, global brands in particular, because it’s a challenge and you don’t want to compete against yourself in the algorithm. I think with groups, it’s a great community for passionate fans. I also think it can be a resource for new fans to come and ask questions and grow the fanbase that way. I think there’s an opportunity for that to grow.”

Facebook will, inevitably, continue to evolve its product and, as Swanson points out, rights-holders will continue to find new ways to reach fans. “If somebody’s really passionate about the NFL, then I hope that Facebook allows them to continue to follow that passion whatever the algorithm changes are,” she says. “I know there’s always going to be financial implications of that but, ultimately, I hope that it doesn’t hurt fandom.”

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