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The 6 Scariest Words in Digital Marketing

Here are the six scariest words in digital marketing:

“Facebook is changing its newsfeed algorithm.”

And so it goes.

Facebook announced yesterday it’s changing its algorithm to give priority to content shared by friends and family — and less priority to what content publishers share:

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 today, we’re announcing an upcoming change to News Feed ranking to help make sure you don’t miss stories from your friends.

We previously made an update that tries to ensure that stories posted directly by the friends you care about, such as photos, videos, status updates or links, will be higher up in News Feed so you are less likely to miss them.

We’ve heard from our community that people are still worried about missing important updates from the friends they care about. For people with many connections this is particularly important, as there are a lot of stories for them to see each day. So we are updating News Feed over the coming weeks so that the things posted by the friends you care about are higher up in your News Feed.

What impact will this have on content publishers?

Overall, we anticipate that this update may cause reach and referral traffic to decline for some Pages. The specific impact on your Page’s distribution and other metrics may vary depending on the composition of your audience. For example, if a lot of your referral traffic is the result of people sharing your content and their friends liking and commenting on it, there will be less of an impact than if the majority of your traffic comes directly through Page posts. We encourage Pages to post things that their audience are likely to share with their friends. As always, Pages should refer to our publishing best practices.

This is an epic flip-flop for Facebook and at this point I think it is fair to ask, does the company really know what it wants? Is it thinking through its publishing strategy at all?

Less than nine months ago I attended an awkward meeting  between Facebook and big publishers like The New York Times, The BBC, and National Public Radio. It was nothing short of a courtship. Facebook representatives encouraged the big content publishers with promises of billions of page views and gazillions of new subscribers. The news channel people sat there with their arms crossed, resigned to the fact that they were forced to play the Facebook game to compete in the digital world.

This week’s announcement seems to indicate that Facebook does NOT want to be in the publishing business, at least not at its core. Did its strategy really change that fast, or were they taken by surprise that publishers actually listened to them and started to flood the site with Instant Articles, videos, and news photos?

They did what Facebook asked them to do, and guess what? Now there’s just too much stuff.

An Example of Content Shock

This is what I predicted would happen in a post I wrote in March, projecting that once publishers, companies, and bloggers began moving into Instant Articles en force, Content Shock would occur and Facebook would have to make an adjustment to get the new flood of content under control.

Content Shock is the scenario when content marketing is not sustainable for some businesses when an industry niche or platform becomes saturated. As content levels dramatically increase, the economics of content shift, making it more difficult and costly to compete. In this case, the gravy train apparently is already over and many publishers will have to pay to get their content viewed.

According to recent data compiled by SocialFlow (and reported by AdWeek), overall publishers’ Facebook reach from January to May was down 42 percent. Frank Speiser, SocialFlow’s co-founder, said how media companies respond to these updates is “critical” to the value they get from Facebook.

“This is a signal that publishers and content houses must evolve their approach to social,” Speiser said about the Facebook announcement. “The idea of paying for access to audiences has always been a part of marketing strategies and that’s what you’re seeing here.”

Is Facebook “doing” without thinking?

Facebook could have easily seen this scenario playing out. When you invite the news world to publish, they’re going to publish.

It appears to me that Facebook is “doing” without “thinking” when it comes to some of these big strategic moves. The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo had a similar reaction:

These moves highlight a truth that tends to get lost in commentary about the social network’s influence over the news: At Facebook, informing users about the world will always take a back seat to cute pictures of babies (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Because Facebook does not think of itself primarily as a news company, it seems to want us to stop expecting it to act like one. Whether we should, though, is a more complicated matter.

The Facebook re-focus

I wouldn’t say the Facebook’s aggressive courtship of the publishing world has ended in divorce, but the relationship status has undoubtedly changed to “it’s complicated.”

Both traditional news channels and company content publishers still covet the massive distribution potential of Facebook. According to an April report from Parse.ly, 41.4 percent of all referral traffic to publishers’ websites comes from Facebook (slightly more than Google at 39.5 percent).

But Facebook may be facing an existential crisis. What IS this platform? Do they need professional publishers? Is it re-focusing on being the epicenter of human connection, Grumpy Cat, and memes?

If you look at the strategies at other social networks, they are positioning themselves for the future by either buying or partnering with professional content producers. Even upstart Snapchat is a legitimate source of news and lets its users choose from a host of interesting news options.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center found that 44 percent of Americans get news from Facebook — 142 million people.

This re-trenching indicates that Facebook is shifting away from the aggressive news and publishing strategy they were pushing in 2015. Sure, publishers are sore about this, but is Facebook doing the right thing by listening to its core customers and focusing on baby pictures and political rants? Or did they just ignore 44 percent of its news-loving audience?

What’s your take on the change at Facebook?

Illustration courtesy of memegenerator.net