Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement about his plans for Facebook’s algorithm feels like a significant step change. It means that when you log on to the social platform, you’ll see content from friends and family ahead of organisations and publishers. Zuckerberg warned that organisations might see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic fall. However, he advised that pages can mitigate this by sharing posts that create conversations between friends.
The news has caused a stir among us digital types. Organic reach across Facebook has already declined over the past few years, with some commentators accusing the platform of forcing organisations to invest in paid-for advertising. However, when I spoke to charities this week about the recent changes I found them upbeat.
Joe Freeman, assistant director of digital engagement at Breast Cancer Now, thinks that the news will force charities to review their content and approach, encouraging them to invest more time in replying to comments, starting conversations and bringing people together. "Arguably, this is key in the management of any online community but is now even more important on Facebook," he says.
"More time and effort is going to be absolutely essential to get to know your audience, to understand what they want and are interested in to help drive these conversations. The move also heightens the need for charities to be more open, friendly and conversational in their tone to mitigate against any negative impact these changes might bring."
From that perspective, these developments are a very good thing. For the past few years I have urged charities to stop broadcasting on digital and make the shift to conversation. That’s vital now.
The announcement means that charities must listen to their audiences more and provide forums on which they can talk to each other. Nathan Murray, social media manager at the RNIB, told me: "It’s even more important that social content delivers what our communities want. This news also suggests that Groups will become an increasingly important part of the Facebook platform; at tje RNIB we’ve seen some great initial success by using Groups to connect blind and partially-sighted people."
Sceptics might argue that the changes put digitally sophisticated charities with resources to invest in community management and audience research ahead. Yet Simon Carter, head of media relations at the Scout Association, believes that for "locally based membership charities there is a real opportunity here". He points out that the near 8,000 local scout groups that are already talking to parents of the children they work with and their friends will be in a good position. The developments mean that your posts really need to feel as relevant as possible to people. That way they’ll be more likely to respond to and share them.
Ezinda Franklin-Houtzager, digital marketing manager at Parkinson's UK, is also positive about the changes. She recommends that charities need to build on Zuckerberg’s approach, letting supporters lead on content and conversation. She says: "We've found that personal stories resonate with the people on our page, so we try to post a lot of these. But we've taken it a step further and, for some time now, we've invited the subject of the stories to comment on the post, answer questions and engage with the readers of the post. So this means that while we're posting the conversation is actually between people affected by the condition."
For example, one of the charity's supporters, Ellen, who has Parkinson’s, recently shared her story about being pregnant and having young children. She then managed a discussion with their Facebook community about this.
Video will also be key. Freeman says: "In its blog about the changes, Facebook also made mention of live video, and singling this out shows just how important Facebook feels this type of content is. It’s going to become vital for charities to add this to their content mix in order to achieve higher levels of engagement."
Facebook’s news will be a test of charities’ skills in community building and creating top-quality, engaging and relevant content. Zuckerberg’s rationale for his plans is that he wants everyone to experience his platform as "time well spent". Equally, charities now need to ask themselves if the hours they invest in Facebook are paying dividends. And if not, they must start making changes.
Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Communications