UPDATED: Facebook looks for "meaning" with major news feed overhaul

Agencies say social media platform provider's decision to decrease the amount of media and public content in user feeds is a wake-up call for brands and publishers

Facebook users can expect less media and public content in their news feeds and more posts from their families and friends under new plans to make the social media site more “relevant” to users.

But while the changes are certain to shake-up the way brands use the platform for engagement and increase advertising costs, several agencies claim the win for customer engagement is a needed wake-up call for the media and marketing industries.

In a Facebook post on 12 January, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, confirmed the social media giant is decreasing the amount of public content from media publishers and brands in favour of prioritising friends and family posts in users’ news feeds.

The decision is based on community feedback that suggested too much brand and public content is being displayed, hindering interactive engagement across the site, Zuckerberg said.

“Recently, we've gotten feedback from our community that public content – posts from businesses, brands and media – is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other,” he stated in the post.

It also comes following academic and expert research published by Facebook last month which showed using social media can in fact leave consumers feeling worse. For Zuckerberg, however, the concern is too many consumers are having a passive social media experience, reading but not actively interacting via the platform.

“The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health,” Zuckerberg stated. “On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos – event even if they're entertaining or informative – may not be as good.

“Based on this, we're making a major change to how we build Facebook.”

The first inklings Facebook was looking to make changes to the way public content is shown on the platform came last October, when the company commenced several tests removing brand and public content entirely from user news feeds into a separate area of their profile. The tests occurred in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala and Cambodia.

Reducing public content is being perceived as a big blow to media publishers in particular, who rely on posting content within the platform to drive traffic.

But while there are expected to be many media owners and brands reeling from Facebook's decision, Ogilvy Australia head of digital, Jason Davey, took a positive view of the news, labelling it a win for customer experience and quality.

"Obviously, there will be the perception that this news is bad for advertisers and brands, but that would be a mistake," he told CMO. "Facebook is listening to feedback and adjusting the product to better serve customers. When in history has that been a bad thing?

"As an industry, if customers are not enjoying the experience of our advertising, then we need to rethink how we go about doing that advertising. This has happened in every other channel and industry and Facebook is not immune to disruption itself."

Advertising should be useful and informative, and/or entertaining and add value to culture, Davey continued.

"Customer feedback that forces us an industry to re-evaluate how we do advertising is a good thing," he said. "For advertisers, this will mean a focus on quality, rather than volume. For brands, this will mean more doing than saying."

“Organic reach is dead,” claimed Now Comms Group CEO, Kingston Lee-Young. “If a brand is producing ‘passive’ or broadcast style advertising content, with overly photoshopped imagery, then get ready to be penalised further; no matter how much you promote or spend on the platform.

“Facebook wants to go back to its roots, creating conversation and connecting people around the world and within groups. This means it will reward brands that encourage engagement and conversation with their audiences - it’s all about comments, conversation and creating a community.”

As the dust settles, Lee-Young predicted larger brands and more established and active Facebook communities having an advantage over smaller spending brands.

“Given that Australian brands are already paying some of the highest Facebook ad rates in APAC, I’d also expect those CPM and CPC budgets to rise in 2018 just to achieve similar results as 2017,” he said. “Will this impact on FB’s share of the paid media space? Unlikely in the short-term, since Google is also improving its algorithm and there are no obvious online alternatives that can provide an immediate solution for reaching mainstream audiences; yet.”

In a separate post on the news, Facebook head of news feeds, Adam Mosseri, confirmed pages may see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic decrease.

“The impact will vary from page to page, driven by factors including the type of content they produce and how people interact with it,” he stated. “Pages making posts that people generally don’t react to or comment on could see the biggest decreases in distribution. Pages whose posts prompt conversations between friends will see less of an effect.”

Strategist at AnalogFolk, Josef Wimberger, saw the announcement as affirmation that Facebook understands its significant influence over relationships and society and is going back to its roots. This is even as the site derives 97 per cent of revenue from advertising.  

“Focusing more on ‘meaningful interactions between people’ is obviously good news for users, but it’s also a notice to businesses and media that rely on newsfeed interactions for traffic and reach,” he commented. “Last year, we saw the platform start penalising posts that explicitly requested users to interact, confirming Facebook’s position that not all engagement is good engagement. These Newsfeed updates are just the latest in the steps the platform is taking to address it.”

There’s no doubt this will impact businesses who rely on organic reach and engagements the most, Wimberger said.

“Interactions that traditionally drove virility, such as likes and link clicks, will now be less important. Brands running paid campaigns may initially find certain placements more expensive, but the trade-off here is that these changes will make targeting users who have relevant interests more effective,” he continued.

“These updates are all about balance. The solution to this is two-parted: Give brands more engaging options like Canvas and Facebook Live that will keep users within their ecosystem. And motivate businesses to create higher-value content. Ultimately, what’s good for users here is good for brands. More engaging content means more time on site, which means more users to target.”
People who want to see more posts from pages they follow can choose ‘See First in News Feed Preferences’, Mosseri said. In addition, page posts that generate conversation between people will show higher in news feeds, with video expected to be the winning format here.

The latest changes are expected to take several months and are expected to see people spending less time on Facebook, Zuckerberg admitted.

“As we roll this out, you'll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media,” he stated. “And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard - it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.

“By making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down. But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable. And if we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term, too.”

In the face of the changes, Davey advised brands to do things that people will talk about with their friends and family on Facebook.

"Come up with ideas that get people talking and sharing. Not only will you be more effective, you will achieve greater reach at a lower cost," he said, adding that less inventory could see the cost of advertising on Facebook go up.

"Like all mediums, Facebook is subject to market conditions and this will find its own ‘water level’ overt time. It might help stop audience volumes from decreasing as people drop Facebook for other platforms with less clutter. My advice is focus on coming up with ideas worth talking about and the audience will find you. Or use search."

Indago Digital content manager, Angus Bower, noted the update focuses purely around the news feed and doesn’t include other advertising products such as instant articles, Instagram and Messenger, which continues to offer assisted ad creation and default placement.  

And despite the drop in share price, Bower didn’t expect Facebook’s prominence in the social media industry to be adversely affected by this move.

He also pointed out preferred content on Facebook continues to change over time. “Previously, we saw a shift from text to images, then images to video – now we’re seeing live video continue this trend, as mentioned by Mark Zuckerberg in his original post,” he commented. “Keeping on top of the content formats that engage the best will work with algorithm changes and keep your brand relevant.”

In an interview with New York Times, Zuckerberg further emphasised his desire to make social media meaningful, not just fun, and something that’s “good for people”. This required Facebook to “refocus the system”, he said.

The comments come after widespread media speculation about the impact of social media on how consumers perceive issues and society, and the potentially harmful effects of bogus news and extremist content in news feeds.

In his post, Zuckerberg also attributed the explosion of content online partially to the rise of video viewing.

 “Since there's more public content than posts from your friends and family, the balance of what's in News Feed has shifted away from the most important thing Facebook can do – help us connect with each other,” he said.   

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu


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