'Held to ransom': Publishers on uncertain ground in new Facebook era

Mia Freedman, co-founder and creative director,?? Mamamia?? Women's Media Company.
Mia Freedman, co-founder and creative director,?? Mamamia?? Women's Media Company.

Lured by the promise of connecting with Facebook's 2 billion global users, media companies leveraging social media for traffic and engagement have been left on shaky ground, unsure how the platform's latest changes will affect their revenues and survival.

Industry sources say some brands and publishers are at the mercy of even small changes from the digital giant by tweaks to the algorithm that determine which posts get priority.

Facebook's new focus on content from family and friends in the newsfeed is the first change this year, with a second involving prioritising "trustworthy" news sites coming soon, could be what the doctor ordered in an era of fake news.

Yet the changing rules have left media companies, and small publishers in particular, uncertain of what might happen to their traffic, and therefore future advertising revenue. Some are already diversifying onto other platforms, such as podcasts, with many in a "wait and see" mode as they decide how to react.

Already, most Australian publishers have been in talks with the social media giant this year.

Despite these meetings, a major source of frustration from industry members is the lack of specific information about what is happening and when - with no timeline for when to expect the changes related to "trustworthy" news yet available.

The new algorithm rolled out in mid-January has already had a dramatic impact on some brands.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the changes were made as user feedback said content from businesses, brands and media was "crowding out" personal posts.

The old algorithm meant a lot of the content appearing at the top of the newsfeed was coming from businesses, but the new algorithm prioritises friends, family and groups.

A Facebook spokeswoman says the company is having an "ongoing dialogue with our news partners across Australia and New Zealand and the globe" to discuss its focus on "trusted, informative and locally relevant news" and recent newsfeed changes.

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One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent. We built...Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, 11 January 2018

Max Doyle, managing director of social media strategists Hello Social, says some of his clients - predominantly services and product companies using Facebook to advertise themselves - have been forced to more than double their spend to ensure their content reaches the same numbers as before.

"We're advising clients now that organic strategies are useless," he says.

One of his campaigns included a weekly post boosted by a $10 spend that would achieve thousands of likes and hundreds of comments.

"In the last two weeks, I'm getting a quarter of the reach I was getting a month ago.

"The only thing that has changed is the algorithm. To get same results as last year, I wouldn't be surprised if the budget needs to more than double," he says.

While this hits companies hard, it hits publishers reliant on Facebook for readers and viewers in a different way.

Publishers have been using the platform to attract audiences, and increase traffic to their sites - which can be used to boost advertising revenue.

Many also sell sponsored posts on Facebook, including live videos and competitions through the platform, to advertisers who want to access their audiences.

As Doyle describes it, it's as though companies are "being held to ransom by one omni-channel" where business pages, news, recipes and all content is housed together.

"So many sites are driving much of their traffic from social and that traffic is bringing in ad revenue."

While some may be keen to reduce their reliance on Facebook, 60 to 70 per cent of Australians now get "at least some" of their news through social media channels, Brady Robards senior sociology lecturer at Monash University explains.

He says young people use Facebook as part of a "polymedia landscape" including Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit and other channels, though not all presented news content in the same way.

"We will have to see what effects this change has," he says.

Of course, some media companies are hit harder than others.

National established online news sites tend to drive significant engagement directly from their home pages, with some additional traffic from social media channels.

It's understood Fairfax Media, the owner of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, has been in discussions with Facebook - though only a modest portion of its audience comes from social media.

A News Corp spokeswoman says it welcomes "changes that reward quality and confront click bait" but it is too soon to say how the proposals will play out.

"In the meantime, we will continue to negotiate with Facebook on developing a subscription model that can help expand the audience for and viability of quality journalism," she says.

News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch recently called for a "carriage fee" to be paid by Facebook to publishers, where the platform would pay a fee to media companies for hosting its news.

Major TV broadcasters, whose offerings frequently include speciality online content sites, are broadly unconcerned about the changes despite the growth of video on the platform.

Network Ten head of marketing and social media Brad Garbutt is confident it will continue to find "mass audiences" on Facebook.

"The changes announced aim to boost ???meaningful' social interactions and Mark Zuckerberg singled out television shows as a great example of content creators which do not produce a passive experience for users," he says.

Nine Network declined to comment, though sources say only a small portion of its audience is driven by social media. It's understood this is a similar situation for Seven.

Those most likely to be affected are smaller digital content creators who rely heavily on social media for their audiences.

Mia Freedman, co-founder and creative director of Mamamia Women's Media Company, says podcasts are driving significant growth as it diversifies away from reliance on Facebook.

She says the amount of traffic coming from Facebook is "not an insignificant amount but we've worked to deliberately reduce it over the past year or more".

Online title Vice social growth manager Sarvesh Jasuja says Facebook drives a "reasonable amount" of its traffic.

He also says it is too early to tell how it will impact the site, but hopes it will remain well positioned due to its focus on engagement.

Youth focused news site Pedestrian director Chrishan Wirasinha will not say how much of its audience is driven by Facebook, though says it is a "multi-channel brand" and there's not yet any impact on traffic.

He says brands and advertisers will likely be hit harder by the changes than publishers who are "constantly adapting".

"Facebook has no reason to give us traffic. We've managed to leverage a lot of growth out of the relationship with Facebook so far and it has been awesome for our business," he says.

"The general sentiment seems to be that it might take months to fully roll out so we won't really know what the effect is until then."

This story 'Held to ransom': Publishers on uncertain ground in new Facebook era first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.