Revisiting the Facebook reach debate

facebook_logoThe debate around Facebook Pages and their organic reach has been ongoing for years now, but it always spikes again when Facebook themselves cop to the fact that organic reach is changing or that their algorithm has changed in some manner.

The latest development is an apparent admission on Facebook’s part that Pages will now see organic reach drop to “between 1-2%”. For what its worth, previous organic reach was around 6%, and two years ago I remember telling bands I worked with that 10% was probably a sign things were going well – anything more than 10% would be a bonus. So, let’s be clear: Facebook organic reach has never been all that great.

Now though as we drop nearer and nearer to a zero figure, it rightly leaves many wondering why they bother. Just last week, Eat24 announced they were deleting their Facebook Page citing the hopeless reach as a factor.

I certainly sympathise. Let’s be clear: I’ve never been of the view that we all deserved unlimited reach with our Pages. However the ideal always felt like a balance of sorts, with day-to-day posts achieving decent reach (provided they were good) and ‘milestone’ posts (which in the context of bands would mean new single/video/album/tour) getting promoted to ensure maximum reach not just to fans but to broader audiences too. There was logic to this: it ensured a good flow of decent content to fans (which in turn kept them on the site, thereby benefiting Facebook as well) whilst also ensuring that Facebook would see money for promoting those key posts to broader audiences.

Here’s the thing though: as an ad network, I still consider Facebook to be arguably the best for pushing a message to a well-targeted audience. Much has been made of Facebook promotion leading to bogus clicks from bots and click farms. In my view though, these almost always come as a consequence of setting up an ad with next to no filtering to reach a genuinely applicable set of users. To me this was the root problem of Veritasium’s video “exposing” Facebook fraud. Its not so much a deliberate fraud on Facebook’s part – perhaps more a flaw in how their ads are targeted. In short, if you are targeting millions, Facebook cannot, with your $50 (or however much you’ve spent), hit all those people. So, it will show the promotion to those it feels are most likely to respond – and when you have human-powered click farms running from territories like Bangladesh, those people, given they click on thousands of things every day, will almost certainly surface as a user most-likely to click on your ad. Therein lies the problem.

But what about a well set-up advert? In my experience (and for clarity, I’m spending somewhere around £3k per month on ads at present for my clients) they still work very well. Perhaps a better way to state this is that at present I’ve no evidence to suggest that ads on Google, Twitter or any other ad network you care to name present better results or ROI. Let’s be clear: all advertising online has a wide margin for still not clearly understanding direct ROI, especially if like me you’re predominantly working in music. No technology exists to account for the person who sees your promotion on Facebook on a Friday, then buys the product 3 days later in a shop after a couple of other factors have contributed to continued exposure that may have begun with your ad.

Whilst Facebook is getting quite the kicking around the organic reach issue, not much is made of their efforts to improve their ad platform. To my mind, they are almost transparent to a fault. All the data from your ad campaign is there to analyse: who clicked, what they clicked on, where those people are, their age and gender etc etc. With the latest development to objective-based advertising, they even filter reports to give you the statistics you actually care about. So, if I book an ad pushing an album for sale on iTunes, Facebook will now tell me not just how many engagements my post had (by which I mean likes, comments, shares etc), but also specifically how many people clicked through to the iTunes store. Here’s an example (click the image for a larger version):

Recent Facebook ad stats

If I were retailing directly from my website, I would even be able to track conversions to see which of those people clicking through purchased the item for sale. As insight goes, that’s as much as anyone could ask for – but something I’ve not seen mentioned yet on any article criticising Facebook as an advertising platform.

In fact, if anything I would argue that Facebook’s ad reporting is so transparent it exposes the flaw in their pricing – namely that you pay per engagement (despite them terming it as a ‘click’ – a change in wording they’d do well to adopt for clarity) when a far more cost-effective set-up would be to pay per objective achieved. If I am running an ad to drive people to my website, I’m not overly bothered about paying for each comment, share or like: they are false positives. If Facebook really wanted to take their ad platform to the next level, they’d let me only pay when people click through to my website (or whatever objective I’ve stated at the outset).

Much has also been made of ‘the little guy’ suffering amid the Facebook organic reach drop. In Valleywag’s scathing piece on this topic, they make much of the smaller businesses being affected. Again though, in my experience it is quite the opposite.

I’ll give you an example: recently I had the pleasure of talking to the team running the John Peel Centre for Creative Arts in Stowmarket (which, for the geographically-challenged, is a small town in Suffolk here in the UK). Like many, they were getting disillusioned with their Facebook presence in particular. In real terms they had a reasonable number of fans (just over 3k), but their posts weren’t reaching many people at all. We discussed promoted posts and using Facebook to reach audiences within a 20 miles radius of the venue to promote upcoming events. Taking them through the Facebook ad platform and Power Editor in particular, I was able to show them how ads could be used to target an applicable audience in the local area only (be that fans of the band, fans of similar bands, or even just broader targeting such as fans of indie music). This, its safe to say, came as something of a revelation to them. What they realised was that with a very nominal budget (and we’re talking £25 or so here) they could push a message out to a very localised and very relevant audience. Compared to posters or flyering for example, this amounted to an advertising surgical strike: super targeted and, because they were only paying when people actually engaged with the ad, extremely cost-effective. The level of insight they got back also ensured that at all times they were in full control of the budget and what it was delivering back for them – something that doesn’t happen with printed flyers, for example, where the spend is upfront and the ROI not guaranteed in any way.

In summary then, Facebook is most definitely losing value as a social network, i.e. a cost-free means to maintain a relationship with fans. However as an ad network, it remains one of the most effective platforms available to you for marketing. If I am talking to non-music brands or even labels looking to build an organic fanbase on the platform through day-to-day engagement, I will advise them not to commit the time and staff to doing so. Create a Page by all means, but only to promote posts as ads.

And artists? If the campaign has an aspiration to Radio 1 airplay at any point now or in the future, sadly my advice differs. Radio 1 still looks at Facebook fan numbers as an indicator of popularity. As such, we are obliged to focus on building those numbers up, even if the reality is that this diverts time and budget from other more useful areas of a campaign. Some just cheat and buy fans – and I must confess that I can certainly see the logic, even if I cannot condone the method. Why? Because we’re at a point where it feels like a nonsense to commit considerable time and effort to building a fanbase on this platform purely to tick a statistical box, when the reality is that it may not reflect the real fanbase whatsoever. It poses a huge risk for campaigns to spend heavily growing fans on one platform when plenty of evidence suggests that the R1 demographic in particular are valuing the likes of Instagram and Tumblr far more as a cultural indicator of what’s cool and worth checking out.

Were Radio 1 to change their focal point from Facebook fan numbers to another platform, you can be sure I’d be telling bands the same thing I tell brands and labels: promote on Facebook, but be pragmatic about the time and resource you spend on building a fanbase on there, because the organic reach of Pages will continue to fall to the point where at some point I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them retired completely. As download sales drop and streaming revenues fail to fill the gap (albeit with healthy growth), the budgets around campaigns will keep shrinking. With that in mind, campaign managers need to think harder than ever about where they allocate their spend, particularly around staff on the team and how their time is best-used.

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One thought on “Revisiting the Facebook reach debate

  1. Excellent points made. I think the true Achilles heel of Facebook is if consumers (not brands) begin to abandon Facebook in significant numbers. As long as bands and brands can still use Facebook to target new potential fans outside their existing follower base, Facebook advertising will remain an effective advertising spend from an ROI perspective.

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