Still debating the merits of taking Facebook seriously as a journalist? Facebook might just be about to change your mind…

Facebook’s success depends entirely on the relevance of the feed which appears when people first log in, so it’s no surprise that the secret formula which lies behind that service is constantly under review.

Trying to work out how to make the most of that feed has much in common with some of the more darkish arts which surround making the most of search engine optimisation … with similar repercussions dished out by both Google and Facebook if it thinks people are gaming their systems to get a better show. 

Facebook today announced a couple of new changes to Facebook feeds which should be of particular interest to journalists seeking to ensure the content they produce reaches the widest possible audience.

In future, Facebook posts like this will be a thing of the past

The full details are here but in a nutshell it boils down to this: Facebook will reward publishers who create content which people spend time reading, rather than just acting on the volume of clicks a Facebook post gets. 

It cites audience research for making this decision. People are, according to Facebook, fed up of posts like this one on the right which give away just enough to catch your interest, but maybe don’t live up to expectations. Facebook calls it click-baiting.

Like like-baiting which Facebook cracked down on earlier this year, I believe the move to crack down on link-baiting is good news for journalists, if a little more challenging than the removal of like-baiting.

Like-baiting was always a crass way of trying to game the principle that the more likes you have, the more likely you are to appear in someone’s news feed. 

Link-baiting, however, is a little more subtle, even if the headlines which are get generated as a result, aren’t. Sites such as Upworthy and Buzzfeed have made an art of brilliant headlines which make you want to click.

The challenge now is make sure the attractive, clickable headline actually delivers on the promise and keeps people on your site. Facebook appears to encouraging publishers to put more information on a post as well as the link. In other words, it wants a ‘what you see is what you get’ approach from publishers.

But the metric for monitoring this is perhaps what makes it such a challenge for publishers. By rewarding publishers who keep people on their sites when they click away from Facebook, the social network is throwing down a challenge which says: Make your website engaging.

This means a greater emphasis on basic digital publishing standards – links in articles, good pictures (ie ones which aren’t heavily pixelated and clearly from a content management system which has bolted website publishing on the end), a strong community commenting about the article and supporting related articles which encourage people to keep clicking.

I also think it should encourage publishers to focus on what they are best at. It still amazes me to see regional news publishers who have no connection with Liverpool FC or Manchester United publishing articles about those clubs, generally rehashing wild rumours which they wouldn’t dream of touching if it was their own club they were writing about. Such stories are the ultimate one-click wonders, and all the evidence is that Facebook will give those a wide berth going forward. 

In other words, if you want a sizeable chunk of your traffic to keep coming from Facebook, you need to take your approach to sharing stories on Facebook seriously … and respect the audience too. 

There is another measurement metric too:

Another factor we will use to try and show fewer of these types of stories is to look at the ratio of people clicking on the content compared to people discussing and sharing it with their friends. If a lot of people click on the link, but relatively few people click Like, or comment on the story when they return to Facebook, this also suggests that people didn’t click through to something that was valuable to them.

If ever there was a moment for newsrooms to realise just how important building a Facebook community is, it’s this. Facebook is saying: If people aren’t engaging with your post, we won’t be promoting it. In one sense, this is old news because Facebook has always weighted posts getting likes, comments and shares more than those which haven’t.  But when added to the link-baiting rule, it’s the ringing bell any journalist still debating the merits of putting time into Facebook needs to listen to. 

Facebook is reminding publishers to treat the Facebook audience with respect. It’s a bit stick and carrot but it’s good news for journalism – those who make the effort to build communities on Facebook will be rewarded, and that should be particularly good news for the regional press, for whom being part of a community has been in the DNA for as long as anyone can remember. 

 

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