2014 update: Facebook has changed its algorithm. While most of the advice in this post remains valid, the algorithm now favors links over photos.
Update: If you read the original version of this, please check the correction in bold. I was mistaken about rights to post AP photos on Facebook.
Changes to the algorithm guiding the Facebook news feed make it more important than ever that newsrooms and journalists engage effectively on Facebook.
We don’t fully know how the changes work or what we should do about the them. Facebook has not provided much guidance on new best practices for news brands (they should do that; Facebook users share and interact with a lot of news).
Facebook + Journalists has been silent on this issue and the Facebook Blog hasn’t posted since January. I haven’t been successful in getting any on-the-record guidance from Facebook or in getting much private guidance that is helpful. This explainer on the Facebook news feed doesn’t even include a question on the recent changes.
The purported purpose of the algorithm is to deliver to people’s news feeds posts that Facebook thinks they will want. So if people are interacting with our posts (clicking on photos and links, liking and sharing our content, commenting), they will see more posts from us. If they are interacting with content of a particular type (sports content, for instance), they will see more of our posts on that topic.
Some have speculated that Facebook is hiding posts from news brands to encourage us to pay for promoted positions for our brands. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t expect that most newsrooms will spend much, if any, money promoting our posts. Presuming that some companies do pay to promote their posts, those promoted posts will get more prominent play in people’s news feeds than our free posts.
I don’t like Facebook’s changes either as a user or as a journalist interested in reaching Facebook users. I may blog separately about that. But whether we like the changes is irrelevant when it comes to how newsrooms should engage on Facebook. I don’t like the decline in newspaper advertising either, but I have to deal with its results.
News brands that have been getting significant traffic from Facebook have seen dramatic drops in our referrals. We need to make a better effort at posting engaging content and starting conversations. We need to experiment with strategies for generating engagement. We need to monitor how those strategies affect engagement. And we need to share stories of what works effectively.
I’m encouraging Digital First newsrooms to follow these practices. Some have proven effective in the past at generating engagement. Some of these practices have been used by DFM newsrooms in posts that have drawn effective engagement under the new algorithm. Clearly this advice is speculative to some extent, so we’re interested in hearing from you what generates successful results.
Photos are better than updates
Posting photos rather than status updates has been good practice for a long time (see Daniel Victor’s post on the topic last year), and appears to be even more important since the algorithm was changed. This means that if you have a good photo or video with a story, you should consider posting the photo, with the link in the caption, rather than just posting the link in a status update.
When I asked my Digital First colleagues to share links to recent posts that have generated strong engagement and traffic, lots of them were photos, underscoring that this remains an effective technique. (The slides below include screen grabs from several of those posts, though I don’t have time to share all the links here.)
You need to use a photo that you have the rights to. So don’t post AP or Getty photos. And when you seek photo submissions from the community or buy photos from freelancers, be sure to state in your terms that you will have the right to publish the photos in social media. When people submit publicity photos, make sure that they have rights to the photos and that you will have the right to publish to Facebook.
Update: Thanks to Tim Rasmussen for this correction (lightly edited from an email) and clarification about rights to photos:
If you have the rights to AP images you can use them on Facebook and Pinterest to promote your content. Always check the special instructions and to be safe use only their staff or STR images. But you can do it. You cannot publish any Getty images to external source, but if you do a Facebook update that pulls in a Getty image as a thumbnail, that is OK through.
Update: See the related post about AP photos.
The importance of photos in Facebook engagement raises the importance of getting good photos with as many stories as possible. When staff visual journalists are not shooting photos with a story, reporters need to either shoot photos or obtain photos (and permission to use them) from sources.
Sometimes the only photo you will have is a mug shot. You might try them a few times on Facebook and note the results. I doubt that mug shots will generate notable engagement.
If you have a slideshow or photo gallery on your website, it’s a great idea to post one of your best photos on Facebook, with a link to the full gallery.
Sometimes you have a fun photo that’s not part of a story and won’t be published on your website or in the paper. But you think it might generate some Facebook engagement. That’s fine. You shouldn’t regard Facebook simply as a means of driving traffic to your site. The conversation or sharing around a fun photo that’s just on Facebook could help engagement with other posts. (Because the algorithm was designed to deliver content people are likely to engage with, if people engage with a fun picture, maybe your next news photo with a link will show up in their news feeds.)
The Macomb Daily photo below generated more than 117,000 views, 11,000 likes, 3,700 comments and 500 shares.
In the successful examples sent me by DFM colleagues, I would say that breaking news, sports, pretty seasonal shots, archival remember-when photos and fun photos are some types that seem to generate strong engagement.
In his post on images, Dan suggested even turning a quote or a line from a story into an image if you don’t have a photo, as I have done below.
I wouldn’t want to see this practice become widespread, but I encourage some DFM newsrooms to try it on occasion and let us know how it works. For a great line or a fun line, it might work just right. Or maybe you can use text like this to dress up a mug shot with a quote.
We want to encourage experimentation. You may have a better idea than posting text as an image. Or you might have an effective idea for posting text or photos in a creative way. In Dan’s post, he linked to a creative image that ProPublica posted and posted the engagement stats. We want to share examples and results like that.
However DFM newsrooms experiment, be sure to share your technique and your results with your DFM colleagues. I will be creating a Google spreadsheet for us to share these stories. Email me — sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com — and I’ll share the spreadsheet with you. To keep things manageable, I will share the spreadsheet only with DFM colleagues, though I welcome others to share their findings in the comments here, and I will blog later about trends and observations from the spreadsheet.
If you’re a journalism professor or graduate student who’s interested in taking this on as a research project, let me know. I’d be happy to discuss the possibility of working together.
Update: A question and answer from Twitter:
.@joshcornfield Photos posted as images are much larger & more engaging than the thumbnails pulled in to a status update.
— Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry) October 12, 2012
Simply posting headlines and links has never been good Facebook practice. Now it will nearly ensure that your posts will get little engagement and exposure. Posts should be conversational, whether you are doing a status update or posting a caption for a photo.
Two important conversational techniques are taking a conversational tone and asking questions. Share fun stories and images on Facebook with the casual tone you’d use in telling a friend about them, not the dry tone many journalists use in writing most stories and headlines. Tragic content, of course, needs a respectful tone.
If you think you’re posting something people will want to talk about, go ahead and start the conversation. Ask a question. (A study by Buddy Media found 15 percent higher engagement on posts that end with a question.)
Dan Petty of the Denver Post starts conversations by framing the debate with prompts to users: like this if you agree; if you disagree, tell why in the comments. Simply begging people to like your content is annoying, but framing the debate around engagement actions can be effective.
Conversational posts don’t need to be long posts. The Buddy Media study found engagement was 27 percent higher in posts shorter than 80 characters than those longer than 80. (That Plum Pit photo that went viral launched a conversation of more than 3,500 comments by asking a question in fewer than 40 characters.)
You should also be part of the conversation you start. Thank people for compliments. Address civil complaints. Answer questions. Provide more information as a breaking story unfolds.
You shouldn’t use your Facebook page simply to spew links. But when you post something relating to content on your website, you should absolutely post a link.
Sometimes with a breaking story, you will be posting a quick photo to Facebook while the reporter is still writing and before you have a link to share. Don’t wait to post to Facebook (with a crowdsourcing question if appropriate), but add the link either in the comments or by editing the original post.
That study by Buddy Media showed that links using actual URLs get more three times more clicks from Facebook than links using shortened URLs. So cut and paste your actual link into your Facebook update or caption, rather than using bit.ly or another URL shortener (Buddy also recommends a branded shortener that lets people see where the link will take them).
The link, by the way, doesn’t count against the 80 character threshold that the Buddy Media study used.
Some DFM colleagues said they add a link to an update and then cut it out of the text after Facebook pulls in the link. I didn’t even know you could do that, but it would take out the bit.ly link and still allow you to use bit.ly to track referrals from Facebook. This wouldn’t work on a photo post, though.
It appears that Facebook’s algorithm tries to put updates in your news feed that are related to topics you’ve shown an interest in. This makes me think that keywords will be helpful in showing Facebook the topics of your content.
I bet it will be a good idea to use full names of sports teams (not just the Vikings or Vikes, but the Minnesota Vikings) and keywords such as football or baseball in your posts. I encourage thinking of keywords in Facebook posts the same as you think of keywords in writing for your website to make sure your content attracts search engines.
What time do you post?
I have noticed that some of our newsrooms post lots of stories to Facebook first thing in the morning, kind of reflecting the publication cycle of the morning newspaper. I’ve thought that was probably a bad idea because early morning is not a strong time for Facebook use. The peak of Facebook traffic is from 1 to 3 p.m. (local time). Facebook also sees a boost in use early in the evening. (I’m looking for the link where I read this; if you have that link, please pass it along; I also heard it from Facebook’s Vadim Lavrusik, speaking at the Associated Press Media Editors conference last year.)
The Buddy Media study showed engagement was 20 percent higher for brands that posted outside of business hours than those that posted only during the business day.
Frankly, I’m not sure what the best times to post are, given the changes to the news-feed algorithm. Maybe it will be harder to get your content noticed during these peak times (and those early-morning posts might be more effective than I thought, because of less competition for attention at that time). Maybe it means we should mix it up at those peak times and just use these engagement techniques to be more effective.
If the algorithm changes are hindering engagement on our branded sites, we need to step up our engagement efforts through staff members’ personal sites. Some journalists engage from their personal accounts (with our without subscriptions) and some use journalist pages, similar to fan pages that news brands have. I have both, but I think the most effective way right now is to use your personal account, with subscriptions enabled, and decide which posts are public and which are private or use the lists feature to target your posts. I mix personal and professional content on my account and all my posts are public.
Journalists should post their own stories on their personal accounts (sharing the post from the branded page will boost engagement there, which might help give it greater visibility). I also encourage sharing occasional posts by your colleagues on your personal account and/or your journalist page. Don’t share everything — you don’t want to be a spammer to your friends — but share the posts you think will interest your friends.
You probably follow up with sources after you’ve done a story — emailing them a link, asking some follow-up questions, etc. Where appropriate, you might want to include in the follow up a request or suggestion that the source post the link on a personal or organizational Facebook page.
You also might consider whether some community groups with Facebook pages might have an interest in your story. If so, it might be appropriate to post the story (or image) to the group’s page.
Encourage sharing from your site
Be sure that you have Facebook (and other social-media) sharing buttons displayed prominently on your story pages. When people share your content with their friends, that will place your content in the news feeds of their friends, inviting further engagement.
Strengthen engagement elsewhere
Digital First newsrooms need to engage through other platforms such as Facebook, but we are vulnerable when those companies make changes, just as newspapers have always been vulnerable to the prices of newsprint and gasoline and the business decisions made by advertisers.
When I visit newsrooms and push them to strengthen their Twitter engagement, I often hear the excuse that they get better engagement on Facebook so they spend more time engaging there. Of course, we need to engage on both. But if you’ve been relying too much on Facebook and the new algorithm hinders your engagement there, you need to step up your efforts on other engagement tools.
I am not pretending that I have all the answers here. I hope Facebook will provide some helpful guidance based on its own data. But I also want to collect helpful answers from my DFM colleagues and other readers of this blog. Here are a few lightly edited questions I received yesterday after presenting a webinar for DFM colleagues, followed by my speculative answers. If you have experience that will provide better answers, please help out:
Are you suggesting that we don’t use more than one main branded account? For example, if I have a main branded page and a branded sports page, is it better I simply post the sports content on the main page?
I am not suggesting that. I simply don’t know. I would measure engagement from both accounts and see where you get stronger engagement. You might decide the niche account isn’t worth the effort. Or you might see strong enough engagement that you should consider other niche accounts, engaging over such local topics as entertainment, opinion or business.
Is it better to have staff share posts off the main account, rather than having them post that content to their own feed and be shared?
The algorithm appears to value content from someone’s friends and family more than from the brands we like. And engagement from people seems to help raise the visibility of posts by brands. So I would suggest posting to the brand page, with staff members then sharing that post on their own pages.
Does a staffer tagging the core account in the post make a difference on either of the above?
I think tagging our core accounts when referring to them from others is a good idea. I also encourage tagging relevant sources, news figures and organizations where we can. Ivan Lajara said in the webinar that if in a post you type @ followed immediately by an organization’s name, Facebook will offer possible organizations to tag. (You can see it working in the screengrab below, where I started typing “@denve” and Facebook offered the Denver Post and other organizations with Denver in their names.)
We auto feed our Facebook to Twitter (then manually remove anything that does not fit or is too long) mainly because of our lack of people doing the work. Should we discontinue that practice? If so, my concern is it will take us down to only a couple posts on either FB or Twitter on certain days. I realize it doesn’t take long to push stories and seek interaction. But with more part-timers than full-timers on staff these days it’s not uncommon for one person to be on the job at a time some days (and very few second and weekend shifts).
I don’t encourage autofeeding, but if you edit to make the post appropriate for Twitter (adding @ usernames and/or hashtags as appropriate and, as you mentioned, editing for length), I consider that manual. Everyone has to make their own choices about how to spend precious staff time, and if these practices don’t sufficiently boost engagement, Facebook won’t be as important in our time management decisions as it has been.
Are there any engagement guidelines/rules/’dos or do nots’ for reaching Facebook mobile app users? It is a different interface, so is there anything different we need to take into consideration when posting?
Good question, and I don’t know the answer. Anyone have any ideas about different things to keep in mind to help engagement on the apps?
Update: Thanks to Lindsey Wiebe for this advice:
@stevebuttry great FB post. One mobile tip: short captions even more important, as FB trims them midpoint (w/an ellipsis).
— Lindsey Wiebe (@lindseywiebe) October 12, 2012
@stevebuttry not sure that made sense, but look at a longish photo caption using Facebook’s mobile app and you’ll see.
— Lindsey Wiebe (@lindseywiebe) October 12, 2012
Strong engagement is in some part tied to audience size. Can you perhaps discuss best practices for increasing FB audience in your blog?
I may mull this for a future blog post. I know contests help build your Facebook audience, and I’m sure the engagement practices we’re discussing here are helpful. But I’ll also ask by blog readers for their advice on this one.
Here are the slides for the webinar I presented Thursday for my DFM colleagues. I will be repeating the webinar and may update the slides if other colleagues send examples of effective posts:
Channeling the news brand: persona and strategy by Mandy Jenkins
Channeling the news brand on Twitter and Facebook by Mandy Jenkins
Interacting with the audience as a news brand by Mandy Jenkins
5 ways to improve Facebook engagement by Sarah Pierce
Jonah Peretti’s 13 ways to make something go viral