This week I saw a post from a Digital First Media newsroom in my Facebook news feed, and was surprised to see it there. I “liked” dozens of DFM newsrooms during my time there, but don’t particularly care to follow their news that much now.
So I decided to unlike the page. And, while I was at it, I went into the list of pages I liked and decided to unlike a bunch more — at least two dozen, maybe three (it was probably an oversight that I didn’t like all 75 DFM dailies and some weeklies). And most of them, I had no idea I was even following because, well, they never showed up in my news feed. In fact, I’m not sure how that one showed up the other day because I hadn’t seen it in ages. I only recognized two or three of the ones I dropped as occasionally showing up in my feed.*
That illustrates a problem for news brands. I know every one of those newsrooms I unfollowed has staff members faithfully posting all of their stories, or several stories they think have the most appeal, to their Facebook pages daily. And most of their “fans” never see most of their posts.
The most recent estimate I’ve seen of the percentage of fans seeing a typical post was 16 percent, and that was in 2012, and the figure has certainly dropped as Facebook has made several algorithm tweaks, all designed to make it harder for non-paying brands to get their posts seen.
Maybe the number is something like 10 percent these days, but it will frequently be many of the same people, and probably 70 to 80 percent of your fans almost never see a post. They’re surprised when you show up in their news feed, as I was when my former colleagues’ post showed up this week.
But Facebook traffic is growing in importance for news sites. Parse.ly reported last August that Facebook drives 70 million page views a month to news publishers, second only to Google and more than twice as much as Twitter.
In addition, Parse.ly reported this month that stories with a higher Facebook referral rate have a longer shelf life, attracting traffic over more days than stories that don’t get strong engagement. Higher Twitter referral rates also help shelf life, but not as long as on Facebook.
So Facebook is an important source of news-site traffic, but engagement on Facebook is more complicated than simply posting links there (since most people don’t see them).
I won’t claim that I know all the latest changes and subtle quirks of the Facebook news feed algorithm. And I invite you to share your tips and knowledge, and links to people who have figured out more than I have. But here’s what I recommend for Facebook engagement strategy in May 2015 (they could change the algorithm next month, or even next week, and some of this might have to change).
OK, it’s annoying that Facebook doesn’t admit it’s trying to wring more money out of news brands (and other commercial brands) by limiting your appearance in their “organic” news feed.
But you’re in the advertising business! Your colleagues in the sales department try similar ploys to push people to advertise in the paper and in your digital products, or would if they could, so they can cover your paycheck. And your company (in many news organizations, including DFM) just raised the print subscription rates to give customers “all-access” to your digital products that many of them never read and don’t want access to. If anyone shouldn’t get high and mighty about being pressured to advertise or do business with them, it’s people in the news business.
So get over your pique and see if the ads are worth it. Test promoting different types of links to different types of audiences and measure the results. If it works, set a budget and spend it on the most effective sorts of advertising or on important posts that don’t get the traction you think they should. If it doesn’t work, stop advertising. That’s what your advertisers do.
Start a conversation
I just checked the 10 most recent Facebook posts by each of 10 newspapers** that I know well and 99 out of the 100 posts I checked were plugging links to the newspapers’ latest content or asking you to like another Facebook page the newspaper runs. (The one exception was a Des Moines Register post seeking Mother’s Day memories.)
Think about other social settings. If you run into someone at a party who’s always talking about himself, you aren’t going to spend much time with that person. But if you run into a good conversationalist who asks about you, listens to you and tells you interesting stuff, when she tells you about something she’s written, you’ll want to read it (or watch the video she tells you about).
Facebook is the same way. People engage with good conversationalists at Facebook the same way they do at parties. News organizations wanting better engagement need to start and join conversations.
I posted two years ago about Maryanne Macleod‘s fabulous success when she was engagement editor at the Macomb Daily in Michigan, posting old photos from the community and just asking who remembered the place:
That picture got more than 12,000 likes. Two years later, the Macomb Daily Facebook page has just 11,561 likes. Nearly 4,000 people shared the photo, putting it on their Facebook pages, probably with a comment.
Did it drive any traffic? Not immediately; it didn’t even offer a link. But it started a robust conversation. And everyone who liked, shared, commented and clicked on that photo was more likely to see subsequent updates when Maryanne did post links, and they might be more inclined to look at those updates rather than scrolling past, because they enjoyed the conversations.
And the day that Maryanne posted that photo, the Macomb Daily picked up another couple hundred fans. (Same thing happened with another old photo that got even more likes, but only a thousand or so shares).
You will get better engagement with your Facebook posts if you take a more conversational tone, asking questions rather than just promoting your latest content. Ask a related question sometimes when you’re promoting your content: The Denver Post, covering last night’s NFL draft, posted a link to its coverage, but asked fans what they thought of the pick***. The update had 77 comments, 309 likes and 15 shares when I checked it at 2:30 a.m. The Post (which has 320,000 Facebook fans) started a conversation, not hard to do among Bronco fans.
I know of newsrooms that require a link with every Facebook post. I prefer a conversation that includes some links. Crowdsource upcoming stories (as the Register was doing for Mother’s Day) or unfolding daily stories. Ask people what you should be covering. Ask what angle you should take to a story coming up that day or later in the week. Break news on Facebook before you have a story to link to (you can add the link when you have it).
Consider photos and videos
My Facebook engagement advice in 2012 encouraged posting photos (with links in the accompanying text), rather than status updates. That was good advice then, when sharing a link in a status update only pulled in a thumbnail photo, and Facebook’s algorithm smiled more kindly on photos. Now the algorithm (as I understand it; the actual algorithm is a secret) favors updates with links, which will pull in a photo the full width of the headline (you should use the arrows on the preview, which will still be a thumbnail, to choose the best photo available).
And, of course, if you have a standalone photo that’s just a conversation-starter, like Maryanne used, that’s still gold.
And videos are driving more engagement on Facebook now, especially if you upload them directly to Facebook (rather than linking to a YouTube video), so they play as users scroll by. That annoys me, but I guess it works.
Update: Check the “encourage staff engagement” section for a tip from Jeff Edelstein. Also check the detailed and helpful advice from Aaron Bradley in the comments.
Try some Facebook events
Maryanne had the most creative Facebook event I’ve seen, presenting Romeo and Juliet on Facebook (using local high school actors, including a girl who had recently played Juliet on the stage), improvising the story to reflect how it would unfold in the era of Facebook.
Trentonian columnist Jeff Edelstein (more on him later) presents a best-bar tournament, bracket style, during the NCAA tournament. It runs on the Trentonian website, but Facebook really drives the engagement (and vice versa).
Other great engagement projects rooted in Facebook engagement have been March Pet Madness (brain child of Lisa Yanick-Jonaitis and Holly Mahaffey of the Morning Sun), The Things We Do for Love (Aubree Cutkomp of the Saratogian). Think of seasonal and community-based events and interests that you can build Facebook events around.
Events can drive traffic to the website and help sell the print edition, but they are most valuable for improving Facebook engagement, both in growing fans and in getting fans to tell Facebook’s algorithm that they want to see your posts.
Encourage staff engagement
I just mentioned Trentonian columnist Jeff Edelstein above and I have said he is a Facebook rock star. You need to encourage your staff members to use Facebook for engagement (and occasional sharing of links, which their friends will be more likely to see than your followers).
Check out how Jeff used Facebook to engage his community during Hurricane Sandy and the Bridgegate controversy in New Jersey. That big-story engagement succeeds because Jeff charms his 5,000 Facebook friends with a daily routine conversation about their community, their lives and his life. He talks to them with humor, empathy and self-deprecation. He’s that Facebook friend you want to meet in real life (and many have; I ate lunch with him once in a restaurant near Trenton, and we were constantly interrupted by fans and friends).
Develop (and reward) some Facebook rock stars in your staff. Encourage (but don’t require) staffers to share their work on their personal pages, and to share colleagues’ work occasionally (not everything, but the things they think will interest their friends). Encourage crowdsourcing and conversation about their work (and family and other interests). People engage with the people they like, and if they start liking your staff members, like they do Jeff, they read his posts, even when he shares links or links to his colleagues’ work.
In fact, even though I no longer “like” the San Jose Mercury News, I saw (and shared) a link from the Merc last night, after it appeared in my news feed because a friend from the Merc posted it.
Update: In a tweet responding to this post, Jeff sends a good tip:
@stevebuttry Thanks for the press! Also check out my page and look what I’m doing w/videos. Not linking until the comments. Been working.
— Jeff Edelstein (@jeffedelstein) May 1, 2015
@stevebuttry note the “check out the column down there” bit. Literally pointing down, where the comment/link to column is
— Jeff Edelstein (@jeffedelstein) May 1, 2015
Make sharing easy
I won’t spend much time here, because I hope all news sites are using social sharing buttons now. But if you’re not, add them. And if you have them, test them to make sure they work (mine work at the bottom of the post; that’s a screengrab from the Merc at the left. As we’ve noted above, most people aren’t seeing your posts, so the posts by your community, sharing it with friends who will see their links, are becoming a more important part of organic Facebook reach.
I no longer follow the Des Moines Register, but when my friend Daniel P. Finney, a Register columnist and social media rock star with 3,000+ Facebook friends, wrote about his weight-loss plans, I saw his post again and again on Facebook as people around Des Moines (and the country) eagerly shared a candid column and video that touched them deeply.
Let reporters know when stories get strong engagement. Show them how many people are sharing their stories, and spot the patterns of what they like to share. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do watchdog journalism if people don’t share it. But you might consider whether some approaches to storytelling, interactive content or your Facebook outreach on other stories can bring more reach and impact to your watchdog work.
Reach out on Facebook
Consider who might be interested in the topics you write about: a high school alumni or fan group, a local animal shelter, a church or neighborhood group. Many such groups have their own Facebook pages or groups (which can be public or private, but you could ask to join a private group). Should you start your reporting effort with a crowdsourcing request there? I think engagement with such groups probably works better coming from the reporter, rather than the brand, but you might experiment. Especially if you’ve already been conversing with people on the page (or in a group), your link will be welcome there when you finish the story (and interest will be high).
Even if this story didn’t lend itself to crowdsourcing, consider posting the link in a conversational manner, if you’re confident they would be interested in the story. (Be careful not to become a spammer, taking a read-me tone in your post, posting too often or posting things of marginal interest to a group.)
Another form of outreach is the simple use of tags. If you cover a person or group in the community, remember to tag them in your post. They will probably be notified of the tag and will probably check your work and might share it with their highly interested friends.
Hashtags haven’t caught on much on Facebook. But if you see one in your community or a topic you cover that’s gathering momentum, that’s a way to reach people who follow the hashtag.
Engage with comments
Whether on your branded page, your personal wall, in comments by others who tag you, and in the comments on your outreach efforts, watch the comments and engage with them. Answer questions if you can. If the question is good and you don’t know the answer, say you’ll try to get it (and then deliver). Thank people for helpful news tips and later credit them, if they want it. If someone provides a news tip that you’ve already covered, share a link (and thank them, don’t put them down for missing the story). Address civil criticism.
If people are getting ugly, you can delete them from posts you control (and say why; I don’t tolerate factual errors, bigotry or personal attacks, and I cite those reasons when I delete comments).
Consider Facebook commenting on your site
This has pros and cons. Facebook will own the data, and you won’t get valuable registration data from commenters (but if you have a paywall, you will already have data on subscribers). But if you use Facebook comments, people commenting on your website will be sharing their comments and your links on their Facebook wall. And that has important value. And most people use their real names, which cuts down on some of the ugliness (though it’s amazing what people will say publicly).
I’m not sure Facebook is the best way to handle comments, but Jim Romenesko uses them on his site and he shows up more than nearly every news brand in my news feed.
Not everything I’ve mentioned here will work. But be ambitious and audacious in your experimentation. I did not get the Romeo and Juliet idea at all when I first heard it, but Maryanne was bold in her experimentation and it worked. I would not encourage anything like livetweeting on Facebook. But when Mandy Jenkins was at Huffington Post, she generated powerful engagement with a modified live coverage approach to State of the Union message coverage on Facebook that highlighted key points in real time. Update: Mandy (on Facebook, of course) gave me this clarification (I didn’t reread her blog post and forgot that she wasn’t sharing her own work: “Thanks, but I can’t really take any credit for that SOTU idea or execution. That was all the NYC-based social team.” Another update: Try some experiments like Jeff did with video.
I think Facebook posts should be brief (not necessarily as short as tweets, but usually short enough that I don’t have to click “more” to read it all. But experiment with length. If you have something to say at length, grab my attention and I’ll click more. If a lot of us do, note what you did, and how and on what topic, and try again. See what you’ve learned.
Regard everything I’ve mentioned above as suggestions for experimentation. Try something I’ve suggested (or something bolder) and see how it works with your community. Don’t abandon if it fails once, but try it at a different time of day or on a different type of story. If it doesn’t work in any situations, move on to another experiment.
Go ahead and post links
Don’t be too discouraged by that low percentage of people who see your posts. Facebook is still a good place to post links to your best work. If you have 10,000 fans and only 10 percent of them see a post, that’s still 1,000 fans (or 32,000, if you’re the Denver Post). And these fans are the people who are most engaged with your page, so some of them will like or share or comment on your post if it appeals to them. And they likely will share it with a more conversational comment than yours. And then some of their friends see it and like it and so on.
This remains a key part of your organic reach, and you should still post links to your best stories. But probably not all your stories. Facebook users prefer occasional conversation to the firehose. I suspect that posting more links does not increase your chances of reaching people, but increases your chances of being actively hidden by a user or of being ignored, and Facebook’s algorithm will drop you out of their sight.
What tips would you add?
I hope some of my many friends who manage Facebook pages will see this post and share some of your experiences. (I’m going to reach out on Facebook to some people I know will have valuable experiences to contribute.) What changes have you noticed lately in the algorithm and resulting engagement? What is working for you? What have you tried that didn’t work? What advice that I shared is outdated? What advice of mine could you improve?
Update: Thanks to Ian Hill, director of digital strategy at News10 in Sacramento, for this suggestion on Facebook:
Check out some broadcast Facebook stations. Broadcast tends to do better on Facebook while print does better on Twitter. There are obviously several reasons for this, but one of the biggest is that broadcast outlets tend to be more human and express more emotion on Facebook. Newspapers tend to be a little colder and as a result, a little less engaging. It can be as simple as expressing condolences in the text of a post about a murder victim. Great Facebook posts are about emotion. Twitter’s speed and character limit seem to make it a better platform for print journalists who know how to pack a lot of information into short sentences.
My experience with TV operations in Cedar Rapids and Washington found that they were not using any social media well, but that was four to seven years ago. I suspect that as they figured out that social media is an important newsroom function, their greater comfort level with personality and promotion helps them be more conversational. I did not study TV stations, radios or magazines for this post, just because of my greater familiarity with newspapers and in the interest of time.
I’d like to see (and might someday do) a comparison of social media in a particular market by different types of legacy media.
*Don’t worry, former DFM colleagues, I didn’t unfriend any of you. I just unliked your papers. But I still like them. I just no longer “like” them. I wasn’t seeing much of your stuff anyway.
** The newspapers I checked were the New York Times, which I follow closely, and nine papers with personal or geographic ties: The Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News, York Daily Record, New Haven Register and Macomb Daily (all DFM newsrooms); two of my former Iowa employers, the Des Moines Register and Cedar Rapids Gazette; and the largest two Louisiana newsrooms, NOLA.com and the Advocate.
***Didn’t want to break the flow above when I mentioned the Broncos, but I’m a Chiefs fan, so I hope that draft pick, whoever he was, is a huge bust.
Final note: I wrote this late at night, kept awake by steroids administered in this round of chemotherapy. I didn’t feel like rounding up posts other people have written about the Facebook algorithm changes and Facebook engagement advice, so it doesn’t have as many links as I usually use, but I encourage you to share such links in the comments.
Previous posts on Facebook engagement
Check the dates on these. In some cases, I have already noted above what may be outdated, or partially so. Use old advice at your own risk and watch the results: