Facebook is giving people what they want (engaging content, that is)

Giving people what they want. This is how I would sum up news from EdgeRank Checker that Facebook user engagement is at least 70% lower with posts to Facebook through 3rd party applications (like Hootsuite). We’re not going to get into details on the methodology of the report. Check the original post for that. Allyson Kapin does a great job running through the report and its implications over on Frogloop.

Posting to Facebook with 3rd party applications lowers engagement
Infographic looking at lower Facebook engagement on posts from third party applications.

The idea that posts to Facebook from third party applications get less visibility on Facebook is not new. But this study is the most conclusive look yet at real data. What we want to look at here is what’s the moral of this story for organizations.

What you, as a Facebook user, see on Facebook is not simply a chronological stream of everything posted by every one of your friends and the pages you have liked.

When you visit Facebook you are seeing what Facebook shows you. It’s their network, after all. And what they are showing you is what they think you are most likely to be interested in reading as judged through past likes, comments, wall posts and tags.

Most people have figured out that there is at least some difference between “Top News” and “Most Recent” Facebook streams (though if you have figured out why you see what you do on the Facebook mobile app let us know – that one seems inexplicable at times).

Facebook wants you to see Top News because it believes you will be more likely to be interested and stay on the page. Facebook wants you to be happy.

This, friends, is the world presented to you through an algorithmic filter. Facebook figured out that people are happier seeing stuff they like.

In this regard they are simply following Google’s lead. The secret sauce to Google search and AdWords, after all, is that Google strives to give people the most relevant content and rewards advertisers and content providers that make that easier for them.

Google and Facebook are giving people what they want. Google and Facebook are not interested in your content. Google and Facebook act as conduits to bring relevant content to interested readers. That is all. This is why top tier search ad placement doesn’t merely go to the highest bidder. Google wants ads that people will click on and will show those more often (which brings in more revenue to Google while bringing more relevant information to users).

Online discussion about why there is a huge drop in Facebook engagement for posts coming from 3rd party applications will likely focus on whether or not Facebook automatically blocks or condenses 3rd party content (or the extent to which it is doing so).

We don’t believe Facebook is being arbitrary here, however, in blocking or discounting 3rd party content. The problem with most 3rd party content is that it sucks. Let us count the ways:

  • Third party posts are most often not written for a Facebook audience. This is mostly the fault of the content creator but the applications themselves don’t do a good job formatting for the Facebook environment (420 character posts, a photo, title, etc).
  • Third party posts are often the same post that is going to Twitter and thus an abbreviated 120 or so characters that leaves many Facebook users scratching their heads.
  • Third party posts are often scheduled hours or days in advance and no longer timely.
  • Many third party posts consists of a blog post title and link and so do little to provoke reader response.
  • And many (most?) posts from 3rd party applications is coming from or on behalf of brands, companies, organizations and campaigns with fan pages, not personal profiles. By and large, these pages have weak ties to their fans and do a poor job creating provocative posts. Write a dull or simply self-serving post and readers won’t react. That many of these posts are coming to Facebook through 3rd party applications doesn’t do Hootsuite many favors.

The problem here is not simply that people are using third party applications to create and post content (though I would love to know the full thinking on this at Facebook). The issue is that most of us aren’t trying very hard. This is a bit ironic given the hope that organizations have in social networks and their ability to engage audiences (and improve both advocacy and fundraising).

Michael Stein at DonorDigital recently wrote about the increasingly despairing difficulty of email fundraising that is causing organizations to increase resources (or at least attention) directed at social media in hopes of finding some ROI there:

“…you have to relentlessly grow your email list to raise money through email. Many nonprofits are clinging to the hope that social media can help strengthen donor engagement online — let’s hope it does.”

This is all increasingly important. Too important to do poorly. Fortunately, it’s not rocket science. Here are a few basics that are often overlooked:

  • Write to provoke a response. Don’t just link to your new blog post.
  • Think about what the reader is interested in and wants to know (not just what you want to tell them or ask them to do).
  • Look closely at your Facebook insights and sort out the posts that are getting responses and those that aren’t. Learn from these numbers. Model the stronger posts. Share this data with colleagues.
  • Do use Facebook for most or all of your Facebook posts. Facebook does bundle posts from third party applications and you don’t want to get stuck in that pile.
  • Interact with and engage your readers. Respond to comments on wall posts. Ask questions. Call people out by name and tag fans/visitors. Have photos? Encourage users to tag themselves in your photos (and to tag you in theirs). You don’t need a fancy application to engage people. But you do need a little time and a little care.
  • Keep tabs on your most frequent commenters. Try to develop relationships with them outside Facebook and encourage them to share your content with their networks.

There is no magic silver bullet for engagement. Interacting with people is sometimes messy business that takes a plan, resources and commitment. Understand what value you bring to your fans and readers. Bring that value again and again. They will appreciate it. And so might your Edgerank.

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