What Advertisers Need to Know About Facebook’s New News Feed

For the last many years, the heart of advertising looked like this:

facebook-algorithm

Well, maybe not the heart of all advertising – that is a bit of an overstatement. But any brand that has committed any significant effort to Facebook was highly concerned with this funny little equation. This is a highly simplified expression of EdgeRank, the algorithm that Facebook used to determine which of the 1,500 (or so) potential stories would be shown to a user when she logged in.

EdgeRank has been spoken of in hushed tones, generally reserved for discussions of how to rank highly on Google. EdgeRank balanced three factors (shown in the equation above): user affinity, content weighting, and how old the post was. Roughly 300 of those 1,500 posts were shown to users at the time of login. If you were a brand posting to a Facebook page as a way to engage consumers, having a high EdgeRank was critical. A brilliant but unseen post is totally worthless.

This week, though, Facebook officially retired EdgeRank and instead introduced a few new concepts, but the really important one is “story bumping.” Briefly: story bumping is a new method of ranking stories based on how interesting they are to you (as determined by the Facebook algorithm), rather than on how old they are. Consider your Facebook habits. Just this morning, I went online and began scrolling through and clicked on a gallery of absolutely hilarious cat pictures. Four posts below the cats was an update from my brother about my nephew’s birthday. Under the previous method, when I went back on to Facebook several hours later, that post from my brother would have been buried beneath all of the new posts that have been put up since my last visit. Now, however, Facebook realizes that I still want to see that post, so (on my next login), the nephew story would be posted at or near the top.

The Importance of the News Feed

The news feed is becoming a critical channel to participate in. Media owners have always wanted to be at critical distribution points of consumer attention. Newspapers want to list movies and radio stations want to tell you about TV shows. Being the place where people go first to make decisions about where else they want to go is key because it becomes a reliable source of viewership which can, of course, be sold.

This was the Internet promise of the portal (like Yahoo), only to be succeeded by search (like Google). You can argue that blogs served this purpose as well, since they showed people other things to look at online (remember, the word “blog” is short for “web log”).

Today, the news feed is increasingly serving the purpose of jumping-off-point for more and more people. You can see this increasing in the future as well. Right now, Facebook clearly knows that I watch “Sons of Anarchy,” listen to Mumford and Sons, and follow the San Francisco Giants (please let them start winning again). That could be just about enough to provide me with a listening guide, a TV schedule, and weekend plans.

So being a part of the news feed is becoming key to reaching consumers. I am massively in favor of these changes in the way that Facebook ranks stories. I’ve railed against some of its other ideas for surfacing more content (e.g., that mess of a ticker it put in the upper right corner), but this one seems promising to me for a few reasons – reasons that I think all advertisers need to consider as they cook up their strategies for Facebook.

Here are some thoughts:

  • It is (a little bit) OK to seek likes. The standard approach to strategy is to avoid “like bait” – stories that don’t have anything to do with your brand but still can get likes. The worst of these are the “like if you don’t like Mondays” kind of posts or posts of galleries of cats (I’m not proud of my behavior). In traditional advertising, the semi-joke was that if you couldn’t think of anything else, just put in a baby or a puppy and you were good. This is absolutely a bad practice. However, the number of times someone likes your posts in general will determine the visibility of future posts. You can then integrate some like-bait-style content in, but you have to be careful not to overdo things. And you have to try to make sure that you are staying within a broad sense of relevance. Too much like-bait will ultimately sink your whole campaign.
  • Be confident in your valuable posts. Everyone who posts something online, whether for personal or work use, watches the number of likes or shares. The cool thing promised by story bumping is that you can actually relax this a bit. That is, you don’t have to worry that you are being missed because other things are distracting your consumer. Of course, you still need to be engaging and interesting. But if you are, you can have some confidence that she will see your post later.
  • Nothing matters more than engagement (except consistency). Google’s engineers are constantly trying to figure out how to model relevance – a fairly abstract concept – inside a computer. Every update Google makes to its algorithm gets it a bit closer to what a person would think is relevant to a particular search. That is, updates make the machines act more like the way we expect the world to work. The same thing is happening here at Facebook, and good for the social network. If we keep on creating great content that matters, engaging directly with consumers around that content, and doing it on a regular basis, we should be successful.

Good luck, everyone. The changes are pretty fresh, so we will revisit them once we get to know their effect a bit better. But I, for one, am excited to see how this will play out.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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