tech tuesday: throttled posts

A while back Facebook announced it was going to “throttle” organic posts within follower’s news feeds. The change was billed in response to the roughly billion or so Facebook users, many who took part in a survey saying too many “organic posts in their feed are too promotional.”

Initially, the change went unnoticed by the average user. This is, in part, because of the outright pacivity most users react to the about 300 or so posts in their news feed anyhow.

The major tech blogs picked up on the change announcement as the apocalyptic headline du jour predicting the end of organic engagement on the venerable social media site. Apart from aggressive, large brands and AAA advertisers who follow it closely the announcement still flew under the radar of most page managers.

Fast-forward a few months and small businesses, independent artists and other page managers of all types began feel the drop in engagement – mostly it was an intuitive thing, they just felt it, but some justified it with hard numbers from their Facebook analytics. The accusations and conspiracy theories began to fly, but, as you’d expect, most of them uneducated rabble. However, the result was a minor uprising, clouded by misconception and ignorance, that spread from page managers to their fans and then through the rest of the internet in vintage telephone game style.

I could spill an impressive volume of digital ink trying to discredit the rumors being perpetuated. However, as with everything else these days, there’s a large enough segment of these people that believe so strongly in the truth they perceive that even when confronted with the facts they’ll still defend what they believe anyhow even at the expense of their own success. I can’t change their mind, so it’s not worth trying. They can just continue to fail spectacularly and I’ll try not to rubberneck in the process.

To me though the more interesting questions and learnings to arise outside of conspiracy theory anyhow.

I find it difficult to believe Facebook made such a decision based solely on a user survey. There’s plenty of evidence supporting the theory that people’s actions are a better indication of their wants, need or desires than their responses when queried. This phenomenon being the case and knowing how data driven Facebook tends to be, chances are more likely they saw patterns emerge in the underlying user data regarding engagement of posts in user’s news feed. The variance between the different type of news feed posts types led Facebook to make a certain set of assumptions based on the origin of the post, the content contained in the post and other characteristic segments probably drove some of their decisions based on their interpretation of the data.

I assume they have the big data capability to truly understand consumer behavior patterns in ways most of us could only dream up in a Huxley-Orwellian kind of way. From that they probably can tease very subtle tests out of their assumptions looking for a balance between performance of the posts related to user engagement (likes, comments, re-posts, etc) and the needs of the page managers in terms of visibility of specific messages as they change the frequency, the prominence and other characteristics of the news feed presentations.

To me, there appears to be a value above mere passive relevance in this case. There’s something more that Facebook is valuing beyond you previously having liked a content page when deciding the placement of that pages content in your feed. Intuitively this would make sense actually as there’s no gradation in a ‘like’ action for the page itself, the like is simply an on-off switch. Facebook battled a problem previously with news feed noise and I have to believe they learned from it.

Since there’s a finite amount of space in your news feed, and time for you to consume what’s there, there has to be some other mechanism to control the feed other than the page like. Facebook must believe it’s working toward optimizing this experience, thus are autotuning it for users rather than relying on the user to self-tune their page content. While most users will say they would prefer to self-tune it actively their actions speak otherwise. Facebook knows this when it reviews its own data, such has how users use privacy settings they can manually control, as well as what’s demonstrated in general through other studies that follow customization preferences. The majority of people won’t take the action and even of the segment who does they only do so because of a high level of motivation in that particular action not in all actions in general. Due to this apathy and Facebook’s desire to optimize the user experience they are taking a portion of the control out of the end-users hand.

I say only a portion because the end-user can still control their news feed – not by ticking boxes in a settings section but by taking actual actions on what appears in it. The concept at play here is that if you see a post and you take action on the post it represents something you are actively interested in not just passively consuming, thus by liking, commenting or sharing what appears in your feed you are creating those same mechanisms as if you were ticking off boxes in your settings only it’s happening dynamically, learning from your continued actions rather than relying on you to update these things on your own.

It should, in theory, cause page mangers to present more compelling content. The kind of content that encourages active participation not just passive consumption. This is a HUGE mindset shift for page managers most of whom were used to turning out volume and one of the reasons why they protest against such change is because thye don’t know what that content actually is for the people who previously liked their page and are therefor lost on how to create it.

In order to become a great content creator it requires a lot more effort than most page mangers can give. They lack the experience, time, money and tools to create it, monitor it and optimize it and worse for many they also lack the money and requisite knowledge to farm out those tasks to someone else as well. While for some this will be a wake up call to learn more about consumer engagement for others it may be a signal that they need to consider a different platform for the kind of content they are capable of creating such as Twitter, Tumblr or Pinterest (to name a few).

In these cases the page manager realizes that every post has a value. A raison d’etre if you will. And, in considering that they will create a post not for the sake of it being but because it is serving a larger purpose. In theory the goal of the post is to drive a specific, measurable action. It doesn’t have to always be driving a sale such as using a coupon to buy a pizza or downloading a song from a particular website, it could be to invoke a conversation or get specific feedback or even just be interestingly news worthy enough to stimulate a share. Producing posts without value creates excess noise and in the Facebook universe extra noise is bad. Facebook says that when they interpret the data and it’s backed up by the oft-quoted user survey.

For most page managers though it’s going to be a Dunning-Kruger scenario where they don’t know what they don’t know and thus in their ignorance are unable to actually fix anything that’s going wrong with their social media strategy. They’ll expend more energy in complaining then they probably would in learning, but to them, that’s beside the point anyhow.

While it may be true that under all of this is an effort for Facebook to monetize more it’s unlikely that this alone is their motivation. Pushing some page managers into becoming advertisers by the route of sponsored posting in order to boost a post’s profile or buying ads in order to guarantee a certain number of impressions, the fact of the matter is those things require the same understanding of optimization for engagement to be successful too. By leading page managers into making better organic posts they are, in effect, also priming them for better paid ones should that avenue be of interest and making better overall consumables both paid and organic across the site.

What most critics forget is it would be bad business for Facebook to approach this any other way. Simply forcing every page manager to throw money at a poorly designed post or a badly produced ad won’t result in anything effective for them. The post won’t have traction, the ad won’t convert and it undermines the purchaser’s propensity to buy again which is bad for business for Facebook. Furthermore, if lots of post boosts and ads perform poorly it reduces the end user’s engagement with the posts and ads in general which devalues the inventory making it more difficult to continue to see which is also bad for Facebook. So, no, I doubt it’s a pure profit grab to throttle posts of page managers because Facebook is inherently not stupid enough to believe ever page manager is a potential ad buyer too.

Thus, all links to stories about bands and small businesses who claim to have been screwed by Facebook lack some central insight into how and why Facebook actually functions, the shear number of posts generated, the saturation it experiences even at the furthest reaches of the long tail and what it aims to provide as a consumer value proposition in helping it’s users connect with the information it believes could be most important to them. Facebook’s modus operandi never was about treating every piece of information equally and this is just another step in that process. And, they aren’t the first company applying big data filters in order to help eliminate noise either: Google, Amazon and others use the same kind of algorithms to determine what to show you in search results, Apple, Yahoo and others use it in tweaking what their featured content looks like and even some brick and mortar retailers use it when they present variable pricing options to you that are different from your fellow shoppers.

So, in the end the lesson learned is to cultivate the best possible relationship with your social media followers by touching base with them early in their relationship with you and often. It might be more work but the result of greater effort in your engagement should be greater loyalty and more evangelicalism out of them – and isn’t that more important than if they just passively happen to see your post show up in their feed?


About thedoormouse

I am I. That’s all that i am. my little mousehole in cyberspace of fiction, recipes, sacrasm, op-ed on music, sports, and other notations both grand and tiny:
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