Is Facebook now just “Pay for Display” for brands?

While Facebook’s news feed algorithms don’t generate quite the same level of interest and passion among digital marketers as Google’s SEO metrics, it doesn’t mean they’re any less deserving of our attention.

Yet it appears many brands still don’t properly understand how Facebook’s algorithms work. For example, many brands still believe that almost everything they post on their Facebook pages will be seen by their fans and followers. However, the reality couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Each day, the average Facebook user could be exposed to as many as 1,500 posts from friends and brands that they follow. But because of space, and to avoid clogging up a user’s news feed, Facebook will only display a limited number of these posts. Facebook therefore decides what posts to show users, and where, based on data on both the post and the user themselves.  As a result, very little of what a brand posts on Facebook these days will actually be seen by its followers.

Back in 2012 it was estimated that around 16% of a brand’s organic posts would reach users. By this year that estimate was down to 6%. And with Facebook set to apply yet another update to its news feed algorithm in early 2015, this level of organic reach is expected to fall even further. Strangely, the more fans a brand has, the less organic reach they appear to achieve.

Facebook reach for organic posts

As the above graph shows, the majority of posts from brands won’t ever be seen their fans and followers. So even if a brand has millions of fans, if its posts are not what Facebook’s algorithm considers “quality,” they may reach very few people.

But consistently producing high-quality content, which Facebook deems so good that it merits display on a user’s news feed, is easier said than done. Increasingly, if brands want people to see their content, they’ll have to pay for the privilege. “Pay for display” if you will.

In many ways, this is hardly surprising. Facebook is a huge publicly-listed business after all. And just like any business, it needs to turn a profit for its shareholders.

If brands willingly pay other mediums such as TV, radio, newspaper and websites to carry their messages, why should Facebook and social media in general be any different? Why should Facebook be expected to help businesses advertise for free?

The drive towards “pay for display” on Facebook is also due to competition and the success of Facebook itself. As more and more brands move onto Facebook each year, and more and more users “like” company pages, there is simply less space on the Facebook news feed to display content from them all. As such, those brands that pay for their content to be displayed will be given pride of place over everyone else in the Facebook “shop window”.

Nevertheless, it seems many brands have simply gotten too used to using Facebook as a free advertising tool. Even though Facebook has drastically changed the rules of the game, many still have their head stuck in the sand and have resorted to simply complaining, or continuing to post organic content in the mistaken belief (hope?) that it’ll be seen by enough people.

Facebook did recently update its account settings to allow people more control over what they see on their news feed. The update gives users insight into why certain posts are included and lets people filter posts from specific people and pages. It’s also allowed users easily change their news feed view between Top Stories (based on Facebook’s algorithm) and Most Recent. Nevertheless, like so many Facebook changes, it’s unlikely many users will be aware of this new update or how they can customise their news feeds.

In short, Facebook is still a great way to connect with your customers and market to them. But you’ll need to get out the company credit card and start spending big if you actually hope to be able to reach them all through Facebook in the future.

A history of Facebook's news feed algorithm