How Publishers Can Survive Facebook Churn: Top Expert Weighs In — Part II

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This is part two of a Q & A with social-media researcher and adviser Grzegorz Piechota, an expert on Facebook who thinks local news publishers and other content creators can benefit from the giant social platform’s major retooling of its center of gravity, the News Feed. Read part one here.

Looking at Facebook and how influence works on the platform, in your new report you distinguish between “professional” influencers and “micro” influencers on the local level. So it’s OK for news publishers to use micro influencers but not professional ones?

Professional influencers such as celebrities, bloggers, and famous YouTubers are treated by Facebook as other publishers or brands. Posts by their pages are getting suppressed to make space for posts shared by users’ direct friends and family.

The reason for Facebook to break the reach of professional influencers is that the network saw them increasingly as competitors. Some influencers have built impressive communities of followers on Facebook and have started to make a lot of money by distributing branded content for a fee. If people could pay influencers to increase their reach on Facebook, why would they pay for advertising? The new guidelines ban influencers from distributing content created by others for any gratification.

Micro-influencers are different — they are recognized individuals in their communities: experts, fans, activists, etc. They don’t own pages on Facebook; they just have a lot of friends. Engaging micro-influencers is a grass-roots, community-building sort of work. But there are publishers who have been very successful at building massive traffic upon hundreds of such micro-influencers (e.g., Blasting News, a popular news site in Europe and Latin America).

Campbell Brown, who heads Facebook’s News Partnerships, said in a recent Recode forum that people don’t come to Facebook for news — they come for “friends and family.” But two-thirds of Americans — 67%, according to the August 2017 Pew survey — say they get at least some of their news from Facebook and other social media. Your comment?

I believe she is right, although this is not the full story. Independent studies confirm the main reason for using social media is “to stay in touch with what my friends are doing.” In a worldwide survey of Global Web Index, 42% of internet users aged 16-64 said that. The motivation “to stay up to date with news and current events” is the second most popular, cited by 41% of internet users across the globe.

As you point out in your report, Facebook is testing a two-channel approach for news and social. What is that test showing?

In six markets, Facebook has removed all posts from pages in the original News Feed and put them in another feed called Explore Feed. All publishers that I talked to in Bolivia and Slovakia — two of the test countries — noticed a significant drop in engagements on Facebook such as a drop in the number of “likes” or other reactions.

The negative impact on publishers’ traffic depended on how much they had relied on Facebook referrals before the change and how many of the referred visits originated from posts by publishers and those shared by readers. These numbers differ very much among publishers. “Denik N,” a major publisher in Slovakia, proved to be pretty independent from Facebook. It lost only about 6% of its total visits in the first three months of the test.

Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp., says Facebook and the other big platforms should pay a “carriage fee” to news publishers for using their editorial content basically free of charge. Facebook’s Head of News Partnerships Campbell Brown, when asked about this at the recent Recode forum, said, “I would never say no to anything.” Are carriage fees a realistic possibility? Should – and legally can – publishers push for them?

Mr. Murdoch certainly is not the only publisher who bets the relationship between digital platforms and content creators will evolve as the cable TV market has in the past.

Many observers, such as Prof. Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business, believe that the risk of an industry-wide blackout might be the way to push platforms to the negotiation table with content creators and win some fees. Last year, the U.S. publishers announced they would seek antitrust exemption from Congress in an effort to negotiate collaboratively with Facebook and Google.

Interestingly, Facebook called the bluff even before it was presented. In the six-country test launched fall last fall, it removed all posts from pages, including those by publishers, from News Feed in the six countries and locked these posts into another feed where they are harder to find. It must have not turned out to be very painful to Facebook because early this year the company de-prioritized news and other professional content all over the world. The time spent on the platform by its users decreased, and this may still affect ad revenue. Anyway, as long as the engagement numbers don’t drop significantly and as long as the investors don’t freak out, Mr. Zuckerberg has no reason to back off from his strategy.

The threat of regulation might be a reason for Mr. Zuckerberg to reconsider his stance. In Europe both the EU Commission and the member state governments seem to be more eager to challenge the U.S. platforms and protect European publishers and journalism.

Facebook looks as if it’s in a state of siege — as reported here and here, among other places. Should local news publishers be concerned about whether the platform’s mounting troubles will begin to threaten their own, higher level of trust by the public?

Facebook as well as other digital platforms is in the trust business. Users need to trust Facebook not to misuse their personal data and to provide safe spaces for public debate and communities. Brands need to trust that Facebook guarantees a safe context for their ads and feeds them with reliable data. Creators and moderators need to trust Facebook to provide a fair gratification for the value they bring to the platform.

The same applies to the media outlets. They are losing competitively against Facebook in attracting digital advertising because of the network’s scale and technological superiority. Paradoxically, the smaller scale might be an advantage when it comes to trust. Local publishers can offer services Facebook will never be able to provide at a global scale such as checking all the facts, verifying all the ads, or providing a 100% guarantee of brand-safe context.

I’m on the board of directors of an e-commerce company in Eastern Europe that made “verified advertising content” its competitive advantage. For example, on a real estate classified website all the apartments and houses are visited by the company’s representatives who take independent 360-degree pictures and videos to confirm the state of the property. Advertisers pay extra to get their properties verified because people don’t respond to “not-verified” ads anymore. It’s a reminder how important trust is in our business.

Finally, taking a longer-term look, should local news publishers pay more attention to their own “real estate” — their websites and apps — and not be so fixated about Facebook, especially since they basically “rent” their space on that platform, as Pam Moore, digital marketing consultant and founder of the site “Marketing Nutz,” puts it.

In many ways, publishing on social networks is like renting space for a cookies giveaway at a popular subway station. The traffic is massive, so the objective is to give away all the cookies very fast and get people on the subway talking kind things about it, posting pictures online, etc.

But if you do the giveaway primarily to promote your bakery, you may find that pretty ineffective in getting people out of the station, remembering the name of your bakery, or paying for the cookies. This is a challenge all the publishers face when engaging with social networks.

One piece of advice could be to evaluate the opportunities and measure the success by the sales in the bakery rather than the number of cookies given away at the subway station or the number of positive comments.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.