News publishers today are essentially freaking out about Facebook’s latest announcement to prioritise family and friends content over news. Adam Tinworth made an attempt of translating ‘Facebook speak into English,’ available here. Stop reading this post, go click the link and come back.
Enjoy that? Ok, lets keep going. In the past year at numerous conference presentations, I’ve been concentrating on one thing: know who you are, what you’re doing and focus on that. If you can, you will either a) beat the algorithms and/or b) algorithms really don’t matter.
That’s because if you develop a relationship with your audience, they know what to expect and your audience will return to you because of that relationship. I’ve used Saturday Night Live (SNL) and Jimmy Fallon on YouTube to demonstrate this example for years. In the case of SNL I know every Sunday they are going to be uploading clips of the show the night before that I will go and watch. Its an appointment to view where I will watch a series of videos. Same thing with Jimmy Fallon (though its decreased significantly in the past few months – more on that here) where I know every weekday there will be new content on the channel. I know what both channels are offering, know what to expect and can go check it out on a daily or weekly basis because I know that’s when new content will appear, even if I haven’t subscribed to the channel.
So you might be thinking, well we provide news and our audience is ‘everyone.’. Really?
What if you are a niche publisher trying to keep up with the big ones, and even trying to compete on speed to break news. Here’s a tip: it won’t work. They’re bigger, have been around longer, have more resources than you and are going to beat you everytime unless you play the long game. That doesn’t mean give up. Look at AJ+, the off shoot of Al Jazeera or even Buzzfeed News. They aren’t trying to be everything to everyone. They know who their audiences are – what age demographic they come from, what platform they’re viewing content from, what times of day and days or week they’re active, and specifically exactly what type of content they’re looking for and then they serve that content on a specific platform. No, it doesn’t mean you’re watering down content or even creating click bait. But it will mean something similar to the following exemplary scenarios:
- You know the majority of your Facebook audience is 50% from North America active in 3 time zones and they enjoy 60-90 second videos on explainers about international news events
- Perhaps your best performing format is Photos – that doesn’t mean straight photos, it could be infographics or a data visualisation, so you start making more of those- not spamming your audience but ensuring you are consistent and publishing one per day
- On site you may notice that your audience is not really interested in Arab-Israeli conflict news but when you publish stories on female entrepreneurs in Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia that they consistently perform well so instead of publishing one story every three months, you aim to do one per week. It doesn’t mean you stop doing Arab-Israeli news but it does mean that if you were doing 2 stories a week on it, you reduce that to maybe one per week and pick up other stories that are not represented but that your audience is looking for.
To get to these conclusions takes time spent with data, and being able to interpret that data not to tell your editors what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. What I usually see are publishers rushing to be everything to everyone. The metrics Facebook (and typically other companies) give them as metrics of success (reach, likes, views, impressions) are lapped up, however we have to remember that any company first and foremost has its own interests at heart, no matter how much of your buddy they seem to be. How is it that news publishers are so good at interrogating sources and facts for news but don’t interrogate the methodology of organisations they work or partner with? (insert hmm emoji here) Instead, lots of digital/social people pride success on ‘views’ for instance. But really, a view in Facebook speak is 3 seconds long and if as publishers we consider cumulative ‘views’ that may reach millions or billions as success, then we have set the bar for success very low. Instead, look at your watchtime minutes. You’ll likely notice a significant drop in numbers but those are the numbers that people are actually watching your content. Yes, it is time to wake up and smell the Ethiopian blend coffee.* Interestingly enough, Google was onto this years ago and in their YouTube analytics prioritised watch time minutes over views long before this recent brouhaha.
My contention is this: focus on engagement, interaction. This is because what you should be focusing on is building a relationship with your audience. You should know why they are coming to you on Facebook, on YouTube, on your site or wherever else. If you are still cutting and pasting TV content or taking the same content and plastering it on every site you will lose.
You will also lose if you try to beat the algorithm. If you’ve ever gambled, besides Brad Pitt setting you up for a win a la Oceans 13 style, know this: the house always wins.
However, if you focus on building a relationship with your audience and developing loyalty, it doesn’t matter what the algorithm does. Your audience will seek you out, and return to you over and over again. That’s how you ‘beat’ Facebook.
*because thats the last filter coffee I had here in Berlin at Father Carpenter and it was delightful