Facebook’s move to show less content from publishers and advertisers in its news feed will be good for users but will be “deeply significant” for a publishing industry that often relies on the platform to get readers, experts say.
Matt Navarra, director of social media at technology news site The Next Web, said people who used the platform to connect with friends and family were the “biggest winner out of this” but added that brands that relied heavily on Facebook for audience would be worried about how it affected their ability to generate revenue.
“For those less prepared, this news will cause some anxiety. The publishing industry has been notoriously slow to adapt to the rapid and constant changes brought about by social media platforms,” he said.
Mr Navarra added: “The downranking of publishers’ content in news feed is not likely to kill any publishers in the short or medium term, but it will add more reasons for them to think about how they make money, and whether a subscription-based business model is now the way to go as another big chunk of its traffic disappears and on-site ad revenue evaporates.”
The move follows declining traffic from the social network to publisher websites throughout 2017. Press Association analysis of data from Newswhip found that engagements – a combination of reactions, comments and shares – with content from UK publishers’ sites fell dramatically across 2017.
Seven out of eight UK news publishers analysed by PA saw year-on-year falls in both total and average engagements with content on their sites in December, while, combined, total engagements with content from the eight sites was down 27.6% over the same period.
Nic Newman, a digital media strategist who authors the Reuters Institute Digital Report for Oxford University, said the move is “not unexpected” because “it’s been a pretty terrible year for Facebook in terms of its PR” – referencing the criticism the company has faced over “fake news” and its increasing dominance, alongside Google, of the online advertising market.
A “pivot away” from video?
Facebook has pushed video in its news feed in recent years, prompting many publishers to hire staff in this field in what was termed a “pivot to video”.
Given the scale of changes in many newsrooms, Mr Navarra said there will be “a lot of angry and upset industry players today who will feel they have been cheated or played by [Mark] Zuckerberg”.
“This is understandable as brands and publishers have spent a lot of money over the years to build a presence on the platform and supplied Facebook’s walled-garden with content to fuel its News Feed. This announcement will make them feel like that investment of time and money was wasted.”
For news, there is also evidence that consumers don’t want to consume content in video form. The Reuters Institute Digital Report found that 74% of UK consumers preferred to access news in “mainly text” format – and Newman said Facebook’s promotion of visual content in the algorithm contributes to a feeling that users’ news feeds “are being polluted either with commercial messages or endless videos that people don’t want”.
However, Facebook’s prioritising of video is unlikely to end soon, said Mr Newman, as it attempts to push users to its Watch video platform – an attempt to rival YouTube.
He added, though, that the prevalence of short-form news clips may make way for longer-form footage, adding: “One of the things we will see is a lot more viral video and less viral clickbait.”
“Once the anger and frustration has abated, I suspect many publishers will now re-evaluate their presence on Facebook leading to an explosion in their use of Groups, and an increase in the output of long-form or series-based video content to feed Facebook’s new ‘Watch’ feature – for those that have the resources to do it,” Mr Navarra said.
But while the move is likely to mean pain in the immediate future for publishers – particularly some younger viral publishers who rely heavily on Facebook to reach audience – Mr Newman suggests anything that encourages the industry to seek more sustainable models for making money may end up being a positive.
“In an odd way we will look back and think this was a pretty good thing for the news industry,” he said.