What’s Killing Publisher Reach on Facebook?

Kurt Gessler has a Facebook problem. The deputy editor for digital news at The Chicago Tribune has seen a stark drop in the publisher’s reach on the platform in recent months. “Starting in January of this year, we at the Chicago Tribune started to anecdotally see a fairly significant change in our post reach,” Gessler writes in Medium. The graphic below tells the story – something happened after last November that sent the number of posts that saw poor reach (the line in red) skyrocketing.   According to Lucia Moses in Digiday, the Chicago Tribune is not alone, as Twitter chatter shows: “Facebook’s news feed algorithm changes have been part of publishing reality for many years,” Moses writes. (We’ve seen these kinds of engagement plunges before.) But this seems different, as she notes that Matt Karolian, director of audience engagement at The Boston Globe, report “last month was probably the worst we’ve had in reach in about a year. The fact everyone else is seeing it is a little bit troubling.” Some, like Wallaroo Media’s Brandon Doyle, speculate that FB is squelching organic reach to force publishers to ante up to promote their posts, according to Moses.  One commenter on Gessler’s post agrees, saying: “Pay Facebook for more reach. That’s their business model.” Another thought is that Facebook is now more actively promoting video – the platform suggests a content mix of 50% linked content, 25% video and 25% photos or images. That’s a whole new problem for publishers. “If it’s true that Facebook’s preference for video is a factor, few publishers are equipped make the switch to video, nor is it clear that they should try to make a hard shift to a medium they’re inexperienced in and which most publishers can’t monetize on Facebook anyway,” Moses explains. “And just doing more video perpetuates publishers’ dependence on Facebook, which can change its algorithm again at any time, as it’s done many times in the past.” For their part, the team at the Chicago Tribune looked at several factors including content mix and posting frequency to detect any aberrations, and couldn’t put their finger on it. One thing that rose as a possibility is their lack of use of Facebook’s Instant Articles. “Our parent company has been circumspect in regards to Instant Articles,” Gessler writes. “We’ve been testing Instant Articles, but we have yet to deploy them in Chicago. Given the changes announced last month, giving publishers a bit more control, I’m hopeful this will change.” (Those changes include more control over advertising options for publishers.) “But again, since we’ve not changed posting formats, this would seem an unlikely factor … unless the algorithm changed,” he muses. One commenter suggested that the drop could be due to a high mobile bounce rate, which is certainly something else to consider. Whatever the reason behind the organic reach drop, one thing is crystal clear in the risky business of third-party distribution. Moses says that for many publishers, “the issue points to the need for publishers to diversify their audience sources through search, direct traffic and newsletters.”