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Making Facebook a friend to your publishing business

Let’s be clear fellow publishers, Facebook doesn’t give a flying fig about your business. They have their own goals, and if those intersect with yours, it’s a fortunate accident. Bearing that in mind doesn’t mean you can’t still use Facebook to build your business. You just have to be as unsentimental and self-interested in building your business as Zuckerberg is about building his.

First, I need to offer a disclaimer. Facebook is currently one through 49 on my top 50 s**t list because of their political ads nonsense. Not only is it extremely dangerous that they have lumped known news organisations in with political campaigns, political action committees, disinformation campaigners, and Russian trolls, but It also plays into the enemies of the press who brand us as enemies of the state. Beyond that, Facebook’s political ad policies cover 20 broad areas including health, the environment, poverty and values. A marketing colleague asked me, “Isn’t just about everything that’s news?” Yup.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Facebook’s execution of a comically bad policy has been comically bad. Their vaunted machine learning artificial intelligence is in practice incredibly stupid. Vice was able to post political ads as both Isis and Vice President Mike Pence. Business Insider went one better, posting political ads posing as Cambridge Analytica. They have cut corners in rolling out a deeply flawed policy in a rushed attempt at damage control.

I’m bringing this up not only to grind an axe – well maybe a little – but also to say that many news groups (including the one I work for) have stopped boosting content on Facebook lest our content be flagged as political ads by Zuck’s dumb bots. And as everyone knows, reach on Facebook without boosting has been dropping like a rock for most publishers.

Fortunately, there are still ways to use Facebook as part of an audience and business development strategy.

Step One: Stop the Addiction to False Volume

The first step in developing a realistic Facebook strategy is being realistic about what Facebook is measuring and how that relates to your business.  One of the biggest mistakes that I’ve seen editorial groups make time and again is focusing on reach almost to the exclusion of everything else. There was a period of time when everyone was obsessed with reach, with scale. That seemed to be the answer. Get big or go home.

However, as I have said for years, scale without a business model will still fail. But for too long, Facebook reach was the drug of the volume-obsessed Attention Economy. It used to be an incredibly flawed metric meaning only that your content appeared in a user’s newsfeed, and it still only has some vague meaning that it was visible in user’s newsfeed. It doesn’t mean that a user is interacting in any meaningful way with your content.

Even worse than that, if your team only uses Facebook’s Insights dashboard, they might be misreading clicks. Facebook measures three types of clicks, and only one type is an actual click through to your content. I’ve seen some publishers where the click through rate is as little as 10 percent of the total clicks listed on the dashboard.

Many of the same criticisms could be leveled at Facebook’s mercurial video strategy. A three-second view could be little more than a user with a cramp in their finger as they scroll on their phone.

Facebook wants a slice of the $70 bn TV ad market. Fine. And I recognise that publishers have been earning premium CPMs for video over text articles, but that was on your own properties, not Facebook.

Too many publishers shifted their strategies to focus on Facebook video, reshaping their teams to focus on video rather than text, without a clear sense of how to monetise video on Facebook. And now with a lawsuit claiming that Facebook knew for more than a year that its video metrics were inaccurate, it has raised a lot of hand-wringing about whether the pivot to video was driven by a mirage of Facebook’s own creation.

The bottom line: Do video, but for your reasons not for Facebook’s.

Moving Facebook Users Down the Funnel

My consulting has given me a chance to see the stats for a lot of publishers and broadcasters. I’ve seen too many really smart publishers focus only at the top of the conversion funnel, which is what reach and three-second video views are.

Every publisher needs to be focused on converting casual social users intò loyal readers and subscribers. Get obsessive about which social referrals are driving loyalty. Google Analytics flags this up in weekly stats. Start focusing on what content drives deeper engagement. In short, focus on the metrics that drive a deeper relationship with your content, your brand and your business.

Using Instant Articles to Drive Newsletter Signups

Instant articles? Remember them?

They have mostly been overtaken by Google’s AMP as a way to deliver mobile optimised content for several good reasons. However, that doesn’t mean that Instant Articles are completely pointless.

Earlier this year, Sarah Marshall, the head of audience growth at Vogue International, wrote up some of the most detailed, most action oriented steps that you can use to optimise not only your Facebook performance but also how to use the platform to drive your own business results.

One thing she highlighted was how Instant Articles were driving increased content consumption across all geographies but especially in the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

I wouldn’t recommend putting all of your articles in the Instant Article format. I’ve seen a dramatic drop-off in the amount of time spent with content without a major lift in traffic. The trick is to provide a cross-section of your content, especially that which appeals to your Facebook audience.

But more than just driving traffic, you need to use the call-to-action boxes in Instant Articles, especially the one to drive newsletter sign-ups. It gives you a great vehicle to convert some of those casual social readers into more loyal readers directly engaged with your content.

Facebook has highlighted that for the Huffington Post “29% of email signups are from this channel,” the CTAs on Instant Articles.

Using Facebook’s Ad Tools to Your Advantage

Of course, one of the biggest challenges of the digital age is monetising attention. Scale isn’t a goal unto itself. You need to think of how Facebook can drive memberships, subscriptions and revenue. Facebook has talked on and off about developing tools for subscription-based businesses, but in the meantime, forward thinking groups have already developed their own strategies.

Norway’s Aftenposten is one well-known case study. Aftenposten doubled their subscriber numbers in a year, in part by retooling the metrics that they focused on but also by using Facebook as an acquisition tool for subscribers.

Facebook is only part of their larger shift to a subscriber-focused business and editorial model, but as of last year, the social network was driving about 20 percent of new subscriptions. They have been focused on the kind of content that works well in Facebook. “(T)hose about macro-dynamics (politics, foreign news and economics) in society rarely work, but insight on emotions often does,” Tor Jacobsen, chief commercial officer at parent publisher Schibsted told Digiday.

The key has been to use Facebook’s vaunted ad targeting to their own advantage. They post specific articles as ads targeted to specific audience segments.

And that brings me back to my original point. Facebook isn’t the enemy, but it definitely isn’t delivering the kinds of results to publishers that it did 18 months ago. It can still be a part of an effective strategy. You just have to be data-driven and focused on your business, not just Facebook’s mercurial algorithm changes or whatever Zuck is pushing or pursuing this month.

Discover how Facebook has changed the publishing landscape this year in our new report, Media Moments 2018. Download it here.