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Unexpected surge: Did Facebook’s algo change actually fuel publisher growth?

Facebook’s algorithm update earlier this year—focused on friends and family—was supposed to severely cripple an already struggling publishing industry.

Dubbed the “Facebook Apocalypse,” it was widely expected to ring the death knell for many a publisher, by reducing engagement and choking their referral traffic lifelines.

Half a year later, once the dust has somewhat settled, a different picture is emerging.

NewsWhip—a firm that assesses social data for publishers, including clients like the BBC, the Guardian and the Washington Post—has released a report that dives into the impact of the Facebook Algorithm update on content creators.

The study, What to Know for Facebook Publishing Ahead of 2019: The latest insights on the Facebook Algorithm” takes a comprehensive look at trends before and after the algo change, and the impact of the Facebook algorithm shift on content.

Apocalypse that never was

Interestingly, when it looked at user interactions with the leading publishers over the last year, it found that, far from losing engagement, news publishers actually benefited from the decluttering of the News Feed.

The data shows that after an initial dip, Facebook referrals not just recovered, but continued to grow at a significant clip.

The shift in focus to personal updates forced digital creators to focus on building meaningful relationships with their audiences, the report says.

Furthermore, the visibility of news in the News Feed only dropped from 5% percent to 4%, and the News Feed change did not affect links to publisher content shared by friends.

“In our own analysis, we’ve found that publishers only put about 20 percent of their web content on their Pages, the other 80 percent comes down to their readers,” the authors state. “Dark social has become more and more important, with a clear shift from social media to private media.”

Simply, what goes viral will continue to go viral. Stories go massively viral because of people, not so much because of algorithms.

According to the report, “this provides an opportunity for content creators to find the storytelling moments that resonate deeply with people.”

News publishers: New lease of life?

When analyzing the data individually per publisher, the NewsWhip team found some more variation in how the numbers balanced out.

“Since the shift, we’ve seen impressive gains for the likes of: CNN, NBC, Fox News, Daily Mail, USA Today, NPR, ABC News, New York Post, Bloomberg, Reuters, and New York Magazine,” they said.

Particularly for CNN, the algorithm change may actually have turned the publisher’s fortunes around.

“Moderate increases and sustained engagements for: The New York Times, BBC News, Washington Post, CBS News, VICE, Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and the New Yorker,” the report continues. “Slight downward trends have remained for publishers like the Guardian, the Hill, the Mirror, and Vox.”

The big Facebook algorithm apocalypse may have been less drastic than expected.

“Ultimately, what these new numbers show is that the big Facebook algorithm apocalypse may have been less drastic than expected,” writes Cale Guthrie Weissman in Fast Company. “The usual players seem to remain on the top–some with increased engagement.”

“It could be that the full impact of the newsfeed changes has not yet been felt, or maybe it’s just that Facebook users will continue to share the same kinds of content, whether it’s heightened and magnified by the Facebook overlords or not.”

Niche and magazine publishers: Mixed bag

The team also looked at 20 magazine and interest publishers, and analyzed their Facebook engagements to web content over time.

“Again, there are those who have actually increased their Facebook engagements. The Onion, This is Insider, the Dodo, Delish, and PopSugar have all seen their average Facebook engagements steadily rise since the change.”

“People, ComicBook, Rolling Stone, National Geographic, Teen Vogue, and Complex’s average engagements have remained consistent,” said the report. “There have been some declines for the likes of ESPN, MTV, and Bleacher Report, while Wired and TechCrunch’s engagements fell and then leveled out, lower than they were before. Scary Mommy and IFL Science also saw dips after the shift, which then rose back up.”

Viral Publishers: Boom and bust

For viral publishers, there have definitely been a few winners, and ones who didn’t quite survive the algorithm shift.

“LADbible, UNILAD, BuzzFeed, and Someecards have all seen marked increases. After a dip in June, 9Gag has also continued at an upward trend. Simple Most remained consistent until June, then dropped drastically. Elite Daily mostly remained the same. Bored Panda, Clickhole, and a couple of others declined.”

News on Facebook: Good news

Looking again at an array of 25 news-focused Facebook Pages, the NewsWhip team found a general positive trend.

“Not as many saw gains to their Facebook Pages, but for the most part, they remained consistent. The ones who did see a rise were ABC News, CBS News, NowThis Politics, USA Today, the New York Times, ABC (Australia), along with local outlet Fox13 Tampa Bay.”

“Of the 25, five of those have seen a slight decline since the change, that has continued through the year,” the study found. “A few dropped in their engagements and then ended up leveling out.”

What’s next?

While some have feared a video takeover, the report found the for quite a few publishers, they’ve seen their average video engagements decline but link engagements rise.

Based on their research, the NewsWhip team has put together a set of recommendations for publishers, ways they can make use of Facebook in their content distribution strategy.

“Ahead of 2019, keep your focus on these tactics for your Facebook content:

  • Content that has legitimate value to your audience — how-to’s, informative breaking news, inspirational, or just entertaining
  • The human interest, or emotional, component of stories — why should your audience care?
  • Content that encourages comments or personal anecdotes
  • Episodic video content through Watch
  • Digestible content through Stories

The best practices continue. Content is king, as is understanding your audience and what delivers a real value to them.”

Click here to download the reportWhat to Know for Facebook Publishing Ahead of 2019: The latest insights on the Facebook Algorithm.