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WTF is Facebook's 'news feed algorithm' and why is it messing with my reach? – Part 1

Trying to work out why one of the Facebook posts on your brand page got huge reach and engagement, and the next one barely touched anyone?

Don’t get too distraught or start feeling unloved just yet; Facebook’s news feed algorithm is probably playing a part and in this two-part blog series we’re going explore some insights, tips and techniques that can help you work with the algorithm, not against it.

This first post will give you a top-line overview of the news feed algorithm (what it is in my very non-techie terms, what we know about how it works etc), and then we’ll look at some of the (rare) insights Facebook has released about it.

Next week we’ll deep dive into observations and insights about the workings of this mysterious algorithm and explore some tips and strategies that could help your content reach more of your audience.

Excited? I am!

Here we go.

Facebook has a huge techie team dedicated to developing and evolving the art and science of it’s news feed algorithm, which is basically a set of rules that dictate what appears in its users’ news feed and the order that it appears in.

Why is this important for you to know about?

Because these rules decide what, if anything, individual people within your audience see from your page. The vast, overwhelming majority of people won’t ever go to your actual Facebook page after they’ve initially checked you out and hit that ‘like’ button. The way you stay connected with them, the way they see your content, is through their own news feed.

Now, I know you know this. If you’re reading this post and you’re interested in this topic, it’s pretty safe to assume that you’re familiar with using Facebook from a personal perspective. But it’s something that people often forget when they’re using Facebook with their ‘business page’ hat on.

Big Important Fact - just because someone has hit the ‘like this page’ button doesn’t mean they’re seeing your posts. In fact, usually a very small fraction of your Facebook fans see any given post.

Facebook closely guards the details of its algorithm like a mumma goose protects her goslings (I was chased by an angry goose when I was a kid – those birds are SCAREY when they’re angry! And fast! It left me a little bit scarred; anyway, I digress).

Time was the Facebook news feed was pretty easy to work – use the right phrases, words, ask for a ‘like’ and you’d see a post ‘go viral’. Back then the algorithm assigned the value or relevance of a post based purely on likes, comments and shares.

These days’ things have evolved A LOT. Each new update that Facebook releases shifts the goal posts slightly and changes the way content is assessed and valued, meaning your approach to posting content, the type of content and the way you engage on Facebook may need to be tweaked.

While we don’t know the exact details of how the algorithm works, there are some things that Marky-Mark and the Facey Bunch have shared that can be really useful in shaping your content strategy and approach.

Firstly, the news feed basics

This mythical beast called the ‘News Feed Algorithm’ is Facebook’s way of attempting to deliver the content that users want to see and care about first. They’re trying to put the good stuff up-front – salted caramel ice cream to start, brussels sprouts last.

It’s a way of valuing and prioritising all the masses of content posted to Facebook every day; but, because it’s a computer making the assessment, not a person, it’s based on a whole bunch of complex rules, which is not a perfect science.

From the perspective of your posts on your page, Facebook is basically assessing how relevant and valuable your content is to your audience at any given time and is delivering it to a segment of that audience accordingly.

Still with me? Ok, let’s crack on.

Insights from Facebook

Timing of engagement

When people respond to your content affects its appearance in the news feed. If you post something that immediately gets a whole bunch of likes and comments that post will be delivered to more and more people.

Once the engagement starts to drop off, the post will start to appear less:

If people are engaging with the post right after it is posted, and not as much a few hours later, this suggests that the post was most interesting at the time it was posted, but potentially less interesting at a later date. Based on this signal it is more likely to appear higher in News Feed earlier on and lower at a later date.

Likewise, if something you posted a while ago suddenly sparks a flurry of engagement then it will be bumped to the top of the news feed. Facebook calls this ‘story bumping’.

In my experience it’s easier to get immediate engagement that will help to amplify your reach, rather than achieving belated engagement that will bump you back up again. So how recently you posted the content does still have an impact on how many people’s news feed that post is served too.

Trending Topics

Another tid-bit Facebook has told us about its latest news feed release is that content which relates to trending topics will be prioritised while that topic is still trending.

For example; the first episode of Game of Thrones season 6 is about to come out (can I get a whoop whoop!), and you can bet your lucky penny that there will be A LOT of chatter on Facebook (and every other social media site) during that first episode.

During that time you’re more likely to see posts about that trending topic at the top of your news feed.

In Facebook’s own words:

One way we show timely content higher-up in News Feed is to show people stories about things that are trending as soon as they occur, so you can immediately know what your friends or favorite Pages are saying about the stories of the day. This means that when a friend or Page you are connected to posts about something that is currently a hot topic of conversation on Facebook, that post is more likely to appear higher up in News Feed, so you can see it sooner. Early testing of a small percentage of posts has shown that this update on average leads to a more than 6% increase in people engaging with these stories (e.g., more people share, comment, like or click).

A word of caution:

Leveraging a trending topic is only effective when the topic is relevant for your audience. Jumping on the back of a trend just to attempt to gain some reach and exposure, without it actually adding value to your audience, is not going to deliver the kind of results you want.

ALWAYS keep your audience front and centre in anything you do – it’s about building connection and engagement with them, not just securing a spot in their news feed.

If you found this article useful or interesting make sure you’ve signed up to my newsletter so you’ll be the first to receive Part 2 next week, where I’ll be sharing some of the insights, observations and learnings I’ve developed through my experience working in this space.

If you have any questions I’d love to hear them in the comments below.


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