When Facebook becomes a media property

Cross-posted from Ishmael’s Corner
By Lou Hoffman

Several years ago we interviewed 65 sales people at major computer retailers (Best Buy, Fry’s, etc.) asking the key question, “What third-party sources do you depend on for information to help you in your day-to-day job?”

They could answer with as many sources as they liked. This way, we could better target the media properties that reach this audience on a behalf of a client keen to gain greater mindshare in the retail channel.

Guess which publication won?

Actually, it wasn’t a publication.

Google won. More than any single publication, Google was the source most mentioned as a third-party source that helped these salespeople in their day-to-day jobs.

Fast forwarding to today, Facebook has now evolved into a dominant force in determining the reach of media stories. Most in communications recognize by now the importance of Google in determining who reads what, but here’s a statistic that cries for PR attention. Facebook generates up to 20 percent of the traffic to news sites. Furthermore, 30 percent of U.S. adults get their news on Facebook according to a Pew study.

In the Facebook approach to distributing media stories, the value of the publication’s brand has little value. Instead, the value lies in the individual story. The number of algorithmic buttons that get pushed by that individual story determine whether it gets flung into 10 or 10,000 news feeds.

You can’t pitch Facebook — put the “Dear Facebook, a new startup is going to disrupt …” letter away — but PR needs to put its technical chops to work in understanding what it takes for a client to gain more than its fair share of that 20 percent traffic.

This doesn’t mean gaming the system which only delivers short-term benefits.

It means working within the system.

It means understanding the type of content that resonates with Facebook’s news algorithm.

Turning to Facebook’s help desk, here’s the official word on how the FB News Feed works.

Unfortunately, there’s not a section called, “How PR Can Increase Client Stories in the FB Feed.”

Still, even the cursory information from Facebook reminds PR to emphasize visual storytelling and content with an emotional dimension that prods an action on the part of the reader.

Unlike Google, whose news organization has a love for journalism and the news business, Facebook takes a clinical approach in which code rules. It’s revealing that the LinkedIn profile for Greg Marra, the 26-year-old who leads the programming team for the FB News Feed, never even mentions the word “news” (though blinky lights are apparently the way to his good side).

Marra’s recent New York Times interview hammers home this point:

“We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors,” he said. “We don’t want to have editorial judgment over the content that’s in your feed. You’ve made your friends, you’ve connected to the pages that you want to connect to and you’re the best decider for the things that you care about.”

The same NYT story goes on share how The Washington Post is scrutinizing different forms of storytelling for a given article depending on the audience, how they come to an article, type of device, etc.

Like The Washington Post, PR needs to continue evolving how it creates content to capitalize on unconventional forms of distribution like Facebook. It could be that some campaigns warrant developing content specifically to crack the FB News Feed, which calls for a deeper understanding:

  • What are the publications that perform particularly well in the Facebook News Feed?
  • Do B2B audiences depend on the FB News Feed to find stories related to their jobs?
  • What triggers beyond likes and comments elevate a story on the FB News feed?

There’s still plenty to learn in this area, but that “20 percent of media traffic” stat says it’s a worthwhile investment.

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