Handling Facebook’s fickle functionality

How news outlets choose to promote work when the formula keeps changing

Facebook’s promoted posts feature sparked privacy concerns for individuals last week, when the company debuted a feature allowing individual users to pay to promote their friends’ posts without telling them. This is the latest change to promoted posts, which businesses and individuals have been using to publicize their own content since May of last year. It marks the latest in a line of tweaks to the social network’s features, from frictionless sharing, to graph search, to promoted posts. The shifting formula makes it hard for social media editors to develop a permanent strategy for pushing their outlet’s work out through Facebook.

At The Boston Globe, editors are keen to try new functions. They have already tried the pay-to-promote idea.

“We don’t have a lot of money to dedicate to it,” said Benni DeNardo, deputy managing editor at the Globe, “but we did an experiment a couple of months ago.” According to DeNardo, Globe editors decided to try promoted posts in advance of a Patriots playoffs game last year. They paid Facebook $400 for 10 promoted posts: Six that linked to individual stories, and four to the paper’s Patriots page. In total, the promoted posts earned them 569,000 page impressions and 907 new fans. DeNardo said he considered this to be a “successful” experiment, but that his team have not decided whether they would try the function again.

Other editors are more jaded. At Reuters and The New York Times, frequently changing algorithms have led them to adopt a back-to-basics approach to the social networking site, focusing on good editorial judgement rather than pandering to each new idea.

“Facebook is often changing its settings, its labeling of things (Facebook Subscribe to Facebook Follow, for example) and what features it’s emphasizing,” Alexis Mainland, social media editor at the Times, wrote in an email. “That can be frustrating for media organizations and individuals on Facebook, or at least distracting.”

Mainland continued, “My own approach is to not to get too hung up in what features are the flavor of the moment (social reader apps! Open graph! Frictionless sharing! Graph search!) and focus more on the core features of the platform — lots of people from around the globe posting and sharing interesting things and eager to connect for conversation around topics that are important to them.”

Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa agreed. “Facebook is constantly changing how they surface posts in News Feed,” he wrote. “So we don’t really attempt to try and game the system, just hope that by having good editorial judgment about what’s important the audience will naturally want to share it.”

De Rosa said it was “doubtful” that Reuters would adopt promoted posts, especially in light of the last Facebook trend news outlets focused on harnessing: Last year, The Washington Post and the Guardian developed social readers to capitalize on frictionless sharing through Facebook. The Post has since moved its social reader off Facebook, while the Guardian has closed its social reader entirely, in what many now consider to be an experiment that failed.

Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.

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Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield. Tags: , ,