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'Is this really worth it?': Here's what publishers are saying behind closed doors about Facebook's News Feed changes

  • Publishers are scrambling to try and figure out whether Facebook's big algorithm change will impact their business.
  • Many are confused and anxious, while others see a big win for quality publishers.
  • There is a sense of betrayal among some media companies, given how active Facebook has courted the industry.
  • Others say they've already long ago moved away from relying too much on Facebook for web traffic.

Across the media industry, publishers are trying to figure out what this big Facebook algorithm change means.

  • Deep anxiety
  • Shoulder shrugging
  • Fatalistic acceptance
  • Betrayal and frustration
  • Exuberant cheerleading

Here's what Business Insider is hearing regarding the thrust of some of these Facebook-related discussions happening inside publishers' walls:

Reaction 1: Duh. Publishers should have seen this coming

Several publishers have long warned against putting all their eggs in the Facebook basket, and have tried to diversify revenue streams. And they've also kept their eyes wide open when it comes to Facebook's level of caring about media partners.

Bryan Goldberg, CEO of the female-focused publisher Bustle, said there is no reason to panic if you've been paying attention. "This one was predictable, and smart CEO's should be years ahead of it in their thinking," he told Business Insider.

But he also warned that Facebook has to be careful in being too blunt, and becoming inhospitable to media companies.

"Facebook will need to come up with some solution," he said. "Users absolutely want to read professionally-created content and news. So they will either fulfill this demand, or they will cede a huge market opportunity to Apple and Google. "

Reaction 2: Is Facebook the boy who cried algorithm?

As one social media-centric publisher noted, Facebook has said this sort of thing before, and not entirely followed through. Indeed, in June of 2016 the company similarly announced that friends and family posts would be prioritized in the news feed, and the predicted publisher armageddon didn't unfold.

"There is a non-linear relations between what they say and what happens," this person said. "In this case, it's not clear what is PR posturing and reality."

Sheryl Sandberg Facebook shrug

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Reaction 3: You told us we mattered

Here's why several publishers feel super frustrated: in their eyes, Facebook led them on.

They say that Facebook has long encouraged publishers to build out audiences on Facebook, working with them directly to get their content viewed, testing various ad products with them, and in several cases, paying them to make content for Facebook specifically - whether that's live streaming shows or series for Facebook Watch.

Now, their feeling can be summed up as: WTF? You pushed us to go all in on Facebook and now you're sidelining us?

"It's kind of strange, this mass deprioritization," said one veteran Facebook publisher. "We've been very much encouraged to build audiences here. People spend lots of money to build these operations. At some point it grows tiresome. You start thinking, over time is this really worth it?"

If you're a publisher that has a strong website, as well as an audience on other platforms like Instagram and YouTube, this is perhaps less of of concern. But for many a publisher that has launched a property first and foremost on Facebook, it's scary.

There's also frustration about Facebook's communication of its rollout. "The way it's worded is so opaque," this publisher said. "Fear the way they put this into effect, it treats all content the same."

Reaction 4: This is a big win for the good guys

On the flip side, several publishers who spoke to Business Insider are actually encouraged by the idea that Facebook is trying to weed out low quality content from its news feed. They think they'll end up winning in the end.

Publishers that have talked to Facebook directly said that the algo change is aimed at pushing out passive video content that few people share or engage with, and articles that send people to stories off of Facebook for very short visits (i.e. click bait).

If you have real, organic audiences, and you produce video content people actively seek out, you should be fine, or so the thinking goes.

"Succeeding at video has never been easy, and Facebook's presentation of video always felt forced and non-sustainable," said Goldberg. "Publishers should be creating long-form video with an eye towards distribution on dozens of platforms. The short-form video craze was obviously never going to work."

justice league

Warner Bros.

Lilian Leong is the COO of 9GAG, a purveyor of funny videos and memes. It has over 28 million Facebook fans.

Leong was non-plussed about the move. "Change is constant in the social media world," she said. "Our rule from day one is, we make shareable content. That's what people want to share with their friends and family. I never gamed the algorithm. Who can do that? We don't feel betrayed. If anything, this raises the bar."

Reaction 5: This is a calculated move by Facebook to boost traffic and drive more revenue

Most publishers and advertisers using Facebook have accepted the fact they they may need to pay to run ads that direct people to their content, simply because hoping that all of a company's posts get seen or shared is impossible, given how crowded the Facebook news feed is.

But several publishers see this tweak as a way to make it crystal clear: pay up publishers, or you'll disappear.

Another top media executive theorized that it's more than a money grab. Facebook's users are getting bored, and there's some evidence of audience stagnation, as Business Insider has reported.

"Sharing is down on Facebook's platform and they are freaking out about it," this person said. "I think the real story
is the American public is not using Facebook as much."

Reaction 6: Facebook doesn't even know what's going to happen. But the bad guys always figure it out

As one veteran Facebook publisher noted, it's probably going to take a while for the marketplace, and even Facebook, to gauge the true impact of the algo tweak. Facebook is so massive, and 2 billion people essentially get a unique news feed every day.

"It's hard for anyone to know how this will all play out," said this publisher. "It's such a complex algorithmic system. And any system that is built toward a certain reward system can have unintended consequences. You could end up with a whole new genre of weirdness. Facebook may not even know what's coming."

Another publishers questioned how impactful the tweak will be toward solving what Facebook says is its ultimate mission.

"They say they want to emphasize the surfacing of what your friends like," said one digital media veteran. "Well, that's how the fake news thing happened. From your friends sharing it."

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