This is Aaron Rester's blog:

Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Is Facebook Holding Pages for Ransom?

Back in September, there was some grumbling in the higher ed social media community (as well as elsewhere) about sudden drops in the "reach" stats of Facebook pages. Dangerous Minds said publicly what many of us were thinking: Facebook had reduced the ability of businesses and organizations to reach fans with (free) posts in order to drive them toward spending money on promoted posts.

Techcrunch posted a strident "debunking" of this point of view, arguing that Facebook had actually made some valuable tweaks to their EdgeRank system: "Most Pages weren’t affected by these changes, but spammy Pages got penalized and they’re the ones complaining. The moral of the story is don’t spam your fans, and everything will be fine," they claimed. I found this less than convincing, given that nearly everyone I knew at other universities was observing a drop in reach numbers similar to the one I had noticed. Was it possible that Facebook saw us all as spammers? I decided to spend some time mining the Law School page's insights to see what I could find out. The (hastily pulled-together) graph below charts a set of metrics that I thought would be useful in this regard; the yellow shaded area marks the time when the EdgeRank changes became apparent.



Here's what the stats tell us about the Law School Facebook page pre- and post-change, as far as I can tell:
  1. Part of the drop in reach I had noticed was the result of a serious spike in reach attained in July (I haven't yet tracked down what that spike might have been caused by). 
  2. Our total followers (page "likes") continues to climb at a similar pace.
  3. Our total number of engaged followers continues to trend up.
  4. Our engaged users per post dropped after the change but is still comparable with the same time last year, as did the average reach per post.
  5. Our average percentage of fans reached fell significantly below where it was last year (let alone where it was after the odd spike this past July).
  6. The average percentage of users reached who engaged with our content went up.
  7. Our negative feedback per post went down.
To my mind, there are two ways of looking at this data, especially the last three items. One is that the changes Facebook made are better targeting those of our fans who are most likely to engage with our content; the other is that they're removing the ability for us to reach fans who might engage, but haven't yet (a situation which could, conveniently, be addressed by spending money on promoting posts, which, according to TechCrunch "coincidentally started rolling out to more Pages in September"). Perhaps one's interpretation of the data depends upon one's opinions of Facebook's motives, but I'd be interested to read your take on what the data might mean.