How to master Facebook marketing in the age of pay to play

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Facebook has been experiencing something of a mini marketing crisis in recent months, subjected to sustained criticism over its advertising model while also facing serious questions about its effectiveness.

One source of protest has been Forrester Research, which produced a damning report entitled ‘Why Facebook Is Failing Marketers’.

Author of the report, and principal analyst at Forrester, Nate Elliott, has suggested that Facebook focuses too little on driving genuine engagement between companies, while marketers' paid ads rarely target their intended audience. As a result, he suggests that the social network has become a “Web 1.0-style ad seller”, focused almost exclusively on the advertising models that marketers once hoped Facebook would replace, and that businesses are at serious risk of wasting their marketing spend on ineffective activity.

Despite every large company now marketing on Facebook, Elliott has claimed that “relatively few find success”, supporting this assertion with research indicating that satisfaction with the business value from Facebook marketing ranked below not only more traditional disciplines such as search marketing and email marketing, but also other social platforms such as Twitter and YouTube.

Facebook blasted the report as “irresponsible”, but there were other stats coming its way that were causing concern amongst the marketing fraternity, as evidence emerged that the number of users that brands could reach organically had started plummeting. Two years ago, Facebook itself touted that page posts reached 16% of a brand's fans organically. But by February this year, that number had dropped to 6%, according to research by Ogilvy & Mather – with suggestions that this could even drop as low as 1-2% in the future.

On the back of this estimate, it was therefore unsurprising that Facebook’s subsequent decision to downgrade the visibility of organic brand content and prioritise paid-for brand content in user’s News Feeds, was met with criticism and disappointment. To some, this appeared to be the final nail in the coffin for their social media content marketing model, with Facebook adopting a ‘pay to play’ model.

Pay to play

So where does all of this place Facebook marketing?

For starters, not all marketers are picking up the pitchforks and flaming torches to storm Facebook towers. Danyl Bosomworth, of SmartInsights, for instance, believes that marketers just have to face the music, much as they do whenever Google makes its regular round of changes.

He notes: “We’ve built valuable brand outposts on rented land – again – and now the new landlords want us to contribute to the running of the land we squat on. What’s with the wounded sense of entitlement that we have?”

Indeed, despite all of the aforementioned uncertainty, a poll of UK marketers conducted by the DMA earlier this year found that UK marketers still rated Facebook as the most ‘marketing-friendly’ social platform, beating LinkedIn and Twitter into second and third places.

Expressing a preference based on criteria such as ease of use, ability to target users, contact objectives like brand awareness, and quality of analytical tools, the 171 social marketers concluded that Facebook was their preferred social platform for campaign development and evaluation.

Enthusiasm for the platform still appears to be undimmed. But how should marketers approach Facebook marketing given the changes that are now being enforced upon them?

Bosomworth says that, while it is now ‘pay to play’, the key is that you’ll pay a lot less if your content is great.

“The free ride for brands on Facebook is coming to an end, and Facebook should now be moved into the ‘paid channel’ in the marketing budget,” he explains. “The end game here is that a message posted on a brand page will not be shown to anyone unless it gathers a notable number of likes from a user’s friends.

“If their friends like a post, if there is a visible adoption of the post by the community, only then the post has earned the right to be shown organically. The quality of Facebook’s users’ news feeds is what keeps them in business. That’s why, like Google, they’re growing their algorithm, with over 100,000 weight indicators being considered at any given time.”

Furthermore, he notes that – despite the noodling that Facebook has done - the most important thing hasn’t changed at all.

“As Facebook (and Google) own the foreseeable future platforms for marketing, digital or otherwise, we – worst case – simply have more relevant places to invest ad spend,” he notes. “Brands who already splurge vast amounts of cash for fun in advertising, six figures for a one page ad to ‘drive awareness’, they have done for many decades with little sense of ROI and indirect correlation at best. They now have reliable, laser-targeted opportunities to be seen. Facebook will even make it cheaper for brands, enabling greater organic reach for content that its users want to see. Evidenced through Likes, Comments and Shares, brands simply have to be worth finding. The strongest, the committed and the genuine will win.”

Therefore, he concludes, brands should be adapting to the ‘pay to play’ model by working the same old strategy, but with a new twist:

  1. Deliver engaging content to the right audience at the right time. Brands will have to pay for smart people to produce engaging content on their behalf.
  2. Amplify that engaging content with measured and strategic ad spend in Facebook.

This, of course, is precisely the kind of approach that would be effective on other key social media channels. The key insight, says Bosomworth is: “Quality content matters more than ever.”

Facebook’s decline in organic reach only serves to emphasise this point. With experts suggesting that the decline is a direct result of the growing volumes of content flooding onto news feeds, marketers must play the game.

As Bosomworth notes: “As long as Facebook continue to invest and use all the data gathered about those users to help them see the content that they and their connections find the most engaging, brands must continue to try delivering content that matches their expectations. It is that simple. Even though social media marketing is now also about spending strategically, it was always about delivering engaging content to the right people at the right time.”

Making content matter

So, with that in mind, how can marketers ensure that their content is impactful?

Shannon Johnson, a content strategist at HubSpot, believes that all is not lost if you still want to maintain an ad-free Facebook Page presence. It’ll be more difficult to reach your fans, but you can try a few creative things to keep them seeing your posts. She suggests:

1) Remind your Fans they can click to view their ‘Pages Feed’ on the left sidebar of their News Feed to see content from Pages they've liked.

2) Educate your super fans that they can ‘Get Notifications’ from your Page.

3) Encourage fans to engage with your posts when they do see them, so they see more of them.

Elsewhere, Mari Smith has shared the following 12 practical tips to help marketers increase their Facebook organic reach:

  1. Post more often – at least three times a day.
  2. Experiment with posting at different times of the day, including outside business hours.
  3. Post a mix of your own content (short tips + links to your longer blog posts) + other people’s content that you curate from a variety of sources
  4. Post directly on your Page and also share posts from other relevant Pages.
  5. Include @ tags of related Pages in your posts. This may help create more visibility in the news feed of the fans who have liked the tagged pages.
  6. Repost your own evergreen content.
  7. Mix up the post types: status updates, links, photos, videos, offers, events, milestones and cover image changes.
  8. Test post length from super short (<120 characters) to much longer (63k is the max!).
  9. Check your Insights for when your fans are online and be sure to post during these times (as well as outside, per tip #2).
  10. Come up with a theme for each day of the week and publish posts pertaining to that day’s theme. Also, look for ways to crowd source content and featured input from your fans.
  11. Compare your reach performance against the average at: http://barometer.agorapulse.com/
  12. And, of course PAY for more reach on posts that impact your bottom-line, using the Boost post option or go into your Ads Manager/Power Editor.

However, as the ‘new reality’ of Facebook marketing is ‘pay to play’ environment, organisations will need to develop a strategy that balances organic and paid content.

In general, Johnson recommends that brands should now be looking to reallocate the majority of their time and effort towards the digital channels that they own and control, specifically their websites and blogs, and content such as ebooks and videos, which generates inbound traffic and leads. If you have the time and resources, these can then be shared on Facebook.

However, she recommends that brands are selective about what they post – the goal is no longer spray and pray, it is about getting as much interaction from a single post as possible.

She explains: “Each post published to a brand Page can be targeted to a specific audience regardless of whether it’s sponsored, which may improve overall interaction with that post among other people who are likely to find it more interesting and relevant.

“If you’re publishing to everyone, you’re more likely to be wasting impressions on people who couldn't care less about your content. Focus on the top percentage of users who engage with your Page content the most.”

When it comes to frequency of posts, marketing consultant Brian Honigman suggests that the rule of thumb is to share content one to three times a day during the week and a few times over the weekend from your Facebook page. However, he emphasises that it’s important that your organisation finds what works best with your audience through extensive experimentation – and you should always keep paid opportunities in mind.

He notes: “When experimenting with content shared on your Facebook page, keep in the back of your mind that this content can be boosted through paid advertising and presented to a much larger audience on the social network.

“When sponsoring previously published posts, be sure that they have a direct impact on helping your organisation achieve its goals with social media, since you’re spending your budget to deliver this content to a larger audience.

“If this post features your original content, product or service offering, link to your website or a recent promotion. That makes it far more valuable to apply your advertising budget to boosting this type of post.”

Honigman also recommends that marketers match organic and paid Facebook campaigns to different parts of the conversion funnel. He suggests that organic posts should focus on top-of-the-funnel concerns such as driving awareness, pushing traffic to your content and encouraging engagement with your brand’s Facebook page.

“The goal of your organic Facebook content is to introduce users to your organisation, its content and offerings in an effort to slowly build trust and begin to move prospects down the conversion funnel one post at a time,” he says.

Therefore, he advises that organic content should be of relevance to a broad demographic since a majority of your audience will likely see this content. Paid content, however, should focus on more niche audiences, utilising Facebook Custom Audiences targeting and other features provided as part of the paid advertising solutions to target specific customers at all points in the funnel with relevant messaging, with particular focus on audiences further down the funnel.

This might mean, for instance, targeting individuals who have interacted with the business before or those that are close to making a conversion, with timely and relevant ads.

Johnson agrees that if brands are advertising, they should go beyond the basics and ensure they utilise some of the targeting capabilities that Facebook has refined in recent years to reach you ideal persona, based on demographic, interests and behaviour.

Facebook provides advertisers with the following tools:

  • Conversion Tracking: With this tool, marketers can track the actions of site visitors after their Facebook ad has been viewed.
  • Custom Audiences: This allows brands to target Facebook ads based on their email list.
  • Lookalike Audiences: This enables organisations to target Facebook users similar to their customers.
  • Audience Insights: This allows marketers to learn about the existing Facebook audience to better target ads.
  • Website Custom Audiences: This tool enables organisations to target Facebook users who have visited their website before.
  • Facebook Exchange: This allows marketers to place retargeted ads on Facebook for users who’ve visited a certain product or service page on their site.
  • Partner Categories: This enables marketers to target users based on information, such as purchase history, from 500+ third party data providers.
  • Customisable Reporting: This allows brands to create reports based on metrics that matter most for your business.

Finally, Johnson also reminds marketers to test and test again: “Treat every campaign like a test and constantly adjust until you find a formula that consistently gives you results.”

About Neil Davey

ND2

Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.

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