What Pay To Play Means For You

I’ve been asked a lot recently about ‘Pay To Play,’ the rhythmical phrase used to describe the requirement for brands to now pay for a presence on social networking sites. But I haven’t posted about it here before, so here are a few answers to questions that marketers might have as they contemplate life in the Pay To Play Era:

Oh no, what’s happened now?

For several months, Facebook has been aggressively reducing the percentage of fans who get to see posts and other content posted to brand pages. These free impression are known as organic reach and are great for brands as they carry almost no cost. But, since around September 2013, Facebook has been turning down the volume on branded content in the newsfeed, partly to improve the Facebook experience for its 1.2billion users, and partly to create additional revenue streams to support its growth ambitions.

RIP-Facebook-Organic-Reach-GravestoneSo what does this mean for my Facebook Page?

It means that, on average, each post you make to a Facebook page is very unlikely to be seen by more than 10% of your fans, unless you are willing to spend money to reach more people. Studies show that organic reach has dropped between 40-60% for most pages, and some suggest that as few as 2% of fans of well followed pages now see content organically.

 Hang on a minute, how can Facebook do this? Is this even legal?

Yes, it’s entirely legal. When we sign up to create a page on Facebook we agree to host of terms and conditions, including one that gives Facebook the right to make changes whenever it wishes. It’s important to remember that brand pages on Facebook only exist because Facebook lets you create them there. Your presence is effectively ‘rented’ from Facebook; you are the tenant, Facebook is your landlord. Facebook simply decided to throttle the amount of noise brands could make without charge on its platform; as your landlord they have every right to make changes like this. It’s the sort of change that social networking platforms often make, and not dissimilar to LinkedIn’s recent decision to remove the Products and Services features from Company Pages.

So my posts now only get seen by 10% of my fans?

Yes, and 10% of probably a little optimistic. The actual percentage is probably in the range of to 2-6%. That means that for every 1,000 fans, you can expect maybe 20 to 60 impressions per post. Here are Social@Ogilvy’s recent study findings:


Wow, 10%! That’s nothing. It’s hardly even worth the effort!

Well, it is a low percentage. But what you have to keep in mind is that those 20 to 60 people per 1,000 fans have been carefully chosen by Facebook’s algorithms as being the people who are most likely to be interested in the content you shared. As a result, many brand pages have been reporting small rises in engagement levels; they’re effectively reaching fewer people but are getting more interaction back from the people they do reach. Don’t forget, back in 2012, before these changes came into effect, Facebook quoted that an average of 16% of fans saw posts for brand pages. So the proportion of eyeballs has always been low, it just dipped even lower.

Oh, right, so this filtering approach is not a new thing on Facebook?

No, not at all. For several years Facebook used an algorithm called EdgeRank to decide who got to see what content. EdgeRank was introduced to help users cope with the growing volume of content their friends were posting to their news feed. It was quite a simple formula really, using just three variables: the strength of relationship between sender and receiver (affinity), the receiver’s preference for different content types (weight) and the recency of the content (decay). Facebook would look at these three variables and assign a score to each piece of content for each potential recipient, then use this score to determine whether it appeared in the default ‘Top Stories’ newsfeed view.

Why did Facebook kill EdgeRank?

There’s no official line on why EdgeRank was replaced but Facebook stopped even mentioning the phrase several years ago and quietly killed it off around August 2013. The biggest problem with the algorithm was its simplicity, meaning that many users tried to game the system to maximise the chances of lots of people seeing their posts. It was EdgeRank that brought us those moronic posts that sought to generate artificial engagement from readers with invitations like “Name a city that doesn’t have the letter “A” in it” or “Click ‘Like’ for Beer or click ‘Share’ for Wine”. Facebook wisely realised that users really don’t care much for drivel like this in their newsfeed and introduced a new algorithm that, they claim, uses up to 100,000 signals to decide what content should be shown to which fans. Plus, of course, by restricting access to the newsfeed, Facebook has gently encouraged millions of brand page owners to consider pouring more money into their advertising business.

I want my fans back! Is it possible to beat this new algorithm?

Sorry, as at the time of writing there is no foolproof and free way to ensure that anything you post will be seen by anyone. If the you post content is great, original and just what your fans really want to see then there’s every chance you can still be a very successful marketer on Facebook. If, however, the content you share is dull, repetitive, derivative or just plain ‘salesy’ don’t be surprised if your organic reach soon plummets to closer to zero. There’s only one sure-fire way to beat the new algorithm – and that through advertising.

Oh right. Do I really need to invest advertising budget now to reach people on Facebook?

Probably yes, that’s why it’s called ‘pay to play’ after all! In the absence of a brilliant content strategy and the luck of the Irish, my advice would be to start experimenting intelligently with Facebook ads. You can boost posts, target specific content to very precisely defined groups, and quickly reach new people who have never before interacted with your brand on Facebook. There are numerous ad options available, from simple text ads to video ads, and invitations to install apps to follow a specific call to action on your website. To get started, just head over to www.facebook.com/Ads.

Is Facebook advertising expensive?

The beauty of advertising on Facebook and on many other self-service online platforms is that you are in complete control of how much budget to spend and what to invest it on. You design the ads, you choose your targeting preferences and state how much you’d like to invest over what time period to achieve your goals. The amount you’ll need to spend and how long it will take depends on the size of your ambition and the amount of competition for similar audience targets. The quickest way to find out is to create an ad and see how much Facebook recommends you’ll need to spend to get good results. If you can afford it and think it’s worthwhile just put in your credit card details and you can start the ad campaign right away.

I don’t have any budget for ads. What can I do?

All is not lost! You can still reach a significant number of people through Facebook if your content is interesting and authentic. Think carefully about your fans to determine the types of content that will resonate with them. Sharing photos and videos can help fuel engagement, as can valuable insights and educational materials. Keep testing and learning as you go. And remember, there’s a whole social world beyond Facebook, including other social networks like Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, SlideShare, Vine, Pinterest, StumbleUpon and more. Repurposing your Facebook or blog content onto these platforms may help you generate the organic reach you need to achieve your business objectives.

Is this the last big change we should expect from Facebook?

No, more changes are on the cards. Just keep in mind that on social networks you’re only ever a tenant in your landlord’s house. If they decide to change the rules you’ll just have to roll with them. And other social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn are also experimenting with similar content throttling, for much the same reasons as Facebook. Some observers have predicted the day when organic reach for brands on social networks will be reduced to zero, meaning the only way to communicate to fans will be through advertising. My sense is that day could be some way off, but it’s not entirely unlikely to happen. So keep investing time and budget in social media marketing, but also make sure that your site and blog are also fit and healthy because no-one can change the rules there without your explicit consent.