The Facebook News Feed Challenge: Learnings From #SMX Social



One of the hot topics at SMX Social Media Marketing this year was how marketers can get into the Facebook News Feed, given that the social network giant seems to be constantly throttling back the reach of organic content. Must we pay? Or are there other options?

This was the focus of two different panels at the Las Vegas event, the “The New News Feed: How To Break Into Facebook’s Exclusive Neighborhood” and “Winning Strategies With Facebook Ads.” Both were especially timely, given the site’s announcement last week that it will show promotional and sales-oriented content less often starting in January.

The first question is what promotional content is, exactly. Could a brand post content that’s entertaining or useful, even with a call-to-action, without having it categorized as “promotional”? SMX speaker and social media consultant Alison Zarrella says yes.

“Content with a call to action — so long as it’s not misleading — is still OK and won’t be penalized as “click bait,’” she told the audience. “But things that are very promotional will have to be paid for.”

What types of things will get into Facebook’s exclusive neighborhood — the News Feed — without requiring brands pony up for ads? Speaker Chad Wittman, the founder of EdgeRank Checker, said he previously spent a lot of time doing statistical analysis to figure out the secrets of Facebook’s ranking algorithm. But he ended up changing his focus: to human psychology.

Wittman determined that the best way to get into Facebook engineers’ heads is to get inside users’ heads. The aim of the News Feed is to provide users with what they want — even if they don’t know that they want it, even if their responses to survey questions indicate they want something different. Actions speak louder than words, and Facebook is getting really good at figuring that out.

“Huge kudos to Facebook’s algorithm team that they are trying to really tap into human psychology,” Wittman said.

Wittman suggested that brands follow Apple’s example — though he admitted it’s far from easy — by inspiring fans and brand advocates to post about your products and services on your behalf.

Zarrella, for her part, had a few specific suggestions to maximize organic impact:

  • Keep your content flowing. She recommended posting one piece of content every day, perhaps adhering to a theme — like “weekend tips” on Fridays, for example — and planning a posting schedule in advance on an editorial calendar.
  • Target the feed. Use Facebook’s capabilities to deliver your content to the audiences with which they will resonate most strongly. Another way to find sympathetic audiences is to forge partnerships with other brands that appeal to a similar demographic and psychographic. Through those partnerships, exchange tags so that each of you get exposure to each other’s audiences.
  • Play with your content. Experiment with the various tools Facebook makes available. Zarrella mentioned a marketer who created a montage with two images put together, making them look unified and larger than they would be otherwise.
  • Make it timely.  Both Zarrella and Wittman suggested riding the coattails of trending topics by posting your own content that fits in. If everyone’s talking about snow in Buffalo, as they are this week, your post about the merits of various snow shovel types might pick up more viewers than it would otherwise.

If all these techniques don’t do the trick, however, it’s time to resort to paid advertising, and Facebook has plenty of offerings in that regard.

Speaking on the Facebook ads panel, Beth Horn, the retail business lead at Facebook, outlined a few of the possibilities and shared some tips on taking advantage of them. In detailing the opportunity, Horn mentioned that Facebook users check their News Feed 14 times a day, though it wasn’t clear whether she was speaking about regular users, or the user base as a whole.

One of the reasons the News Feed is so often viewed is that it’s easily accessible on mobile devices, which are gaining in popularity. This poses a challenge, however, when it comes to tracking an individual through the purchase cycle, because they may engage with touch points on one device, but convert on a different one.

Hence, Horn touted the cross-platform nature of the News Feed — and associated tracking — and urged attendees to use all of the capabilities in their toolbox to find the right audience. This includes demographic, psychographic and social data, as well as signals gleaned from people’s actions on your own website, which can be leveraged with the custom audiences and lookalike audiences products.

“Identity is really at the core of this,” Horn said. “Identity is the difference between a broad demo target and being really specific about what you know about your customers. The specificity of messaging that you can get there can be really really powerful. ”

When it comes to creative, Horn echoed many of the tips given by speakers in the organic content panel, extolling marketers to create ads that appear “at home” with the rest of the content that users are seeing in their News Feed. She gave Banana Republic as one example, saying the company had been successful with an image that showed two young well-dressed people walking through what looked like a park — a shot that looked similar to what Facebook friends are likely to share.

BarkBox, meanwhile, achieved results with images of puppies — another popular Facebook genre.

A second speaker, Ian Mackie, who is director of strategy at Point It, echoed some of what Horn said, but also issued some cautions.

Though Facebook is dominant and is bumping up against Bing (but is still second to Google) when it comes to utility for marketers, Mackie said marketers must be careful when deploying campaigns on the site. Lookalike audiences, for example, are tempting but can spur lots of spending with few conversions, if the similarities between the audience and your own customers are too different.

“It’s very easy to spend a lot of money when the reach is up there,” he said. “Just be aware of that…start on the conservative side and go with a very similar audience.”

Though Mackie concurred that mobile is important for marketers, he suggested some were chasing the medium without enough care.

“More and more money is being pumped into mobile,” he said, “but what’s coming out the other side is not what we want to see.”

Mackie said some of the trouble was that it was difficult to quantify the impact of mobile when conversions weren’t happening on the devices themselves. To solve this, Mackie recommended Facebook’s cross-device reporting and said Google Analytics isn’t yet helpful as an independent check on conversions.

The final speaker, Paul Steketee, Managing Partner at Addressomo, also praised the capabilities of cross-device reporting, and said that “people, not cookies” should be the gold standard for targeting and tracking.

“We’ve found there are 3+ cookies for every one individual,” he said, “which means you’re going to be 3x more effective just by thinking of it as an actual person, an individual.”

With such an approach, Steketee said, marketers can not only ensure they’re delivering consistent messaging, but they can also deliver a sequence of messaging that moves people down the purchase funnel.

About The Author

Pamela Parker is Executive Features Editor at Marketing Land, MarTech Today and Search Engine Land. She’s a well-respected authority on digital marketing, having reported and written on the subject since 1998. She’s a former managing editor of ClickZ, and worked on the business side helping independent publishers monetize their sites at Federated Media Publishing.



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