Facebook’s algorithm changes and how local news publishers can adjust their strategy

March 15, 2018
Posted in Facebook
March 15, 2018 msuproductions

Facebook’s algorithm changes and how local news publishers can adjust their strategy

Note: This post was last updated January 2018, and is intended for members of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), the Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION), the Detroit Journalism Cooperative and NJ News Commons organizations under a Knight Foundation-supported program to enhance the social media skills of small, independent and nonprofit news organizations. The program is being coordinated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

In January 2017, Facebook began announcing major changes to its algorithm that affected news organizations. The following tip sheet compiles some of the early ideas publishers are sharing on how to approach Facebook’s algorithm changes, which aim to prioritize posts from friends and family over those of businesses in the main News Feed.

Off-platform strategies

Keep building your own community, directly.

Make sure the experience with your content is welcoming. How are you asking people to be part of your community, especially when they bounce to an article page?

  • Is it easily and attractive to sign up for your newsletter?
  • Do you invite readers to contribute news tips?
  • How do you ask them to be members, or volunteers or donors?

Diversify and remind your readers how they can find you.

Ensure your content is getting out to all the places and platforms where readers may be. And be sure to remind your readers of those places.

  • Is your site optimized for Google AMP, Apple News, or Facebook Instant Articles?
  • Are you experimenting strategically with other social platforms?
  • Remind your readers of all the places where they can get your news: Follow you on Twitter and turn on mobile notifications; subscribe to your newsletter; turn on push notifications in their web browser; ask them to set your website as their browser homepage; ask them to add your site to their browser bookmark bar; remind them of your app and push alerts; share your RSS feed; tell your readers they can set a preference to see your page’s posts first in their Facebook News Feed.

Email. Your audience funnel probably depends on it.

Growing your email list is critical. So is sending engaging and effective newsletters.

  • Do your emails build a relationship with your audience, or simply repeat your headlines?
  • Do you invite people to sign up for your newsletters at the end of articles, when they visit your site, after they donate or participate in an event? Is it an easy process?
  • Do you have a well-defined path for email subscribers? I.e., how quickly do you reach out after the initial sign-up, how often to do you communicate, how do you interact with the active subscribers versus non-active subscribers, etc.

Emphasize sharing.

It’s important for your readers to share your content, and for you to encourage it.

  • Think about whether your share buttons well-placed, easy to find, and large enough.
  • Consider other ways to encourage sharing on your site, such as in-post widgets offered by various WordPress plugins.
  • Make your content easy to share with well-worded headlines, clear images and in some cases, social cards or memes that capture the essence of the story.
  • Think about ways you can encourage your readers to share your content on Facebook, either through their own posts, in groups or via Facebook Messenger.
  • If there are key influencers in your coverage area, consider ways they can help you spread the word about important work. If you’re a local news publisher, maybe it’s an email list or Facebook messenger group including heads of local civic associations, neighborhood groups or homeowners associations, public officials, etc., and the next time you have an impactful piece of content, ask them to help you get the word out.

On-platform strategies

Consider ad buys.

Consider taking the investment you were putting behind posting articles on Facebook and paying to boost posts and instead using it very strategically to pay for targeted ads on the platform.

  • You can build ads to promote specific content, or to promote email sign-ups, or to promote a fundraising campaign, and much, much more.
  • Spend time understanding how to build effective ads, how to find the right audiences to target, and how to measure success.

Yes, keep posting on your Facebook page — but strategically.

Long gone are the days of posting content on Facebook with individual posts that merely repeat the headline.

  • Post only your best stuff, and put some time in to making those posts interactive. Analyze your past posts and look for trends on the most engaged-with ones.
  • Share articles that will encourage meaningful conversation. Think about stories that citizens can take action around. Is there an upcoming charity auction to benefit a local family? A petition drive? A missing person, a food recall, a major road closure?.
  • Making the posts interactive means you’ll have to reply to comments. Comments — especially meaningful comments with substance — are important signals for the new algorithm change. Longer comments will likely be weighted more heavily.
  • Consider rewarding commenters in some way; perhaps a comment of the week, or notifying your best and most active commenters when new content is shared.

Facebook Groups could be fertile ground for engagement. Or a time suck.

Many publishers have been nurturing Facebook Groups centered around a specific topic, location or community interest. Others are quickly creating Facebook Groups as a way to try to maintain referral traffic. One is a good idea and the other is not.

  • Groups take a lot of work to build membership and keep the community strong, so consider that when deciding whether to form a Facebook Group.
  • Groups can work well for publishers who want to break their audience up into specific, interest-based groups and see value in hosting and nurturing an ongoing conversation among that group.

One big caveat to all of this: Keep your news judgment.

Just because Facebook is emphasizing content that will be engaged with doesn’t mean you should focus on producing only news that you think will attract likes, shares and comments.

  • From Sue Cross, CEO at INN: “There always will be important stories to surface that are not particularly engaging. They are complex or disturbing. Or they simply give voice to people others don’t want to hear. Don’t abandon those people or those stories. Don’t give up your news judgment. Readers count on it. It is what can restore trust in news.”

Sources and resources

If you have any questions, let us know! Email murrayst@montclair.edu.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

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