Yes, Facebook Reach is Down. So Why Is My Engagement Rising?

By this point, any social media manager worth their salt knows that Facebook has rapidly implemented a throttling down of "organic reach" for pages. Put in its most basic form: fewer and fewer people who follow a brand on Facebook are seeing that brand's posts in their newsfeed.

Tech bloggers, a group not known for subtlety, have screamed out some predictably hyperbolic headlines: Facebook is ending the free ride; Facebook is slashing organic reach; Facebook is throttling non profits and activists; Organic reach is dead. Clearly, these are scary times for us social media managers. And, click-bait headlines notwithstanding, it's true - our jobs just got more difficult.

But all is not lost. In this post I'm going to try to show you a few things: 

  1. Reach may be down, but engagement is actually going up. We may reach fewer people now, but we're reaching “better” people – more interested in our posts and more likely to engage with them.  
  2. In fact, the people who enjoy our content the most (aka the superfans/brand champions) are seeing our posts more often. 
  3. "Good" posts can still reach a lot of people. Reach isn't totally dead yet.
  4. "Boring” posts are being severely penalized. If people aren't engaging with a post within the first few minutes, its reach will be very limited. 

Of course, a few caveats before I dive into this: I am basing this off my experience managing the University of Portland's Facebook page, which is a smallish page (less than 16,000 followers) that has historically had very high engagement rates (ranked among the top college FB pages for its size for the past several years). Also, my evidence is very anecdotal, based only on data I pulled on 837 posts from mid-2012 through May 10, 2014.

Organic Reach: Yes, It's Really Going Down

Based on 837 posts on the UP Facebook page from April 2012 - May 2014.

Based on 837 posts on the UP Facebook page from April 2012 - May 2014.

Here are my reach numbers, warts and all. Hopefully not all of you are sniggering to yourselves about how pathetic my reach percentage is, but since I've never seen the data for a college Facebook page other than my own, I'm just going to throw myself out there.

Quick note on how I got this data: I used Facebook's insights tool, using column X from the "Post Level" data - "Lifetime: The number of people who saw your Page post because they've liked your Page (Unique Users)" - and comparing the date posted to the total number of likes from that particular date from the "Page Level" data. I prefer column X to "organic reach" because I feel it more accurately reflects how many of your followers are seeing your posts.

As you can see from the black trendline, reach has been pretty steadily dropping since the summer of 2013, when I was reaching an average of well more than 40% of my followers. Today, I'm down to an average of about 25%. Ouch.

And there's plenty more bad news to go around. When it comes to organic reach, 19 of my lowest 20 posts (out of 837 total) were in 2014. Clearly, Facebook is punishing low-performing posts like never before. 

Not only that, but even high-performing posts have a lower ceiling: only 2 of the 75 posts (again, out of 837 total) that reached more than 50% were from 2014.

Still, posts with good, engaging content can still reach a solid number of followers - I've had plenty of posts cross the 40% mark in 2014. It can still be done... it's just a bit harder. You can't luck into numbers like that any more. You've got to earn them.

Similarly, I've noticed that when I post something that is somewhat boring/sounds like an ad - promoting an event, a link to a news release, etc. - and it doesn't get a handful of likes within the first ten minutes or so, I can pretty much guarantee that post will reach well under 10% of my followers. The days of throwing practically anything up there and having north of 30% of my followers seeing it are long gone.

Breaking down a bit further, here is the average reach for all the major types of posts - photos, links, videos, and status updates (click the arrows to scroll left/right):

As you an see, links have suffered the most of all... I'm down to something like 15% reach on my link posts. Part of that could be a lack of popular links that I've shared in 2014, but that can't account for all of it... my link posts were hitting a steady 30% as recently as December.

More interesting to me is the steady performance of plain text status updates. My sample size is pretty small, but still... short, quick, text-only posts still have their use and should not be lost in the shuffle.

Still, no matter how you slice it: we're reaching less people. But...

Engagement: It's Actually (Gulp) Increasing

Something I've always been loath to do is give Facebook's algorithms a lot of credit. I hate the "Top Stories" feature and always sort my news feed on "Most Recent." I detest the notion that Facebook knows better than I do what posts I'm interested in and what things I'm most likely to click on. I realize it has become a $100 billion business because it has so successfully proven its ability in this area, but still... I am reluctant to give Facebook much credit for it.

Which is why it's hard for me to admit that, despite the marked decrease in reach the UP page has experienced over the past several months, it has been accompanied by an increase in engaged users (i.e. people who interact with my posts) and "consumptions" (i.e. likes, comments, shares, photo views, link clicks, etc.). Don't believe me? See for yourself:

This data does not show the raw number of consumptions, talking about, and engaged users. Instead, it takes the total number and divides it by the total number of people who actually saw the posts - thus, as a percentage of the total fans reached. 

This data does not show the raw number of consumptions, talking about, and engaged users. Instead, it takes the total number and divides it by the total number of people who actually saw the posts - thus, as a percentage of the total fans reached. 

I don't want to get too deep into the weeds on data, but some context on the raw number of people who are actually seeing my posts may help: so far in 2014, an average of 4009 people (26% of my followers) saw any given post; in the second half of 2013, it was 5044 people (36.6%); the first half of 2013, it was 4368 (34.7%); second half of 2012, 4017 (36.8%); first half of 2012, 2828 (28.2%).

Translation? Despite my page having several thousand more followers today than it did in the second half of 2012, an average post is being seen by fewer people. Which really sucks, right? Right!

So why then are my engagement numbers increasing so much? It can be partly explained by changes in the way people use Facebook (they are on it longer, they check in with their phones, etc) and the type of content I post, but the reality of the situation is that Facebook has simply gotten better at showing people things in their newsfeeds that they really want to see.

Think about it this way: Back in 2012, 5000 people may see any given post by UP, but only 1000 of them really want to see it, and of those 1000 maybe only 100 will take the time to give that post a like. In 2014, 4000 people may see any given post, but now 2000 of them really want to see it, which means 200 of them will click like.

And Facebook isn't just getting better at placing our content in the newsfeeds of people who actually want to see it. It's starting to show our posts more often to the people who want to see it most - the super fans. Again, using a similar example as above: Instead of 500 people seeing a photo gallery in their newsfeed but only 100 of them clicking through a few photos, now we've got 300 people seeing it and 100 of them clicking all 50 photos. The end result? An increase in photo views, despite fewer overall people seeing it in the newsfeed.

We're going to have to come around to the fact that we need to trust Facebook more than we probably want to.

Now, there are downsides to this for sure. For one, it creates an echo chamber... if our posts are only being seen by super fans, are we really changing any hearts and minds? Also, how can we prevent losing "passive" fans - people who are genuinely interested in what we post but don't bother to ever like or comment or share?

I suppose this is where promoting posts and running ads plays a role. Yuck.

Still, at least in the experience of the UP Facebook page, all is not lost when it comes to Facebook and organic reach. Sorry to disappoint my fellow tech bloggers, but Facebook most certainly is not dead. It's different, and we're reaching a different audience now, but it can still be used - for free! - to great effect. You just need to 1) work a bit harder on posting good content and finally let go of the boring self-promotion and 2) trust Facebook and its algorithms.

Easier said than done on both points.




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A fond farewell to a colleague and friend