Is this the end of free exposure on Facebook?

Facebook is running an experiment that has many businesses nervous. Does this spell changes to how small businesses use Facebook to reach customers and potential customers?
Is this the end of free exposure on Facebook?

Ah, Facebook. It’s a magical place where we can humble-brag about our kids, get into arguments with strangers who randomly capitalize words and give the thumbs-up to memes about how awful Monday is.

For small businesses, Facebook has been an equalizer of sorts. Big companies might have big advertising budgets, but small companies with a good story, a little marketing savvy and a cute dog or two could use Facebook to reach a very targeted market, often for little or no money.

When things are too good to be true

But a test Facebook is conducting in six countries has Facebook publishers a little nervous. The test involves the new Explore Feed, which I’m sure you’re already familiar with. It’s easy to use and obvious to find. Just go to your Facebook page and look at the left-hand side. See that little Explore header and all the very important things under it (otherwise known as things I’ve never clicked)? Do you see the Explore Feed?

The answer is no, because in order to see it, you have to click on “See More …” Once you do that, though, it’s right there with a little rocket ship icon beside it because you’re about to explore wonderful new things, like posts from Pages you’ve never heard of.

It only took me five minutes to find it — and I was looking for it. Imagine how often your customers click on that little rocket ship. (Spoiler alert: not often.)

So, what’s changing?

At the moment, posts from Pages you’ve liked still appear in your News Feed. Which means, if you’re a small business who’s worked hard to build a Facebook community, your customers still get to see your top posts.

In six countries (Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala and Cambodia), however, Facebook is running a test wherein all posts from Pages (that means you) are relegated to the Explore Feed. The results were — unsurprisingly — grim: Mashable reports that the 60 biggest publishers in Slovakia saw interaction on their posts drop dramatically, while BBC spoke with “Facebook success story” Catherine Harry in Cambodia. A video she posted on her blog got 2,000 views in the first hour — compared to 12,000 before Facebook started the test.

But … why would Facebook do that?

In a post titled “Clarifying Recent Tests,” Facebook’s Head of News Feed, Adam Mosseri, explained, “We always listen to our community about ways we might improve News Feed. People tell us they want an easier way to see posts from friends and family. We are testing having one dedicated space for people to keep up with their friends and family, and another separate space, called Explore, with posts from pages.”

All righty, then.

The sky isn’t falling … yet

Mosseri went on to say, “The goal of this test is to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content. We will hear what people say about the experience to understand if it’s an idea worth pursuing any further. There is no current plan to roll this out beyond these test countries or to charge pages on Facebook to pay for all their distribution in News Feed or Explore. Unfortunately, some have mistakenly made that interpretation — but that was not our intention.”

Whew. Looks like we can all go back to posting bad pictures of our dinner and stop worrying about this.

Except … look closely at what Mosseri said. “The goal is to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content.” As Josh Constine from Tech Crunch wrote, “Publishers and developers are not Facebook’s priority. Users are. Ruthlessly prioritizing the Facebook experience is what’s kept the News Feed at the center of the internet despite changes from desktop to mobile, from text to photos to video. Only by putting users first does Facebook still have users.”

If users prefer a world in which posts from Pages are buried in a separate Explore Feed (and Facebook can generate more revenue by forcing Pages to spend money to get post views), you better believe that’s what Facebook is going to do.

Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your … Well, you get the picture.

What does this mean for me?

At the moment, nothing. (Unless you’re Cambodia or one of the other affected countries.) And Facebook may come up with something entirely different if it wants to make changes.

Even if it does push your posts to the Explore Feed, it’s always possible that Facebook will find ways to make users want to check out the Explore Feed. It’s still a very new feature, so it’s hard to tell if the drop in views is due to users’ unfamiliarity with the feed or if it means most people don’t care to check out posts from Pages they follow.

In the meantime, though, this should serve as a reminder that businesses should not overly rely on Facebook. You don’t own your Facebook page, and you aren’t guaranteed access to your Facebook followers. If you haven’t made getting email addresses from your customers a priority, now is a good time to do so.

You probably won’t be able to share as many cat videos over email, but you’ll be able to send out information on sales and new products, remind customers to come in to your shop to have their bow serviced, and share valuable shooting and equipment tips.

Best of all, you own your email list, which means it’s not subject to the whims of Facebook.

Featured image: iStock


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