A Complex Equation

 Facebook’s new algorithm makes it more difficult to get the county message out — but it’s still an important tool to use

​Facebook’s free lunch is over.

Recent changes in how the social media juggernaut chooses what content to show users means counties will need to rethink how they use Facebook. The site is no longer a free and easy way to reach thousands of constituents with important messages.

From now on, fewer Facebook users will see posts from the pages they follow. But, with 71 percent of online adults using Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, it’s still an important piece of any communications plan for the time being.

What Changed?

Last December, Facebook changed how it selects what users see in their News Feed (the center column of updates, photos, videos, and links users see when they visit the website or open the app). Since then, Facebook page managers have watched as the number of users who see their counties’ posted content has plummeted. 

“To choose which stories to show, News Feed ranks each possible story (from more to less important) by looking at thousands of factors relative to each person,” wrote Facebook Vice-President of Ads Product Marketing Brian Boland in a June 5 blog post. “Over the past year, we’ve made some key changes to improve how News Feed chooses content: We’ve gotten better at showing high-quality content, and we’ve cleaned up News Feed spam. As a result of these changes, News Feed is becoming more engaging, even as the amount of content being shared on Facebook continues to grow.”

While the changes Facebook made to the News Feed are aimed to better serve the average Facebook user, what they are in fact doing is throttling content posted by Facebook pages. Pages now regularly reach only about 6 to 10 percent of their followers with any given post, as opposed to between 30 and 50 percent this time last year. 

But that doesn’t mean counties should abandon the world’s largest social network and its 1.15 billion users altogether. Instead, Facebook page owners will need to rethink what they are posting to the site and how they use it in their communications strategy. 

The Truth about Facebook 

There has long been a misconception that a Facebook page’s followers see every update the page posts. That has never been the case. The truth is that Facebook has been editing and curating users’ News Feeds for almost as long as there has been a News Feed on Facebook.

Facebook personalizes what each individual sees. The site’s News Feed uses an algorithm to select from the hundreds or even thousands of posts made each day by friends and pages a user follows, then makes visible only the ones it believes that user will care about. The algorithm works as a sort of spam filter, keeping the user’s News Feed from becoming clogged with too many posts per day. It’s always quietly weeding out the ones it believes a user won’t find value in seeing.

“There are certainly people that come to Facebook looking to see funny cat photos. And we want to make sure that it’s a good experience for them as well as people who are looking for more serious news. Ultimately, we’re trying to make it as personalized as possible and give people what they really want to see,” said Facebook’s News Feed manager Lars Backstrom in an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s All Things D blog. 

Backstrom estimates there are 100,000 individual factors in the algorithm that produces a News Feed for each Facebook user. The factors the algorithm takes into account include how often users interact with the friend, page or public figure that created the post; how many likes, shares and comments the post has received; how often users have interacted with those kinds of posts (photo, video, link or text) in the past; how long ago it was posted; and how long it’s been since the potential viewer has logged on to Facebook.

Paying to Play

While Facebook has tweaked its algorithm many times in the past, the latest change has had more effect than any of the others, as it forces Facebook page owners to change their communications strategy to reach their audience. The trick has always been to create content that people want to see, that they find valuable — the kind they’ll “like,” comment on and share — but now it’s no longer as easy or as free. 

So, what can counties do?

One option is to pay to play. Paying Facebook to “boost” a post bypasses the algorithm and gets the post published in more News Feeds. The changes in Facebook’s algorithm and the ability to bypass the algorithm for a price have led to accusations that the company’s real goal isn’t to make a better News Feed but to increase its revenue from advertisements. Either way, businesses, governments and organizations of all kinds need to pay up if they want to reach their full audience. 

Of course, regularly paying for posts just isn’t feasible for most county governments. 

“I can see the value in boosting a post for a very important message. Will Hidalgo County use that option? Doubtful. One of the reasons to use social media is to reach our communities without having to spend our limited resources,” said Hidalgo County Public Affairs Director Julia Benitez Sullivan. 

It’s a position that puts most counties at odds with the basic mechanics of Facebook’s business model. Facebook’s argument is its News Feed is just like TV, radio, magazines, newspapers or highway billboards: users should expect to pay to get messages to their intended audiences.

Boosting a Facebook post is much more affordable than paying for traditional advertisement space or postage. Counties can opt to promote a post on Facebook and gain a wider viewership for as little as $1 per post. And with its sophisticated set of targeting options, pages can put their best posts in front of very specific audiences. Posts can be targeted to audiences defined by demographic characteristics like age, gender, location, language, political affiliation, interests and so on.

The real benefit of using Facebook versus print media and billboards is the ability to see metrics on the success of the campaign. The metrics are available to all page managers, regardless of paying.

“The analytics are pretty neat. I can tell how many people have looked at a particular post. It shows me immediately how many people have seen it. And, you know, our population in this county is around 14,000 but I’ve had several of my posts where 15,000 or 16,000 or more have viewed it,” said Trinity County Sheriff Woody Wallace, describing his department’s Facebook page. 

Wallace is considering paying to promote posts in the future, but he wants to see how long the relatively new Trinity County Sheriff’s Department page, set up in early 2013, can hold its momentum. “We’re really just letting it push itself a little longer. Our Likes are still going up pretty rapidly,” he said.

Amplifying the Message for Free

Short of paying, there are still options. Working within the confines of Facebook’s algorithm and using some best practices can yield some respectable results.

Counties can also play to their strengths. Sheriff Wallace’s online success is no accident. Like all county departments, his is in a unique position. Wallace and his deputies are newsmakers. Newsworthy posts inherently have extra energy headed out the gates because journalists, with their large online distribution networks — and often their social clout — will pick up on them and propel them further. 

Keep in mind that posts that are shared frequently and receive a lot of comments and likes are more likely to be published widely across the social network. These activities are some of the ways the algorithm determines the value of the post.

Facebook page managers can reach out to local journalists and others with local, relevant and popular pages and encourage them to follow county pages, share content, comment on posts and generate their own stories from county updates, all of which can help propel a message further. With limited budgets, many counties and departments can’t pay to promote every post, if any at all, but they can still quickly and widely spread their message and even lighten their workload by making sure their social media messaging reaches the right people.

“Facebook is up-to-the-minute news. All the news agencies around here watch our Facebook page closely and then when they see something they want to report, the story is pretty much there and they don’t have to bombard me with a bunch of questions, which is another reason it’s a great tool. They might follow up on some small things, but they basically get all their information — all the pictures they need — from our Facebook,” Wallace said.

Counties that have Facebook pages for multiple offices and departments, as well as a presence on Twitter or other social media platforms, can share relevant content between their pages and across platforms. Elected officials can also use their own social connections by sharing and commenting on county messages from their personal Facebook page. These interactions help propel messages further.

Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape, who runs his Paul Pape County Judge Facebook page out of his home, also posts regularly from his personal Facebook account. He uses both his page and public posts on his personal account to update county residents on his activities. He also uses his personal account, which has nearly 1,500 friends, to share updates from key community groups and other local community leaders.

“My Facebook profile is definitely a bit more personal in nature — there are posts for family and friends — but it’s still professional, too. I try to communicate about events in the community on Facebook or information on the fire recovery and water planning, just little things that help inform the community and keep the information passing around,” Pape said.

Just as important is to make sure that the sliver of general audience that will initially see the post will want to share it. Sharing must be baked into the caption or headline. Creating content that users want to engage in means framing it as positive. It has to trigger awe, surprise or curiosity. Factual information, like how much of the county budget had to go toward roads in the face of the energy boom or how much was saved on a new IT initiative, are great examples of this. 

Showing, Not Telling 

People respond better to Hidalgo County’s posts that contain images, according to Sullivan. “We’ll post without art on occasion but really prefer to show as well as tell,” she said. Hidalgo County’s social media analytics reports bear out what cognitive scientists have known for years. The human brain is wired to get more out of seeing a picture than reading words.

“Processing print isn’t something the human brain was built for. The printed word is a human artifact. It’s very convenient and it’s worked very well for us for 5,000 years, but it’s an invention of human beings. By contrast, Mother Nature has built into our brain our ability to see the visual world and interpret it,” said Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, in an interview with Harvard’s Nieman Reports, a communications journal.

On Facebook, more than just human nature is at work when it comes to the success of visual content. Facebook’s algorithm ranks photos higher than other posts. Because they’re more likely to be published in user’s feeds, they are more likely to get interacted with, which in turn prompts Facebook’s algorithm to publish it to even more feeds, creating a virtuous cycle.  

I post photos because, like they say, a photo is worth a 1,000 words.

Because of the human and algorithmic bias toward timely, newsworthy visual posts, posting candid photos and videos makes more sense than posting a link to a press release or a plain text update. 

“I post photos because, like they say, a photo is worth a 1,000 words. I do include a little caption, but keep it very succinct. It doesn’t need to be a ‘vote for me’ self-promotion thing, just the who, what, where, when and why, and the picture will speak for itself and do the rest,” Pape said. 

Pape is judicious in crafting his social media presence, taking a quality over quantity approach. He thinks out each photo he posts in advance and makes sure it contributes to the big-picture strategy of crafting the image of his office online.

“I rarely post on the fly, unless it’s to encourage people to attend an event or a rally. But wherever I go, I do think ‘would this be something worth posting on Facebook?’ I may come back from an event with several photos, but if they don’t help to tell that story of my office, I won’t post them,” Pape said. “I follow Roy Rogers’ advice that it’s a better policy to leave them wanting more than to give them too much.”

Sheriff Wallace has also made visual content a priority. He uses his smart phone to take and upload pictures both at the office and out in the field. He’s posted photos of inmates working the county gardens and of his deputies delivering the fresh vegetables to the Groveton Senior Citizen Center. He and his deputies have taken time out to pose for pictures while returning stolen items to their rightful owners, and he’s even snapped shots right on the scene of a drug raid.


We post photos of all our arrests on there. People can see who got arrested, what they got arrested for, and that has actually been helpful in reducing crime in this county. It’s a good deterrent, because it used to be that you got arrested in a small town and the next week when the paper came out, you may or may not be in it. Now, on Facebook, they see your face and they see your name and what you were arrested for. And while we’re not doing it to embarrass anybody, people do not want their face put on Facebook with that information,” Wallace said.

Reassessing the Reliance on Facebook

Facebook’s changes have placed them as a gatekeeper between pages and their audiences. Paying them can open the gates again, reuniting a page with its audience. It’s also possible to get views through a sort of side door by using well-crafted visual updates and sharing them with journalists and others with online clout. 

But the reality is that even using those best practices, Facebook is not the communications tool it once was. Access to the audience is artificially limited. There’s some anecdotal evidence that suggests that Facebook pages serving smaller communities may get more benefit from Facebook’s virtuous cycle of content publishing – where engagement begets wider publication across the social network and in turn begets more engagement – because smaller communities’ social connections both online and off might tend to be more thoroughly entwined, but only analytics for each county’s page can truly bear that out.

Facebook can still be a great customer service portal for receiving input and requests from citizens and it can be used for accurate targeted advertising of new programs, but with the more limited reach pages now have, it’s time to reassess its central role in social media strategies.

As digital communications continue to evolve, it’s helpful to think more about the bigger picture of where audiences can be reached. Smartphones are now, in many ways, the real social platform. While Facebook continues to have a strong presence, smaller social networks and applications like YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Reddit are quickly rising because of their more narrow focus and ease of access on a smartphone.  

With almost three quarters of online adults using the service, Facebook isn’t going away, but the world of social networking is, in a sense, fragmenting. There are countless channels now. Forty-two percent of online adults were using multiple social networking platforms in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. More than one-third of Internet users access the Web almost exclusively from their smartphone. 

It all makes for a good case to continue using Facebook — but not exclusively. Only a hard look at a page’s metrics can help determine if it is still successful and worth the investment. If necessary, the paid options can be used for more than just circumventing Facebook’s algorithm — they can be used as part of an exit or unwinding strategy for Facebook. Either way, counties need to diversify and start looking at other social networking services and digital communications options.

“We post on our website, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram and combine the venues. It becomes a habit. If we’re out there, covering something, it’s easy to pick up the phone, snap a shot and tweet it. When we’re posting video to our website, it’s easy to tweet it or post it on Facebook with a link to YouTube,” said Sullivan, of Hidalgo County.

Beyond diversification, county officials should make sure that other aspects of their communications strategies, like an e-newsletter, are not neglected, as trends and fads can explode and then implode, sending users back to old tools. Counties can direct followers to an email sign-up page on the county website and encourage residents to sign up for email alerts in areas and departments that interest them. Once a visitor opts in to receive emails, they have given the county permission to continue a longer-term conversation with them as stakeholders on the issues they find important. Facebook’s targeted and paid post features can also be used to help grow an email list that can in-turn be used to build and sustain more in-depth constituent communications out from underneath the shadow of the social networking giant. 

Whether a county is just now ready to begin using social media, or is looking to expand its online presence and ramp up existing social media efforts, TAC has assembled several resource pages at www.county.org/socialmedia to provide county officials with the information and resources they need. Officials with questions about applying social media to their specific needs can contact TAC communications staff at (800) 456-5974.

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