January 31, 2018

The Future of Organic Marketing and Facebook

The internet marketing world collectively panicked when Mark Zuckerberg announced changes to how Facebook would display content to users. You should read the post in its entirety, but this paragraph is likely what triggered worried phone calls and emails:

“As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.” (emphasis is mine)

For many businesses, social media marketing—and therefore Facebook, given its size—is a key element of their marketing mix. The idea that an algorithm change would automatically make your Facebook marketing less effective is naturally alarming, but the unbridled panic may not be justified. Your business can still leverage social media marketing to drive retention, acquisition, and revenue, but your social media strategy is going to have to change.

Here’s the thing: I’ve not seen other analysts talk about this challenge in a productive way. Responses to Zuckerberg’s announcement seem to be of two flavors, and neither flavor tells the whole story or gives you an actionable path. One side sees this change as the death of Facebook marketing while the other side sees this as a positive move for the platform, arguing that improved Facebook user engagement will ripple into improved Facebook marketing results for businesses (since the users will be more attentive and active if the changes work).

Let’s move away from hyperbole, though, and talk concretely about the best path forward for your Facebook marketing.

This Change is NOT New

News outlets resoundingly treated Zuckerberg’s announcement as a game-changing revelation. It’s not. Facebook has been consistently reducing organic reach (the number of your Facebook fans who will see one of your posts without an ad spend) for the better part of four years now, if not longer.

Quarter after quarter, Facebook marketers have seen a steady drop in organic reach across all of their brand pages. These algorithm changes were done in the name of making Facebook a better experience for the average user. Less organic reach meant that only the most competitive content appeared in feeds, therefore letting users see more “good” content and more engaging content from friends and family.

That’s exactly what Zuckerberg is describing now. It’s not new. It’s the continuation of a trend, and if you are using an agency or an expert for your Facebook marketing, they should have started adjusting to this trend years ago and have considered how they would adjust their strategy if the situation continued to get more challenging.

What the Trend Already Means

Even today, the specifics of the Facebook algorithm (like the Google search algorithm or any other such platform that lives and dies on the back of user engagement) are not public. We have some guiding principles set forth by the platform itself, we have the anecdotal data of what other marketers are reporting from their work, and we have the data from our own experiences as an agency.

We won’t know exactly what the changes will mean until they actually reach implementation, but since they appear to be a continuation of an existing trend, here is what we already know:

  • Quality is more important than quantity. Facebook bases your reach on user engagement. If people react or interact with a post, more of your audience will see it. If your audience does not react, your post will eventually not appear in the newsfeed of your users. Some folks have suggested that consistently un-engaging posts means that less and less of your total audience will see each post you make, so posting a bunch of uninteresting content may end up rendering your big Facebook page mostly useless (potentially).


  • Building an audience from scratch is really hard. In the early days of Facebook, reaching new fans via the raw platform alone was as straightforward as making some interesting posts. Users were quick to like a new page, and the absence of strict content filtering algorithms (like we have now) meant that many more users saw updates. If you start a page from zero or have a small Facebook following (less than 500 likes, at a minimum), growing your audience from purely organic posting is unlikely to be productive at this point. You should invest in targeted page promotions (targeted is the keyword here) or look at off-platform ways of getting your audience to like your Facebook page.


  • Facebook advertising is closer to being mandatory for brand page performance. If you have a strong Facebook following and consistently deliver worthwhile content, your organic reach can still be substantial. For our clients who have a well-developed community connection and work diligently to nurture that connection, this is the case. So, you don’t have to spend money on Facebook ads to make the platform useful for your business, but even our most community-driven clients still turn to Facebook advertising to drive sales, either regularly or on special occasions. At this stage, with organic reach winding down and Facebook advertising becoming more powerful than ever, not using the advertising services of the platform is akin to a basketball team only putting four players on the court.


  • Instagram is Facebook too. When marketers first started bemoaning the decline in organic reach on Facebook, Instagram rose to prominence and a new wave of social media influencers built businesses on the image-based platform. Today, with Facebook having purchased Instagram, the differences between the platforms are fading. Instagram started adjusting reach algorithms soon after the acquisition, and with Facebook and Instagram sharing many features, you should expect Instagram to follow in the path of Facebook. If Instagram is your golden goose and if that golden goose would choke on the kind of changes Facebook is making, start planning your strategy-change now.


  • Email list building is still as relevant as ever. Permission marketing is a classic internet marketing technique, and its relevancy hasn’t changed. In fact, in light of Facebook’s ongoing changes, email list building is even more important. On Facebook, you don’t own your audience or the connections to them, no matter how much time or money you spend building that following. You can’t take those users with you, and if Facebook puts a filter between you and your fans, you have little choice but to live with it. For this reason, I often caution clients against building their primary audience on any social media platform (whether its Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc) because you are beholden to the platform. If your goal is audience growth, your end audience metric should be your email list size (and quality), and not the number of Facebook likes you have.


  • Use your email list to bolster Facebook advertising. Facebook allows you to upload your email list to their platform to either target ads to those users or to target ads to users that match the same demographics as the folks in your list. If Facebook targeting feels daunting, this is a cost-effective way to use Facebook advertising without torching a bunch of budget, especially if you use it in parallel with other campaigns or promotions.


Again, these insights should not be new to your marketing team. These are based on trends that have been playing out over several years. If they are new to you, however, you should start to rethink how you are using Facebook (and social media in general) in your marketing.

Organic Marketing Still Works, But It’s Different Now

Earlier in this article, we defined organic marketing by what it is not: paid advertising. That tells part of the story, but let’s be clear on what we mean before we talk about how you can still apply organic marketing to your business. For me, I view organic marketing as an approach that seeks to leverage the natural flow of a prospect’s life and behavior. Where a television ad interrupts a prospect’s day to deliver a message, content marketing would be the show itself.

Think about the difference between seeing an ad for a painting kit versus tuning in to see Bob Ross paint (Ross’s show was actually content marketing for his paint sets). The experience for the prospect is much different.

Here are some examples:

  • Developing a Facebook video that your fans react to and share with their friends is organic marketing. Using paid advertising to boost that same video is not organic.
  • Writing content for a publication related to your industry is organic. Running an advertisement in that publication is not organic.
  • Developing a blog post that comes up when a user runs a Google search is organic. Running an AdWords campaign to drive traffic to the same kind of content on your blog is not organic.
  • Your fans’ friends asking about the t-shirt with your logo on it is organic. Paying an Instagram influencer to wear the same t-shirt in a photo is not organic (though that example may be less obvious to your prospects).

Just to be perfectly extra crystal clear, I am not saying that you should not use paid advertising. Paid advertising can be incredibly effective, and many of our clients use a mix of paid and organic marketing. With platforms like Facebook moving farther away from supporting organic marketing—the kind of digital word of mouth activity that Facebook used to provide as a result of you simply making a post—your own marketing strategy might have fewer sources of organic, grassroots activity.

In addition to the adjustments in Facebook strategy that we have already discussed, here are some on- and off-Facebook tactics for organic audience growth:

  • Play the game even if you don’t like the rules. Facebook isn’t dead. Prospects and customers are still there. Learn how the algorithm works, monitor your post performance, and adjust your tactics to match the climate of the platform. This will mean being more vigilant about what you post and when (and probably using more video), but you can still get some return from your Facebook activity even if it’s more difficult than it used to be.


  • Revisit Facebook Groups. This feature won’t be relevant to all brands, but we have seen some businesses use the forum-atmosphere of a Facebook Group to build community and to retain customers. Keeping the group active and engaging will take work, but you benefit from much less strict algorithms on what group content appears in a user’s notifications. Be warned, this is still Facebook, and if a bunch of brands start using Facebook Groups you should expect Facebook to take a second look at how much freedom brands have with Groups and how they use them.


  • Highlight people in your community. Whether community to you means a specific sub-culture or the region where your business is located (perhaps both), taking the time to shout-out the people doing great things will get people talking about and sharing your content. Consider doing this with photos, videos, and blog content to generate worthwhile interactions with your fans and target audience (as people share, re-share, and discuss the person you highlighted).


  • Empower your fans to be advocates. Marketing gurus have made this suggestion for decades, but few businesses take the time to stimulate fan conversation. If someone posts a photo of your product on social media, for example, reply and highlight them on your own platforms. If a customer makes a lot of purchases, send them a VIP package just because. If you are doing something worth talking about, reward the people who are starting to do the talking and more people like them will follow.


  • Get out of the office and interact directly with your audience. Many of our clients built their businesses by simply being present in the places where their target audiences gather. Perhaps you are engaged with events your audience cares about or participating in volunteer work in your community—taking an active approach to engagement is a great way to win fans. It’s not as fast or as rapid as a Facebook post used to be, but we have seen the long-term rewards be quite large.


  • Look for other online communities. This is like getting out there in-person, except online. Many niche audiences gather in places other than Facebook. Perhaps they are on Reddit or perhaps they have a favorite message board—Find other entry points to your audience’s conversations and be a worthwhile contributor to those conversations.


  • Put more thought into your leadership. Your audience consumes massive volumes of content on a daily basis from a range of platforms (and social media is part of that diet). Identify where your audience goes for education and entertainment online, and work with those publications or media sites to create worthwhile content for your target audience. When you say and do interesting things, prospects are more likely to opt-in to an email list or to follow your social media accounts, especially if they discover you via a source they already trust.


  • Pick up the phone. This is harder to do for larger B2C retail brands, but it’s possible. B2B brands, however, should make this a regular part of their process. Taking the time to talk directly to customers, even if it’s just a check in and to say thank you for your business, dramatically improves the customer experience. It’s time-consuming, yes, but one phone call can make a customer more likely to mention you to a friend.


  • Word of mouth marketing flows out of retention. For the marketing strategy process we use internally and with our clients, we look at word of mouth marketing as an extension of the behaviors that help you retain clients (you can read about our process in my book). The thinking is simple: Happy customers stick around, and happy customers are most likely to recommend you to their peers. That means that if you want to facilitate more word of mouth marketing, you should look at what you do for client retention (such as customer support, email marketing follow-up, and so on) for opportunities to get more customers excited to talk about your work.


The skeptics among you may look at this list and have concerns about how rapidly you can reach a big audience with these tactics, so let me cut you off early. It won’t be rapid at all. Organic growth, whether we’re talking about wild river-caught salmon or marketing metrics, is typically not fast. That’s part of the point.

All-Natural, Hormone-Free Marketing

None of what I suggest here is a get-rich-quick solution or a silver bullet to your marketing challenges. The end-results, however, are significant.

Organic growth tends to produce deeper roots for brand loyalty and produce heartier brands overall. Loyal customers love organic activity, and loyal customers stick around for a long time. Just because the Facebook shortcut to organic exposure is fading does not mean organic growth any less worthwhile. While it is certainly frustrating to lose access—even if its by degrees rather than in totality—the squeeze on organic activity is an opportunity for you to truly stand out.

If you can develop a brand and a marketing strategy that is interesting and compelling enough to stomp through every filter in your way, prospects will notice, and the part of a platform like Facebook that once looked like an obstacle will then become an opportunity. It’s hidden right there in Zuckerberg’s statement, but it’s the part everyone missed:

“As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.” (emphasis is mine)

That’s what good organic marketing is. Meaningful.


Photo by Daniel Novta, used with permission under Creative Commons license.




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