While the decline of organic reach that has occurred on Facebook over the years is well known among brands, an experiment the world's largest social network is running in a handful of countries might be one of the most frightful ever.

As detailed by AdWeek, Facebook has confirmed that it's testing a second News Feed that could make it much more difficult for brands to reach users unless they're willing to pay up.

Unlike the second News Feed that Facebook previously tested, which displayed content from sources users haven’t Liked or followed, the latest test put content from Facebook Pages in a separate News Feed under an Explore Tab, with the primary News Feed being reserved exclusively for posts from friends.

But there's an exception: the primary News Feed also displays ads and promoted posts.

In other words, there's no organic News Feed reach under Facebook's test. Brands are effectively shut out from the main News Feed unless they are willing to pay. While their posts do have a home in a second News Feed, it's likely that this feed will attract anywhere near as much attention.

According to a statement released by Facebook:

With all of the possible stories in each person's feed, we always work to connect people with the posts they find most meaningful. People have told us that they want an easier way to see posts from friends and family, so we are testing two separate feeds. One as a dedicated space with posts from friends and family, and another is a dedicated space for posts from pages. To understand if people like these two different spaces, we will test a few things, such as how people engage with videos and other types of posts.

A big caveat, but a powerful reminder

The good news for brands is that Facebook's experiment is currently limited to the countries of Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia and Sri Lanka, and the company says it has no plans to roll out the change globally.

But the test is also a reminder to brands of the leverage Facebook holds over them. With the flip of a switch, the social networking giant could literally upend their Facebook efforts and make it far more costly for them to reach even the users who follow them on the platform.

Evidencing the negative impact of a second News Feed is the fact that already, according to Filip Struhárik, editor and social media manager at Slovakian newspaper Denník N, the top sixty Facebook Pages in Slovakia have seen their engagement drop four-fold since Facebook began its experiment.

Engagement on the sixty largest Slovak media Facebook Pages in the wake of the company's News Feed test from CrowdTangle via Filip Struhárik. 

Obviously, Facebook is not likely to make such drastic changes to the News Feed in core markets unless it has ample evidence that the changes won't have a negative impact, but the mere fact that Facebook is willing to experiment with a change like this in any market raises questions about just how far Facebook might eventually be willing to go.

Facebook has been talking a lot about its ad load challenges over the past year and it doesn't take much imagination to think the company was contemplating this when it conceived of its ongoing News Feed experiment.

Patricio Robles

Published 24 October, 2017 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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