Facebook's latest algorithm update, which further prioritized content from friends and family over content from brands and publishers, has claimed a high-profile victim.

LittleThings, a digital publisher focused on positive stories for American women, announced that it is ceasing operations in large part because Facebook's algorithm change decimated its reach on the popular social network, which the company relied heavily on.

According to a company memo, its organic and influencer traffic dropped by over 75% as a result of Facebook's change of heart. "No previous algorithm update ever came close to this level of decimation," the memo detailed. "The position it put us in was beyond dire. The businesses looking to acquire LittleThings got spooked and promptly exited the sale process, leaving us in jeopardy of our bank debt convenants and ultimately bringing an expedited end to our incredible story."

While many publishers are dependent on Facebook for meaningful percentages of their traffic, LittleThings, which was launched in 2014, staked its fate on Facebook far more than many of its peers. The company was responsible for the top post on Facebook in 2015 and was quick to adapt as Facebook evolved. For instance, LittleThings embraced live video when Facebook threw its weight behind Facebook Live.

Company executives apparently seemed confident that their relationship with Facebook was too symbiotic to be jeopardized. In 2016, Joe Speiser, LittleThings' CEO, told the Wall Street Journal that "Facebook loves publishers." He elaborated that "I think we need each other. We need them for the traffic; they need us for the content," adding "I think without the content all these media companies are providing there'd be that much less reason to go on to the news feed."

Not two years later, it is clear that Speiser's confidence about publishers' relationship with Facebook was ill-founded. In the wake of scandal and controversy over how is platform was used to spread misinformation, Facebook has decided to return to its roots – as a platform that fosters connections between real people – and that means publishers are being squeezed out.

Of course, Facebook didn't suggest that publishers would see the kind of declines LittleThings reported experiencing, and when Facebook announced its latest algorithm change, it appeared there were ways publishers could potentially mitigate against its negative effects. But clearly, there's no perfect solution that can offset the effects of the change.

The question now is just how many publishers will follow in LittleThings' footsteps. 

LittleThings appears to have bet on Facebook more heavily than other publishers, and having been self-funded before it took an undisclosed amount of debt financing in 2015, it probably didn't have as much time to react to Facebook's algorithm change.

But LittleThings also had a lot going for it. For example, as a publisher of uplifting content, the company would ostensibly be especially attractive to advertisers increasingly concerned with brand safety.

In the final analysis, unless Facebook reverses course, it's unlikely LittleThings will be the last publisher to find its fate imperiled by Facebook's algorithm changes. Unfortunately, there's only so much that publishers can do.

Very few publishers have no exposure to Facebook and many derive a meaningful percentage of their traffic from Facebook. More importantly, the trends that are driving Facebook to deprioritize content from publishers apply to other popular platforms such as Twitter, so investing more heavily in platforms other than Facebook might prove to be a band-aid and not a permanent fix as these platforms are just as subject to change.

With this in mind, LittleThings' rapid rise and fall is perhaps one of the best reminders yet that publishers don't own the audiences they cultivate on platforms like Facebook; they merely rent them. And when the lease is up, there's no guarantee it will be renewed.

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Patricio Robles

Published 1 March, 2018 by Patricio Robles

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

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Comments (1)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

Looks like one of those clickbait publishers to me, so this may be what facebook intended, not a side-effect. Here are some some recent titles. Sorry - not going to link to this stuff - but you can google them if you want.

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Zach Quinby refused to give up on baby Addy. Now, a full year later, her family is still beyond grateful for what he did.

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