If there’s one thing guaranteed to get Facebook page owners riled up, it’s a change to the Edgerank algorithm. This month complaints have been springing from every corner of the world’s largest social network about the latest tweaks (and frankly, why should I be any different?).

Over the past weeks I’ve been watching our page reach figures fall… and fall… and fall… with Facebook’s latest changes putting severe limitations on the amount of organic content that we can serve to our followers.

I try to make sure the Econsultancy page follows the moving best practice goalposts, so in order to understand the situation and try to arrest the decline, I decided to try out a series of promotions to gauge their effectiveness. 

Before I go any further, a caveat: This is obviously a limited test. I’m being careful with the company credit card at this point, so I simply wanted to judge how different kinds of promotions reach people, and see how effective Facebook’s promoted posts targeting is.

Here I’ve tried a couple of different types of post and wanted to see how much bang I’d get for a small investment.

If you are running ads regularly then please do add your comments on this below, it would be great to find out more about how the changes have affected your campaigns recently.

Impact on organic reach

First of all, let’s look at how our organic reach figures have changed recently.

Here’s a few of our posts from before the change:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0002/4674/1-blog-full.jpg

When Facebook began providing reach figures we routinely reached between 2,000 and 4,000 people, per post (at the time, our page had around 7,500 total ‘Likes’).

Next, here are some posts with similar content after the change:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0002/4675/2-blog-full.jpg

As you can see, numbers have fallen considerably. By as much as 50% in fact.

I should point out that since the switch; these numbers have grown slightly, so it appears that Facebook may still be tinkering with things, but our total organic reach now rarely exceeds 1,600 people per post.

Timing helps a little, but it‘s still not a great situation. Previously I covered this and felt fairly certain that they were not ‘actively’ restricting post reach, but given Facebook’s recent blog post on this, I’m no longer certain.

So, if organic content won’t reach your hard-earned Facebook audience, will promoted posts? Let’s take a look:

As mentioned, I decided to run two parallel promotions:

  • A ‘light’ post, designed to be shared.
  • An infographic post. Of limited interest to people who aren’t part of our target market.

Both posts were targeted to reach ‘People who like our page, and their friends’.

As mentioned, this targeting isn’t really valuable for a niche business like Econsultancy, as even if someone Likes our page, it’s unlikely that all of their Facebook friends will also be digital marketers.

This targeting is designed with consumer brands in mind, but I’d expect it to be the most popular option for managers using promotions, as it offers the most likely route to page growth.

For my first promotion I posted something deliberately made for sharing. You guessed it, it’s a cuddly wombat.

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0002/4676/3-blog-full.jpg

I’ve also deliberately asked people to Like, tag and share the post, following all the basic terrible brand page rules (Albeit with a touch of irony… I hope).

I promoted this post for £7, and set the targeting to reach people who liked my page. Here are the results of this post:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0002/4696/results_of_wombat_posting-blog-full.jpg

2.7% of people who saw this post Liked it, and over 6.5% took some kind of action.

That’s a pretty impressive engagement rate. But let’s take a quick look at the users who Liked the post:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/0002/4677/5.jpg

I’ve spent time checking out the profiles for a lot of these users, and while there are a few legitimate users in this list, we also received a large amount of Likes from profiles in Malaysia and Thailand, many with no connection to digital marketing, and alarmingly, many appeared to be fake profiles.

Now, I’m a big fan of triple-checking everything, as things on Facebook are rarely what they seem, but if this is indeed the case, then we’re left with a problem. At this point it seems that either:

  • Facebook’s targeting is utterly, irredeemably borked, or
  • Something far worse: that promoted post interactions are falsely buoyed by fake profiles.

I’m not about to pit myself against the legal department of one of the world’s largest companies here, but this does have some disturbing implications if Facebook is serious about building an ad network.

Incidentally, I’ve also seen several posts on various forums recently (including our own) saying that geo-targeting options have disappeared for some users, and again, that promoted posts have been overwhelmed by users from Indonesia, so it seems I’m not alone in this.

This has also affected our publically displayed Likes figure – with Bangkok now being our ‘most popular city’ –previously this was London, followed by New York:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0002/4697/talking_about_figures_after_promotion-blog-full.jpg

(Incidentally, look at that interaction curve! More on this in a moment).

I’m not saying that traffic from Thailand is necessarily useless for us. To find out, we need to check our own analytics:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0002/4698/where_traffic_came_from-blog-full.jpg

As you can see, during the promotion, we received no referral traffic from Bangkok.

Was it valuable?

… maybe. Here’s a shot of transactions from Facebook during the promotion:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0002/4699/ecommerce_transaction_peak_during_promotions-blog-full.jpg

There’s a definite bump in traffic and correlating ecommerce conversions there, so we are at least

reaching some valuable customers. But there’s no real way to separate organic from paid here so it’s a little unclear.

So let’s see if we can figure out why, as the actress said to the bishop, we’re getting so many thumbs up from Bangkok.

I mentioned earlier that I’d tuned this post for general ‘likeyness’, which wasn’t the case with our other promo – an infographic covering social sharing.

I targeted this post to reach people who liked our page, and their friends.

At this point I should add a further caveat: For a company like Econsultancy, this targeting won’t be very effective. We have a niche audience; it’s unlikely that all our follower’s connections are also digital marketers. This is a setting built for consumer products, so this is absolutely a test which I didn’t expect any long-term value from, but hey, you’ve got to try new things.

Here are the results:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0002/4700/reach_figures_for_infographic_post-blog-half.jpg

This post received a huge bump in visibility with 21,000+ views, and around 7% of people who saw the post were engaged in some kind of action, but as mentioned, this post had a fairly limited appeal, so I wouldn’t have expected too many Likes or shares from the target audience.

Now let’s see who ‘Liked’ this post:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0002/4702/people_who_liked_post_2-blog-half.jpg

Aha! More users from Bangkok, only this time, investigation shows that they seem to be real people.

So, it appears that someone from Thailand ‘Liked’ this post, AND our cuddly wombat. They have a lot of bot users following them, who in turn lavished likes upon our promotion. So in that sense, Facebook’s targeting is quite good. It displayed and promoted the Econsultancy page to the users it said it would.

However, without accurate geotargeting, there’s no way of limiting that promotion to more relevant followers, and despite claims to the contrary, it appears that Facebook is still littered with spam accounts who may be artificially inflating the cost of using promotions.

So not a deliberate attempt at price bumping by FB, but certainly a case of poor housekeeping.

Our largest problem here is that we don’t  know how far Facebook casts the connection net. If I target you, and your friends, am I getting your direct contacts, or am I getting six degrees of Kevin Bacon?

Facebook needs to be much clearer about these and provide better targeting if it wants to be effective.

Over the course of promoting these two posts we gained 235 new followers, that’s higher than our usual acquisition rate so has certainly helped, but since then things have dropped back to their usual levels:

https://assets.econsultancy.com/images/resized/0002/4703/before_and_after-blog-full.jpg

At our recent JUMP event, Lovehoney’s Matty Curry spoke about the effect TV advertising had on their brand awareness. Typically a site will receive a traffic spike during the ad, then a quick fall, but a fall to a slightly higher general level than prior to the campaign. This is important, as it seems to be missing here. I’ll have more data as we continue to test, but it appears that without this incremental increase (which again, may be something that FMCG brands will see), then Promoted posts lack any long-tail value.

The impact for page managers

In effect, we’re left needing to constantly promote posts, otherwise we have:

  • No long term traffic increase
  • No long-term on-page interaction increase
  • No long-term conversion increase

and crucially no increase in brand evangelism or overall engagement from relevant customers.

This has always been the absolute core of Facebook’s value proposition for businesses: The ability to easily connect with engaged customers. As things stand, if you want more Likes, then keep posting pictures of fluffy toys. If you want actual customers… it may not pay to advertise.

Again, this is a very small data sample, so please do let us know how you’re finding the changes, and the success you’re having with new Facebook ad formats in the comments.