Facebook organic reach: is the sky really falling?

When you work in social media, change is a constant. There are always new products, new platforms and new ideas that need to be incorporated – sometimes mid campaign. Yet every time there is a change to the Facebook platform we go all Henny-Penny and start telling everyone that the sky is falling.

We know the Facebook newsfeed works on an algorithm that prioritises content in newsfeeds based on the people, businesses and types of content we like to interact with. So it figures that if you want to build and/or maintain good organic reach, you need to be creating engaging content, all the time.

Facebook recently published a Q&A with their head of Ads Product Marketing on how organic reach works, and it makes interesting reading. Key points are:

  • Use Facebook to drive specific business goals. You don’t run a loyalty program, create a TV campaign, sponsor an event or run an in-store activation without a specific business goal in mind, yet so many organisations don’t know why they are on Facebook. You may be able to track tangible goals such as online sales or database signups, or your goals may be around awareness, reach and engagement. The important thing here is that you have a goal, and a way of measuring it.
  • If you want good organic reach but don’t want to invest in advertising, then you need to invest in creating a constant stream of engaging content. This can be done very cost effectively with some thought, some planning and an Instagram account – but make sure it’s content your fans find engaging, not just content you think looks good or has the right messaging in it. Getting people to keep engaging with your content is what keeps them within the ‘engaged core’ of fans that you can reach organically (ie. for free).
  • Pages that are supported with paid media tend to do better. You can maintain good engagement rates without investing in paid media but over time it’s likely you’ll see the numbers of people who engage with your page, and the size of your overall fanbase decrease. (For more on how to measure engagement, click here).

While supporting your page with paid media is recommended, you don’t need big budgets if you take an always on approach and put some thought into planning how your content will roll out across a week or month. Here are some tips on getting the most out of a small budget:

  • Pick and choose which posts to support: put paid media behind your most engaging content, but make sure that content is also about your brand. You wouldn’t pay to run a TVC that wasn’t strongly linked to your brand and so you shouldn’t put paid media support behind unbranded (or worse still, someone else’s) content.
  • Choose your audience: to build organic reach you only need to promote to ‘Fans Only’. This will reach your most engaged fans and their friends (depending on how your fans interact). If you are looking to build likes, then extend reach to Friends of Fans and let social context do some of the work for you. Only promote to a wider target audience if your post is specifically designed to drive likes.
  • Check the flow of your content: make sure all your promoted posts are evenly spread out across the week/month, and think really carefully about how each post relates to the last. If your promoted post gets really high engagement, then it’s likely that audience will be included in the organic reach of your next post. If you make sure that next post is also engaging and on brand, and that it has some relevance to the previous post you stand a much better chance of keeping that audience within the pool of people you can reach organically.

If you are looking to drive engagement and build organic reach then investing in good content planning and creation is a priority, but ensuring you get a return on that investment by having an audience to distribute it to, is also important. Even a small budget can make a big difference if used wisely.

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How To Measure Engagement on Facebook

It’s a question every page manager gets asked, and one that seems to have a few different answers.

Facebook Analytics provides engagement rates for individual posts, but it’s harder for page managers to understand total engagement across their Facebook page over a particular period of time.

Understanding total engagement is important. It enables page managers to set benchmarks, compare one content strategy to another, and most critically to provide high level reporting back to key stakeholders. So why does Facebook not provide this metric? Probably because they know page managers will fixate on that one number when a range of variables are needed to determine engagement and overall page performance.

Engagement by Post

Facebook calculates engagement rates for individual posts by taking the number of likes, comments and shares as a percentage of the total number of people who have seen that post. This percentage can be found in online Analytics by clicking on the ‘Posts’ tab and selecting ‘Engagement Rate’ from the drop down menu:

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Note that ‘other clicks’ aren’t taken into account – for good reason. While these are a form of interaction, they are easy to fudge. Just post a non-standard sized image with small copy which people need to click to enlarge and voila – awesome engagement rate.

Organic posts often deliver the best engagement rate because Facebook’s algorithm ensures they are seen by people who are most likely to engage. But because this is often a small group of people, the number of people reached and interactions delivered are often low.

Posts that are supported by paid media can deliver lower engagement rates because they are being pushed out to a wider, but less engaged audience. However the number of people they reach, and the number of likes, comments and shares they attract can be higher.

If you’ve been spending heavily on media this month, then your average engagement rate might be lower than normal, but the total number of people reached and people who engaged will be higher. Ensuring you report all three of these numbers together makes it a lot easier to explain this to key stakeholders and clients.

Community Engagement

Working out engagement across an entire page over a specific timeframe isn’t quite so clear cut.

How an overall engagement rate is calculated depends on what you need to report back on – and how much time you have as it’s likely you will need to calculate this manually using the downloadable excel report.

Some methods for calculating engagement, and their pros and cons, are outlined below.

  • Total Engagement. The simplest method is to take the way Facebook calculates engagement on individual posts and extrapolate this for your page as a whole.

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Using data for a specific time period – a week, a month, a quarter – allows benchmarks to be set and time periods to be compared.

However this engagement rate will be affected by your paid media activity. Pull back on paid media and the engagement rate is likely to increase – but your reach and number of interactions will drop. Spend heavily on paid media and your engagement rate will be lower, but the number of people reached and number of interactions will increase. To ensure context always report an engagement rate alongside actual reach and interaction numbers to provide a more rounded picture.

  • Competitor Benchmarking. Social Bakers recently released a white paper suggesting a formula that uses interactions divided by the size of the fanbase. This formula uses publicly available data so is a useful way of benchmarking your own page against competitors and others in your category.

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However, this method also struggles tell the whole story as it doesn’t take paid media and reach beyond the fanbase into consideration. For example:

If you get 1,000 interactions, and you have 10,000 fans, your engagement rate is 10%.

If you get 1,000 interactions, and you have 10,000 fans but paid media support means your content reached 100,000 people, then your engagement rate is 1%.

  • Engaged Fans. Demand for this metric came after publication of a report back in 2011 from ComScore suggesting on average only 16% of a page’s fans were engaged (ah, those were the days). Just about every page manager was asked to work out how their page fared against this benchmark.

Today this metric simply doesn’t exist. While you know how many fans you have, you can’t tell how many have been reached because ‘Organic Reach’ includes both fans and non-fans.

While it seems like such a fundamental metric, knowing how engaged your fanbase is really isn’t that important. This is because the friends of your most active fans are, by default, part of your community – they will see your content because one of their Facebook friends has interacted with it or shared it with them. Facebook have always made it clear that it’s not about your fans, it’s about the total reach you can achieve through your fanbase and the way Analytics is presented reflects this.

Whichever method you use, there are three key rules to working out how engaged your Facebook fanbase is:

  1. Know what you are need to report on and why
  2. Don’t use percentages in isolation – always use actual numbers to provide context.
  3. Choose a methodology and stick to it – there may be issues with the methodology you choose, but at the very least you will be creating benchmarks and comparing apples with apples.

How do you measure engagement?