Facebook’s algorithm isn’t surfacing one-third of Chicago Tribune posts. And it’s getting worse

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Starting in January of this year, we at the Chicago Tribune started to anecdotally see a fairly significant change in our post reach.

We weren’t seeing a huge difference in post consumption or daily average reach, but we were just seeing more misses than hits. At the Tribune, we have a fairly stable and predictable audience. We had around a half million fans at the end of March and have seen slow but steady growth in the last year. Most Facebook posts fell into the 25,000 to 50,000 reach range — with a few big successes and few spectacular failures each day, usually based on the quality of the content or the quality and creativity of the share.

But starting earlier this year, we started to see far more misses. And not reaches in the low 20,000’s but 4,000 reach or 6,000 reach. Digital Editor Randi Shaffer was one of the first to notice.

Some of our data looked fairly normal. Our average daily organic reach looks volatile but familiar. We used average daily because Facebook doesn’t give you monthly.

But, our per post metrics were falling. Our average organic post reach was on the decline, but not that far off a prior low of mid-2016.

Still, averages can be strongly affected by outliers. It was our median organic post reach that was far more revealing. Yes, we were on a downward trend — and that trend put us at record lows. The middle was falling precipitously. Our median post was being seen by fewer and fewer people, organically.

To try to get a handle on the nature of the issue, I decided to download 15 months of Facebook post data — no small feat since Insights only lets you grab 500 posts at a time. Then I merged the 30 csv files and sorted the organic post data into four buckets: less than 10,000 reach, 10,001–25,000, 25,001-50,000 and 50,001+. The results literally stunned me. The number of posts that fell into the category of lowest efficacy—the ones seen by the fewest number of people — was skyrocketing.

In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.

What did this mean? In baseball terms, we were hitting far fewer doubles and we were striking out 1 every 3 times at the plate. Four months earlier, we struck out 1 of every 90 at-bats.

And it was happening despite solid growth on our Facebook page — which, logically, would translate to increased reach.

Yet many of our posts were seeing diminished organic reach despite picking up more than 130,000 Facebook fans.

So why could this be happening? Let’s look at some of the possible factors.

Increase in post frequency

One possible explanation is that during this period we slightly increased the number of posts per day. However, the rise was quite small and doesn’t coincide with the recent trend.

We went from roughly 20 posts per day to 24 posts per day. And however small that may look per day, that number adds up over time. In this timeframe, that represented a 25 percent increase in monthly posts.

However, Facebook’s formal guidance is 24 to 48 posts per day. And we looked at the cadence of 23 other newspaper Facebook pages and determined we were in the mid- to low-end. For the last six months, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (661,551 fans) posted 74 times per day and the Houston Chronicle (385,086 fans) 58. Big thanks to Digital Editor Elizabeth Wolfe for crunching these numbers with CrowdTangle to prove our normalcy.

While it may be unlikely that frequency is our culprit, it’s a change in behavior we have to consider.

And moving ahead, this may be more of an issue. NewsWhip in its dive into three years of social data directly recommended quality over quantity in its five primary takeaways: “Post fewer but quality content that delivers value to your audience’s lives.”

Content type mix

In addition to frequency, Facebook also has its optimal content mix — 50 percent links, 25 percent video and 25 percent photos. To be honest, we don’t come close to this. But neither does any media organization comparable to the Chicago Tribune. Of those same 23 newspaper Facebook pages we looked at, most were posting majority link content types in the last 6 months. USA Today had the lowest percentage of links at 78.14% and the Sun-Times the most at 99.28%. But in general, most newspapers were sharing links on their primary Facebook page around 90% to 95% of the time. So the Tribune, at 97.2%, was slightly high but not atypical.

And given that our content mix hasn’t changed substantially in the last 15 months, this would have to be a somewhat remote possibility.

Still, NewsWhip reported last year that links were seeing less engagement even as video was on the rise, however artificial. And we’re posting mostly links.

Facebook Instant Articles

Another factor could be our lack of Instant Article adoption. Our parent company has been circumspect in regards to Instant Articles. We’ve been testing Instant Articles, but we have yet to deploy them in Chicago. Given the changes announced last month, giving publishers a bit more control, I’m hopeful this will change.

But again, since we’ve not changed posting formats, this would seem an unlikely factor … unless the algorithm changed.

So what about that Facebook algorithm …

What I inevitably come back to is that something changed on Facebook’s side of the equation.

The last algo update mentioned in Facebook’s newsroom blog was “New Signals to Show You More Authentic and Timely Stories” on Jan. 31. This is around a month we’ve after identified our shift, but still curiously close. Of course Facebook didn’t foresee any hiccups: “We anticipate that most Pages won’t see any significant changes to their distribution in News Feed.”

Given that I hope the Tribune passes muster for “authentic,” let’s focus on the second half. What exact signals are being used to determine what “timely” means? It purports to favor topics that are being discussed in real time.

For example, if your favorite soccer team just won a game, we might show you posts about the game higher up in News Feed because people are talking about it more broadly on Facebook.

So exactly how much reach lift is conferred by dovetailing with Facebook-defined trending topics? Conversely, does this punish topics not being discussed? Or did the Facebook real-time algorithm become more like Instagram’s, prioritizing content based on the volume of immediate comments, shares, likes and reactions—and squelching posts that are initially ignored? That could be “timely.”

Beyond that, the usual sites that track Facebook changes haven’t noted anything else that would account for our massive shifts in audience.

The Friends and Family newsfeed change in mid-2016 didn’t seem to strongly affect the Tribune. And Nieman reported in mid-August that the Friends and Family change seemed to have little impact on all publishers. Ephemeral also is months late. Maybe it’s a little of everything.

So here we are. The data show that we are having the fewest number of our most successful posts and the most of our least successful at a time when our strategy hasn’t significantly changed and our fans have grown.

So, is anyone else experiencing this situation, and if so, does anyone know why and how to compensate? Because if 1 of 3 Facebook posts isn’t going to be surfaced by the algorithm to a significant degree, that would change how we play the game.

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