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The Facebook strategy you need to quit today

"One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent."

This is the opening to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's post announcing significant changes to the Facebook News Feed. These changes will have an impact on the distribution of content from your Facebook Page, so it is important to understand them.

A history of declining organic reach

When Facebook first introduced Pages, you could count on Facebook to show your posts to a majority of the people who liked your Page. But back in 2014, people who used Facebook to grow their businesses and organizations began to see a troubling trend: their organic reach — the number of people who see their posts for free — was declining.

Facebook responded to these concerns at the time by explaining that there were two primary reasons for the drop in organic reach:

  • There is too much content on Facebook, and so they could not show users every post from every friend and Page they follow.
  • If Facebook had to pick and choose what to show users, they were going to use an algorithm to display the posts they thought each user would value the most.

Facebook is constantly tweaking its algorithm, sometimes fine tuning things behind the scenes, and occasionally announcing larger-scale changes and shifts in priorities.

However, the overall trend in post distribution remained downward. In the first half of 2016, organic reach was down 42%. In 2017, organic reach dropped another 20%.

A refocus of the Facebook mission

Facebook had a rough year in 2017, facing criticism for the role its platform played during the 2016 United States presidential election. A number of former employees have also detailed concerns over the divisive role social media is playing in society, with a few expressing guilt over the role they played in its rise to prominence.

As all of this was going on, Facebook began to engage research on well-being and happiness, evaluated the experience they have been offering their users, and drew this conclusion:

"The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos – even if they're entertaining or informative – may not be as good."

What is changing?

In a news release that accompanied Zuckerberg's post, Facebook announced some specific changes to the News Feed:

Prioritization of posts from family and friends over Pages: Both Zuckerberg's post and the news release make clear that Facebook users will see fewer posts from Pages in favor of more posts by real people. This means that most Pages, potentially including your church's Page, will see a further decline in organic reach.

Prioritization of posts that inspire conversation and interaction: In a note sent to Facebook's largest publishing partners, Facebook explained that this means "comments, shares, and messages will be valued more than reactions and likes."

Penalization of posts that specifically ask for engagement: This is a reiteration of their announcement from December 2017 that "engagement bait" will no longer be tolerated. This is a particularly popular form of post for some churches. It usually takes the form of sermon clips, Bible verses, or event announcements with the text of the post asking followers to like, share, comment or tag friends. Your engagement bait may not be as egregious as the feature image of this article, but this simple form of digital evangelism must be modified or else Facebook will penalize your posts.

What this means for your church's Facebook Page

If the posts on your church's Facebook Page already inspire meaningful interaction in the form of comments and shares, you are in the best position to continue to reach your Page's followers. On the other hand, if your posts do not regularly inspire engagement — particularly in the form of comments and shares — you will likely see a further measurable drop in organic reach.

If you find yourself in the latter situation, refresh your memory on the basic dimensions of excellent content. Educate yourself on the best practices for increasing engagement. And be sure to search the MyCom archives, as we have posts with engagement ideas for specific topics and seasons, like this excellent article on engagement during Lent.

A good step for everyone to take would be to analyze your past posts in order to see what has (or has not) been working with your specific audience. Use a grading system to rank your social media posts and gain insight into patterns of engagement.

Moving forward, as you begin to plan and design new content for Facebook, it is critical to keep the goal of interaction in mind. Ask yourself how the post, video or graphic you are preparing will inspire conversation. Consider posting less often and spending more time ensuring that each post is high quality.

Experiment with Facebook features, like Groups or Facebook Live, that naturally offer avenues for interaction. For example, post a graphic asking for prayer requests in your church-wide Facebook Group. And instead of posting a clip or quote from the sermon, host a sermon recap or Q&A on Facebook Live that gets viewers involved during the week.

Finally, take steps in the "offline world" that will help online. Organize a volunteer social media team who commits to commenting on and sharing posts from the church page. Show your congregation how to prioritize your church's posts in their News Feed, and teach them how to use their personal Facebook profiles for evangelism within their social circles. And while you would be penalized for including the instruction to "share and tag a friend" in the text of your post, you can always encourage people to do it when you see them in person or through channels like your email newsletter.

At the end of the day…

The good news is that the church is well-positioned to contribute to the goal of improving people's well-being. We have a message of hope and grace, and your church likely has years of practice telling this story.

Where we often lose our way in online ministry is focusing too much on trying to game the system. We try to learn granular details about the ever-changing algorithm and stress ourselves out over variables like how often to post and at what time of day.

While there will always be technical details like this behind an algorithm-driven system, and understanding them might give you a small boost, the greatest thing you can do to increase your impact is to focus less on "likes" and more on the mission The United Methodist Church has: Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The changes to the Facebook algorithm are complex, but the message, as Mark Zuckerberg said, is simple: "[make] sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent."

Dan Wunderlich

Rev. Dan Wunderlich is an extension minister focused on worship, communication, and creativity with the goal of helping ministries and their leaders better connect with their communities. Find out more about his work and his podcast "Art of the Sermon" at DefiningGrace.com.

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