When the World Wide Web was first surfed, traditionalists in media or advertising cared that much. To them, the audience (therefore the ads and ad money) was all in print and broadcast. This lack of interest in online content continued well into the 2000s until both industries eventually got flipped turned upside down.
But those who do not learn from their browser history are doomed to repeat it. So perhaps unsurprisingly the same folks who misjudged the early internet messed up again with the surge of social media and takeover of YouTube.
When dead-trees and cable-boxes started taking a backseat to digital, businesses initially based these new models on their own site traffic. But social media’s meteoric rise was soon pulling people from homepages to newsfeeds and timelines. So publishers and brands went where the eyeballs were, but that meant putting their eggs in another platform’s basket.
They began relying on Facebook’s social traffic hose and even started publishing directly with Instant Articles and Native Videos. In doing so, they became slaves to the algorithm. I’ve seen enough of my stories go viral to appreciate social media’s vast opportunity potential. But it’s the difference between driving yourself or taking an Uber. The latter usually works out but if they take a bad route, there’s not much you can do except show up late.
So after convincing media and brands that giving up control was worth the ticket price into their walled garden, Facebook reacted to the rise of Fake News by pivoting back towards “family and friends content.”
Adweek dubbed the 2018 move an ”algorithm bomb.” because after hooking brands and publishers on audience-enlarging Facebook pages, the social media giant adjusted their ranking system and effectively blew up those audiences that publishers had worked on building up.
“Recently we’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content — posts from businesses, brands, and media — is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other,” explained Mark Zuckerberg in his announcement at the time. “As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media.”
Some might see this purposeful reduction in organic reach as a business strategy to increase promoted posts. After all, Forbes reported that these “updates will not affect the prominence or volume of paid posts or advertisements in people’s feeds.” Regardless, as QZ noted, it “means the years and millions of dollars brands and publishers have spent building up their presence may be for naught.”
By the end of 2018, Search Engine Journal was reporting that the “majority of publishers see much lower Facebook traffic now vs. last year.” They specifically called out the impact on BuzzFeed and HuffPost, which had soared to new-media heights on the strength of their social traffic.
That impact really hit home earlier this year when declining traffic forced BuzzFeed to lay off 15 percent of its staff in January. Verizon Media, which includes HuffPost and Yahoo, laid off seven percent of its staff that same week.
Meanwhile, Google-owned YouTube responded to the current cultural climate by demonetizing controversial videos in response to threatened advertiser boycotts. They instituted stronger “community guidelines” policies that removed ads from videos ranging from anti-vaxxer misinformation and the Momo Challenge to mega-popular YouTuber PewDiePie, who dubbed these changes the “adpocalypse” after he lost revenue following allegedly anti-Semitic videos.
“We know advertisers don’t want their ads next to content that doesn’t align with their values,” the company explained. “We’re taking a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content. This includes removing ads more effectively from content that is attacking or harassing people based on their race, religion, gender or similar categories. This change will enable us to take action, where appropriate, on a larger set of ads and sites.”
It’s hard to blame massive organizations like Facebook and Google for trying to extricate themselves from the seedier side of user-generated content, but it’s also hard to ignore that there have been considerable unintended creator casualties taking friendly fire along the way.
Ultimately, the real lesson for both media and brands is that their choice to reach audiences at the cost of self-determination has a price, and so long as they rely on someone else’s platform, they’ll be stuck paying it. What remains to be seen is for how long, and for who, that payment will still be worthwhile.