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Facebook’s promoted posts: Pay to play, some say

Sam Wood and John Timpane
Philadelphia Inquirer

When it began, Facebook was the world’s greatest free high school yearbook. Now, for some, it’s gone pay-to-play.

A Facebook policy announced in late April called Promoted Posts invites owners of some Facebook pages (those with more than 400 “likes,” expressions of interest from other users) to pay for expanded “reach” to their audience.

Hobbyists, enthusiasts, musicians, and other individuals run these pages, as do sports teams, political campaigns, nonprofits, and businesses (including The Inquirer). Some would be fine with paying. Some wouldn’t.

The thing is, you didn’t have to pay before. With Promoted Posts, when the person or group who runs a page posts new content, it reaches on average 16 percent of the page’s followers, according to Facebook. That’s free.

Want more reach? You can press a button and get a pay schedule, starting from $5 per post. More gets you more reach. Facebook will tell you how many more people you’ll reach per price. It’s not a one-scale-fits-all system; Facebook uses a complicated system to figure variations among pages. But imagine a page with 6,200 followers, of which 16 percent would be about 992. It might be offered 400 more for $5, or 700 more for $10, or 1,100 more for $15, and so on.

A promoted post is marked as such when it appears.

“Facebook is clearly looking to try to raise more revenue, especially as questions about their ad model keep getting raised,” says Dan Petty, social media editor for the Denver Post.

Since its celebrated (and troubled) first day of trading May 18, Facebook has fended off allegations that its ads don’t work, and it is searching for ways to make its features deliver for itself and its new investors. Promoted Posts may be one such way. Some worry that a “Promoted Posts” policy may descend on all Facebook users before long.

Facebook officials declined to comment on the record. But they said Promoted Posts were not new and did not apply to all pages. It’s naive, they add, to expect all posts to reach all followers. They never did. And those that did reach their targets often were not looked at. (That’s the all-important distinction: between just seeing something and engaging it. Everyone wants engaged eyeballs.)

They say Facebook is not withholding or taking back anything but, rather, is offering a service to help you beat that 16 percent average. And it doesn’t cost much. Its reach is much better than other much-used promotional tools. Think of direct mail, which doesn’t even reach 1 percent of target audiences.

When you log on to Facebook, you can’t see absolutely everything. So how to determine what to show you?

Enter EdgeRank, a Facebook algorithm that decides. It weighs three factors: affinity (the interest you’ve shown before in this topic, person, or page), weight (the amount of time you’ve spent with said target — in other words, the engagement you’ve shown); and time (the freshness of the post). In effect, EdgeRank filters posts (interesting to you or not) and followers of those posts (folks who engage or don’t).

Social media consultant Thomas Baekdal calls the policy a “conflict of interest”: People who run pages are “paying Facebook to reach the people who have already decided to follow you, who Facebook in turn has decided to filter out again with EdgeRank.”

One thing is clear: A lot of people, those who run pages and just plain folks, have no idea about the change. As Niketa Patel, social media product manager for CNNMoney, says, “I doubt followers know that what they are seeing is being so tightly controlled by Facebook, unfortunately.”

Some businesses are fine with Promoted Posts and regard it as a reasonable expense. Cassandra M. Oryl, the Philadelphia-based principal of Slice Communications, says that through Facebook, “our clients have seen increased brand loyalty, new opportunities with new audiences, increased Web traffic, and increased sales.”

Stephanie Ogburn, online editor for High Country Times, says, “I’m interested in Promoted Posts but would definitely like to see the numbers behind it.” Emma Carew Grovum, digital/social editor for @CookingMag, says, “I could definitely see us giving Promoted Posts a try” with promotions or sweepstakes.

Some see it as inevitable, including Mark S. Luckie, former social media editor of the Washington Post: “Tumblr’s done it, Twitter’s done it. It’s a concession that you make. You realize that the free platform is going to get monetized.”

Just as clearly, some businesses are not fine with Promoted Posts and regard it as an unpleasant surprise. Some say it may affect their use of Facebook to promote their businesses. Steve Buttry, director of community engagement and social media for Digital First Media, says, “If you’re going to have to pay to get any visibility, I don’t think we’ll pay.”

Michael Weinstein, who with his wife, Linda Nahrgang, runs Charmingly Linda’s Quality Consignments and eBay Listing Services in Frazer, writes by e-mail: “Yes, we were surprised. And it really affects our business. … To hear that all the people that want to see our latest updates are getting the info is quite disappointing.”

Facebook has been invaluable, says Weinstein, but now it “looks like I need to look into Google+ a little harder for our business needs.”

What about nonprofits? About 98 percent of them have Facebook pages, according to Facebook; the average nonprofit has about 8,300 “likes.” Nonprofits use their Facebook pages to inform prospective volunteers about events and developments. Will nonprofits feel OK about shelling out to get more than that 16 percent of followers?

Marlo DelSordo, director of marketing and communications for Philabundance (about 17,000 Facebook followers), says no: “It’s an expense we haven’t budgeted for, nor do we have the ability to cover those types of expenses. Facebook once was a free tool for nonprofits, like other social media. Now it’s not free anymore.”

What if a volunteer group cancels, and there’s food waiting to be distributed? “We used to be able to give a real-time shout-out to all our followers,” DelSordo says. “Now these important messages get less visibility.”

She says Promoted Posts puts nonprofits at a disadvantage: “Nonprofits and for-profits should not be treated the same way regarding their use of content. Nonprofits aren’t using Facebook to make profits, so we should not be charged an ad feed to post information that benefits the community.”

Incredibly quick and changeable, the social media world is still, to many users, also incredibly mysterious. Says Buttry: “We still don’t understand why some things appear prominently in news feeds and other things appear to be buried.”

Sometimes the Web seems a maelstrom of missed connections. Speaking at an April TEDx meeting in New York, Sree Sreenivasan, influential digital media professor at Columbia Graduate School, called it the “dirty little secret” of social media: “Almost everyone will miss almost everything you do.”

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