Facebook Takes Another Step Toward “Pay-to-Play.” Now What?

Twitter and Instagram have undergone some changes recently — now it’s Facebook’s turn.

Remember a few years ago when agencies (including us) started to warn their clients that Facebook was becoming pay-to-play? It’s closer to reality than ever before: in several countries, Facebook is testing what a News Feed would feel like without publishers in it.

The content that most of us see in our News Feeds by default has long been a mix of three types:

  1. Content from our friends
  2. “Organic” content posted by the publishers and organizations whose pages we follow
  3. Paid promoted content, which includes both commercial content (advertising) and pieces of content distributed more widely or featured more prominently than they organically would be due to paid promotion

In their experiment, Facebook is removing “organic” content (#2 above) posted by publishers and organizations from its users’ main News Feeds, and relegating these posts to a secondary stream of “Content from Pages” that most users won’t bother to read. Promoted content and posts by your Facebook friends will remain in the main News Feed. In other words: this is a pay-to-play system for publishers.

Don’t panic! First of all, nothing’s official yet — this is just a test in six markets outside the US and UK. Second, we’ve seen this coming for a long time, and the coping strategies haven’t changed. Focus on creating great content, buy ads with smart targeting, and think about how you can move your social audience to an owned platform (for most organizations, that means email).

Here’s what we think about these changes:

Katie Newport, Head of Creative & Delivery, DC
First of all, what’s organic reach? It’s been so long I don’t remember.

But really! Fewer publishers are relying on organic reach compared to a few years ago. Most of us are paying for something, be it acquisition, engagement, or clicks. For a while, conventional wisdom has been: Don’t pray to reach people — pay to.

As a consumer, I hope this change means that publishers will think harder about how they target me. For example, I am constantly served ads from a certain flower delivery company about a 15% off deal, only to discover it’s restricted to first-time customers — which I am not. Their targeting should know that.

As a media professional, I am looking forward to tackling this new challenge. Instead of just blasting out messages to broad audiences, we get to target people with specific, relatable messaging that might make them more likely to act. We will be forced to operate with a scalpel instead of a mallet. And I’d rather be a surgeon than a… er, Gallagher?

Rich Mintz, Executive Vice President
Despite this development, I still see a purpose for organic content on Facebook. Organic reach matters because friend-to-friend content referrals perform better than paid acquisition over the long term.

But organic reach is not enough. Showing content to people who have already “liked” our pages helps with retention and stewardship but doesn’t help us reach anyone new; hoping to reach existing fans’ networks is an imperfect way of reaching potential new supporters. Organic content is best used alongside a healthy investment in paid promotion, so that we can combine the people we acquire organically (who, because of their social ties, are bound to perform well) with a separate population of people we acquire through successful data-driven inferences.

No matter what, the share of organic content in our News Feeds was bound to decline. Facebook is a business, and it has a structural incentive to monetize its platform as much as it can without killing our addiction to it. What this Facebook experiment is telling us is that organizations will need to become more deliberate about how they complement their organic content with paid promotion.

Billy Silverman, Director of Content
I think this kind of shift could change the digital landscape for the better. I want advertisers to behave like advertisers instead of trying to become friends with me.

Brands are not your friends. You can feel affinity towards a brand; you can be excited to talk about brands with your friends; but at the end of the day, your interactions with organizations and corporations shouldn’t resemble how you interact with your actual friends and families. However, since the dawn of social media, brands have been forced to compete with photos of your friends’ babies and puppies for likes, comments, and shares. This has led brands to do strange things to work the Facebook News Feed algorithm — remember the “LIKE this post if you…” era?

Frankly, I’m looking forward to a world where we need pure focus on reaching the right people with the right messages, and less on trying to game an algorithm. LIKE this post if you agree.


Concerned about your Facebook reach? Feeling like it’s time to build out your email program? Get in touch with us.