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DATA DETECTIVES

The Truth About How Many People Really See Your Facebook Posts

An alarming report about a drop in engagement on Facebook sent marketers reeling. But it's time to reexamine the numbers.
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Want to panic a bunch of marketers? Tell them that the strategy they've used and obsessively focused on for the past few years is a dud. That when they thought they could get something for nothing, they were ultimately wrong. That all the effort they've made might as well have been spent on a golf course. At least they would have been able to practice their swing and work on the tan.

And panic marketers is exactly what the agency Ogilvy did when it predicted the demise of Facebook's organic reach. Ogilvy found that the percentage of brand page fans who received a given company's post has been dropping for some time, as the graph below shows.


The big lesson, the report said, was to avoid overly committing your brand to a single platform. That is advice wisdom will not challenge. Never put all your eggs into someone else's basket.

However, it also makes sense never to accept one part of an analysis without asking further questions. For example, maybe reach on a per-post basis is going down. But is overall reach dropping?

The Truth

That question might sound crazy--but it doesn't have to be, and I'll explain why in a moment. First, congratulations to Shareablee, a company that monitors brands and consumer interactions on social networks. The company asked this very question about overall reach and found a nonintuitive answer.

"All of the commentary to do with Facebook is focusing on post-level performance," said CEO Tania Yuki. "We looked at a sample of 151 brands for whom we have internal data. Comparing Q4 2013 to Q1 2014, the monthly average grew."

That's right. During a period in which, according to the chart, per-post engagement dropped, total engagement increased with some caveats. Brands that posted less frequently overall--a 28 percent post frequency drop--declined 27 percent in average monthly reach. Those that increased frequency--a 28 percent positive change--experienced a 41 percent increase in average monthly reach. And those that maintained the same level of posting saw a 13 percent drop in monthly reach.

Those that posted more saw a bigger proportional gain than the loss incurred by those that posted less frequently. As for the ones that didn't change, they made up only 6 percent of the 151 brands, making any analysis of them mathematically questionable.

Audience Shift

Seems crazy, right? How is it that staying still or slowing down hurts but increasing builds? In part, it might be that Facebook was trying to reward those who kept up relations with clients. But how would you build the average monthly reach if the per-post reach kept dropping? Send the posts out to different sets of your fan base.

Think of your own experience with any media for a moment. If you keep getting messages from an advertiser, what is your reaction? Probably to tune out everything the advertiser says. But if the messages go out to different groups, then you start adding up the collection of impressions rather than driving them down because people are sick of hearing from you.

"Maybe it's a good thing that Facebook is more selective about what is shown to different people," Yuki said. "[Many] brands I've spoken to in the last number of weeks are literally planning to abandon Facebook. People have taken that one data point and blown it out of proportion. It's frightening. What prompted us to do this research was that Facebook would not spend the time and resources to support brands and then completely strip them of the ability to communicate. It would be a very big change if that were to happen."

So, if you're ready to abandon ship, stop for a moment and consider an experiment. Increase the number of posts and watch the results over a few months. If your results drop and you've accounted for the quality of postings, then you can enjoy being right. But if you're wrong, a reduction in Facebook posting at this junction might increase damage rather than reducing it.

Last updated: May 14, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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