Small-business owners are still grappling with Facebook's announcement last month that it is shaking up its news feed algorithm. The changes are expected to make it harder for companies to reach their followers, threatening one of entrepreneurs' most important digital marketing channels -- and leaving lots of questions about what comes next.

With the change, Facebook news feeds will become more personal. Users will see more posts from family and friends, and fewer posts from businesses, brands, and national media outlets. It's an attempt by the social media giant to cut the clutter and emphasize "meaningful social interactions."

But while some users may appreciate this personal approach, the changes threaten to hurt small-business marketers. Facebook counts more than two billion users, including 68 percent of all Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. As print media and yellow pages ads lost their effectiveness in the past decade, Facebook emerged as the only reliable way to reach a large, local audience. With this change, it's become a lot less reliable.

The full impact of Facebook's changes will become clearer in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, there are a few ways you can boost your business's social presence and try to reach as many followers as possible. Here are my tips for earning a spot in Facebook's new "meaningful" news feed:

1. Listen to your customers.

Social media isn't a megaphone -- it's a conversation. Respond to followers' questions, ask for their comments, and pay attention to their interests. Use Facebook Insights to see what content is most popular with your customers. Facebook rewards posts that generate likes, shares, and comments, which you can earn with content that interests followers.

2. Skip the sales messages.

Stay away from overly promotional content. Your followers may be interested in your business, but they don't want to be "sold" to all the time. Instead, post content that is useful or interesting. Share your expertise by providing advice about your field, comment on trends in your industry, or share news about your community.

3. Host timely events.

Creating events on Facebook is a good way to get the attention of followers -- and their friends. Because they're timely, events tend to get prominent placement in news feeds. And when one of your followers indicates that they plan to attend your event, it is shared in their friends' news feeds. If you have a brick-and-mortar business, you can schedule in-store performances, daily "happy hours," or open houses. But even if you don't have a retail location, you can post Facebook events for sales, webinars, or other "virtual" gatherings.

4. Stream live video.

The social platform has been pushing Facebook Live video streaming in a big way. Videos will often earn prominent placement in news feeds, with alerts sent to your followers. It's also engaging content. Users love watching videos, and they can ask you questions (and get answers) during your live stream. Consider streaming videos of product demos, interviews with your team, or behind-the-scenes tours of your business.

5. Create or join Facebook Groups.

There's no better example of Facebook's emphasis on "meaningful" content than the Groups formed by users who share a common interest. You can join or create groups around your industry, community, or topics of interest like local history. Do not promote your business in these groups. You can share your expertise, or just participate in the conversation to show that you're an active member of the community.

6. Make local connections.

Now that Facebook favors local news over national media, a public relations strategy could be a shortcut into news feeds. Develop relationships with local reporters; offer to act as an expert source or help connect them with other resources in your field. If your business is involved in community events, neighborhood groups, or local sponsorships, make sure you let Facebook followers know about it.

7. Boost your advertising budget.

Spending to boost posts or place ads was necessary to make an impact on Facebook even before the news feed changes. Now, paid promotions are more important than ever. Consider increasing your budget, but make sure you monitor results and spend only on ads and posts that earn lots of engagement from followers.

When used correctly, social media should foster meaningful connections. My hope is that Facebook's changes succeed in minimizing the fake news and other clutter that has pushed relevant content off of users' news feeds. Small-business owners, however, will have to put in extra effort to truly connect with customers and make sure their social marketing is meaningful.

Published on: Feb 22, 2018