A look at how Facebook scores content, per individual user preferences.

A look at how Facebook scores content, per individual user preferences.

Last week I listened to the CEO and co-founder of one of the hottest B2C startups out there talk about his company’s marketing mix, which included significant new spend on traditional media channels, because, in his words, “…We were seeing diminishing returns on Facebook.”

That made no sense to me, so I dug a little deeper, and I’m convinced that his company didn’t have a Facebook problem – they have a content problem. The articles his brand is paying to syndicate on Taboola are thinly veiled sales pitches, as is much of the content the brand is posting to Facebook.

To be effective, brand content must first and foremost serve the audience interests. If it fails to do so, the brand will see no benefit from their efforts. For tips on how to get the message right, we don’t need to look any further than the largest social network in the world: Facebook, where they’ve made serving their users relevant and interesting content an exact science.

How Facebook’s News Feed works, and special notes for brands

Facebook’s News Feed has become an most important source of information for millions and millions of people; so much so that publishers like the New York Times are in talks with the social network giant to explore serving news content within Facebook itself, rather than on the publisher web site.

Brands have struggled with Facebook of late, because the social media giant tweaked their algorithm and dialed back visibility for posts it deemed overly promotional, a change that that served two purposes: improving the News Feed for users, and supporting its revenue-generating operation. Despite the ensuing histrionics, Facebook still works well for brands, if the brand team focuses on sharing interesting content and building the organic audience. Social engagement is still very important, and Facebook, with its enormous use base, is an important channel.

At the Facebook Developer Conference (F8) in March, News Feed manager Lars Backstrom gave us a look under the hood at how News Feed works, offering important insights into the signals Facebook uses to identify and serve users content they’ll love.

News Feed, which appears as the center column on Facebook when viewed on a desktop, and the main tab on the Facebook mobile apps, displays two kinds of stories: organic and sponsored.

Organic stories are those you see because you follow another person or brand.

Sponsored stories are commingled with organic stories, and are paid insertions.

The most significant input into what each individual sees on their News Feed is first and foremost the people and entities they follow: friends, publishers and brands.

What You See on the Facebook News Feed

Everyone’s Facebook News Feed is completely unique because Facebook also takes into account how and with what content each user interacts. The 3 primary sets of signals Facebook considers are:

  1. The user’s relationship with the author. Simply put, we see more content from those people we are close to, and that closeness is function of the quantity and quality of our interactions.
  2. Type of content (e.g. text, photos, videos.) News Feed will evolve to show users the more of the content type they appear to prefer, as determined by which they interact with most frequently.
  3. Likes and comments. Facebook infers that stories with more likes and comments is higher quality and more relevant to users, and serves users more content that has proven popular.

Backstrom went on to describe how Facebook uses those signals to calculate and score each piece of content in terms of its relevance (specific to each user), and then uses those scores to order posts in user News Feeds. The aim of this exercise, he noted, is to ensure Facebook users don’t miss stories that would be important to them.

While News Feed does continually refresh, once a user scrolls through their newsfeed, the stories “lock” into place. Facebook then bubbles new, high-scoring content to the top of the users view.

How Facebook is killing spam & improving content for users

Backstrom also revealed how Facebook is looking beyond user signals to reduce the instances of clickbait and hoaxes. The challenge, he noted, lies in the fact that many of these kinds of stories garner high numbers of initial clicks, but upon seeing the story, users are disappointed. The answer: a large panel of contractors, testers, from a broad variety of backgrounds, who continually offer feedback on the accuracy of News Feed’s recommendations. Additionally, Facebook has also made it easy for users to report questionable content, enabling its swift removal from the News Feed.

“We’re using feedback from people to align ranking with what they’re telling Facebook is interesting and relevant to them,” Backstrom explained.

How to Be Seen on the Facebook News Feed

For brands, Facebook remains a conundrum. In their efforts to cater to user preferences, display of promotional posts from brands has been curtailed, because user behavior indicated strongly that people don’t like to see a glut of promotions in their personal News Feeds. However, building a strong organic audience on Facebook is still important for brands: in addition to keeping a brand top-of-mind, a strong following also ensures better exposure for sponsored messages.

To build stronger a stronger following on Facebook, Backstrom offered some advice for brands:

  • Try to have a distinct brand voice, and really connect with people who are following your page in a human way.
  • Provide context for the content you’re sharing. Create and then fulfill their expectations.
  • Offer timely information. Currency is an important signal on News Feed

“This is News Feed. People want info about things that are happening right now,” Backstrom said. “Be first to press. Hit the trending wave“.

3 ways to ensure content speaks to audience interests So how can publishers better align content the content they publish with audience interests? Backstrom offered three tips.

  • Use all the data available to you to determine what your audiences care about
  • Use Facebook Page Insights to identify what content resonates with your followers
  • Experiment. Run lots of posts; see what works; what gets the most reach; what gets the most engagement.

In the long run, he advised, audiences want substance, and they can handle high volumes of the right content. Backstrom noted that some publishers post numerous times a day with success. The key to success is to remember that everything Facebook does with News Feed is driven from the user perspective; and at Facebook, that means from each specific user’s individual point of view.