Proof that meaningful engagement is a dangerous buzzword for marketers

On January 11 2018, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his next objective: to improve the quality of time spent on Facebook. Shortly after, the platform overhauled its News Feed algorithm to prioritise posts from friends and family over public content – i.e. posts from businesses, brands and media. The reasons being that the former supposedly provoked a response in users more valuable than any the latter could incur. He called it ‘meaningful engagement’.

Those two words would stalk social media strategies in the months to follow, with brands, marketers and creators all struggling to decipher a definition for meaningful engagement, or derive any actionable solution from it. Meanwhile, the news that Facebook would be hindering public content shook brands and publishers to their core. Engagement rates, on average, declined by 50% for organic brand content.

Zuckerberg made the announcement in a Facebook post titled ‘Bringing People Closer Together’, which read: “The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long-term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos – even if they’re entertaining or informative – may not be as good.”

But passive scrolling poses a larger threat to Facebook’s well-being than ours

As Facebook became less of a home for pictures of friends’ children or nights out and evolved into a hub for entertainment, news and trends, it also became a critical growth tool for brands and publishers. It presented them with a unique opportunity to reach a mass audience and generate incomparable traffic, for very little cost. But an oversaturation of public content has turned the platform into a destination for passive scrolling and, ultimately, Facebook has paid the price.

Our strategy director, Mike Blake-Crawford, says: “One thing social networks live and die by is the value of the feed. The minute the feed loses value, they start to purge users.”

In Q2 of 2018, those fears were realised for Facebook. As well as claims that time spent on the platform had lost its lustre as a key metric, June’s earnings report showed user growth had flatlined in the US and Canada – its biggest market – at 185 million daily active users (DAUs), while it declined in Europe to 279 million DAUs. So meaningful engagement, bundled up with the apologetic ‘Here Together’ campaign, became Facebook’s proposed remedy for user disenchantment. With this, Facebook sought to reassure the public, rebuild its brand and reinstate the value of the News Feed, by making it a place for friends and family once again.

Zuckerberg wants to go back to a simpler time, but Facebook is too far gone

The problem is Facebook can never revert to the old Facebook; it still has to account for revenue. Even if it could, its old model would fail in today’s market because the way people use the platform has irreversibly changed. Nowadays, there’s not much personal content in the News Feed. People just don’t make statuses like they used to; Zuckerberg himself said he fully expects Stories to ‘overtake posts in the feed,’ with Facebook and Messenger Stories boasting 300m DAUs as of September. So if personal content is no longer being created, how much retail space realistically needs clearing to accommodate it? It’s clear that deprioritising organic public content under the veil of ‘meaningful engagement’ is not simply to create space for personal content, but to make way for more sponsored content, too.

Mike likens Facebook’s commercial long-game to Google’s: “Over the years, Google has made countless changes to its search engine and algorithms, killing SEO strategies overnight. But that has consistently increased the value of Google Ads for a business and created a very lucrative model for Google. Now, the same thing is happening with Facebook Ads.”

It explains why sponsored content isn’t expected to jump through hoops in the same way that organic is. For example, organic posts which include questions in the copy find their reach limited because, despite encouraging ‘meaningful’ discussion, they automatically fall foul of engagement bait – something Facebook is actively trying to stop. However, sponsored content which asks the same questions does not.

Meaningful engagement is ultimately meaningless – because meaning is subjective 

This shift towards an entirely pay-to-play Facebook has been oncoming for years. If Facebook can simultaneously improve user experience by showing less click-bait and more of what matters, whilst also increasing opportunity for commercial gain, it’ll be a win-win for them. And while all of this plays out under their nose, brands and publishers still seeking unattainable organic growth are being kept distracted by the impossible task of generating meaningful engagement.

Impossible, because the definition of ‘meaningful’ isn’t something Facebook can dictate; it personally differs among users. Facebook has the power to dictate what its user base sees on the whole but, on a granular level, individual users shape their own feeds because the algorithm is driven by their unique behavioural data. As long as users continue to engage with certain content, those posts will always have a place in the feed.

Mike explains: “Your feed is only a reflection of your interactions and what you choose to engage with. Brands should therefore never be knee-jerk in their reactions to Facebook’s latest tweaks, but they should always be testing – because it’s not the platforms they need to be conscious of, it’s the users.”

It’s time for brands to take back control over their social media strategy

Some brands have been tempted to steer clear of meme content in 2018, following Facebook’s continued pivot towards long-form over short, ‘cheap’ video – but user behaviour tells us this is a mistake. Memes and viral videos are still what the majority of Facebook users want to see and engage with and, until that changes, they will remain valuable to the News Feed. The engagements which memes tend to generate may not be typically ‘meaningful’, but they do increase chances of viral reach, which has a considerable knock-on effect for driving ROI. And for brands, there’s nothing more meaningful than sales.

Mike adds: “We’ve seen meme content drive 3x the ROI of product-focused content. While on the surface it drove lots of comment tags – not very meaningful – in the long run, by taking new audiences on a journey, serving them further pieces of content before driving them to a site and remarketing to them, we saw the effects of supposedly ‘cheap’ meme content at the top end significantly impacting bottom-line results.”

It may seem like Facebook is calling all of the shots, but brands must decide what meaningful means to them, to their bottom line and to their audience. User habits are ever-changing so, rather than obsessing over the meaning behind engagement, those seeking long-term success should focus instead on what their audience is engaging with. Ultimately, they will always dictate how the algorithm works for them.

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