The days of getting any free reach on Facebook may be numbered.
It's no secret that the portion of a brand's Facebook fans who see posts that aren't supported by ad spend is dropping. In a sales deck sent to partners last fall, the social network acknowledged what some brands had observed for more than a year -- that organic distribution of posts on brand pages was declining -- but it didn't quantify the extent of the decline to be expected.
One agency is now reporting that organic reach has fallen off by almost half since October. Social@Ogilvy conducted an analysis of 106 country-level brand pages it has administrator access to and found that the average reach of organic posts had declined from 12.05% in October to 6.15% in February.
For 23 pages in the sample with more than 500,000 likes, the drop was from 4.04% in October to 2.11% in February.
For context, Facebook told marketers two years ago at its fMC event in New York that 16% of their fans on average were seeing their organic posts.
"Increasingly Facebook is saying that you should assume a day will come when the organic reach is zero."
The Social@Ogilvy research was conducted on a global set of brand pages, the majority of which were from outside of the U.S., according to the research paper's author, EAME managing director Marshall Manson. They spanned verticals and accounted for 48.2 million total fans.
Increased competition for limited space in news feeds was cited by Facebook last fall as the reason for brands getting less exposure. The document describing a gradual decline in organic reach said that "content that is eligible to be shown in news feed is increasing at a faster rate than people's ability to consume it."
Eventually, there may be no space left for brands who haven't paid to promote their posts. According to Mr. Manson, Facebook representatives have told members of his team and clients to think about what a social strategy would look like if there were no organic reach.
"Increasingly Facebook is saying that you should assume a day will come when the organic reach is zero," he said.
In the short term, Mr. Manson expects to see the drop in organic reach to drive a bit more Facebook ad spending. In the longer term, he expects to see increased investment in social channels like Twitter, Facebook-owned Instagram and WeChat and for brands to effectively hedge their bets instead of being centrally focused on Facebook.
"I think we need to return to platform-neutral social strategies," he said.
The issue of organic reach has been a sore subject for marketers since late 2012, when reports that reach was falling beneath the 16% benchmark once given by Facebook began to circulate. Their common complaint was that they had bought Facebook ads to acquire "likes" in the belief that they would be able to broadcast content to a large share of those fans for free.
Meanwhile, Facebook has taken the position that fans should mainly be looked at as a way to make paid advertising more effective, as opposed to a free distribution channel, according to the deck from the fall. By acquiring fans, a brand can create more impactful ads with social context (indicating if a user's friends have liked it) and also buy more efficiently, since Facebook makes it cheaper to deliver ads with social context.
"Advertisers should think of fans as a means to an end, not as the end in themselves," said Facebook spokesman Brandon McCormick. "The end should be business results."
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