Facebook Signals Institutions Are Out, Individuals Are In

News Feed Changes Mean Brands Should Invest in Facebook People More Than Pages

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When Facebook last week said it is altering its News Feed algorithm to prioritize personal content from friends and family over professional content from publishers, it sent shockwaves through the media community.

The press reacted with a swift Bronx cheer. Instead, it should have rejoiced in the clarity. The same applies to brand marketers that are investing in content.

"Today, it seems publishers could be right back where they started: the dazed and helpless captive of a cruel and unpredictable ally," wrote The Ringer.

"Put simply, the people have spoken and news appears to have lost," Buzzfeed wrote.

This is defeatist thinking. Facebook merely thoughtfully reacted to societal changes that have been afoot for years. The News Feed algorithm is a lagging indicator, not a leading one. It now properly reflects what study after study shows the public truly values: relationships.

Facebook's public posture is clear: No organization will ever be on the same footing as peers. While on the surface this appears to de-emphasize institutions, the reality is that it gives every company -- the press included -- a clear roadmap for how to build organic engagement at a critical time.

With trust in institutions at all-time lows, facilitating peer-to-peer connections is no longer a nice-to-do but a must-do. Paid advertising, while great for creating awareness, cannot foster the stronger relationships that are required to earn credibility that all organizations require. This is central for the press -- which has seen a steady decline in trust.

Two recent Edelman studies bring this to light. The firm's Earned Brand research revealed that 71% of consumers rely on peer sources for buying decisions. Further, friends and family are the most trusted source of information, according to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Peer-to-peer influence is more powerful today than top-down communications. This is true not just in marketing and media but in a political context, too. The global rise of populism illustrates that the sphere of influence is horizontal. It's no longer vertical.

The road to organic reach and trust is built gradually by creating true one-to-one connections between employees and individuals. It's a long process that requires patience to build earned one-to-one relationships between individuals that lead to a many-to-many scale. It's networked thinking for a networked world. Paid plays a big role, but only to amplify.

The way forward for brands and media owners is simple. Invest in Facebook people, more so than pages. Activate as many credible employee voices as possible who are willing to make at least some of their content available publicly to subscribers. (One change that is still required on Facebook's end is the ability to share content with a public audience that excludes all or certain friends. This way, the nature of the connection can remain pure.)

In a journalistic context this means that reporters and on-air talent, many of whom have spent too much time investing in Twitter, must learn to prioritize their Facebook profiles in how they engage audiences.

In a corporate marketing context, it means activating internal subject-matter experts in the same manner and thinking about how to link them together to create true network effects. (One note here: The larger and more distributed the work force, the easier it is to scale.)

Social media is for connecting people to each other. It's always been. Facebook last week without question just made that clear. And while the focus was on the impact on publishers, every institution should be paying attention.