Posting to Facebook: The Truth About Third- Party Applications

A Recent EdgeRank Study Said Facebook Penalizes Third-Party Apps. Here's What's Really Going On.

By Published on . 15

A service called EdgeRank Checker revealed data this week that showed how using a third-party application -- like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck -- to update your Facebook Page decreases your engagement per fan (on average) by about 70%.

As you can imagine, the data was reported widely, tweeted, shared and taken by many as gospel. This post aims to shed more light on what's really going on.

The EdgeRank Checker study looked at 1 million status updates on 50,000 pages that influence more than 1 billion fans, and concluded that third-party tools hurt your EdgeRank score.

EdgeRank is Facebook's algorithm that tries to separate the signal from the noise to present each user with the most interesting content. It uses engagement as a primary factor in its weighting. A post that receives little or no engagement does not get through to the feed. High engagement increases the post's visibility in users' feeds and increases the Page's EdgeRank score. For more on EdgeRank, check out this great post on Econsultancy from last month.

The company behind the data speculated that there are four potential reasons for the lower engagement:

  • Facebook penalizes third-party API's EdgeRank
  • Facebook collapses third-party API updates
  • Scheduled or automated posts have potential for lower engagement
  • The content is not optimized for Facebook

I commend the authors of the report for bringing this issue to light and compelling me to share some of what we are seeing and some actual data. This is an important issue and anyone who brings valuable data to the party should be commended.

Based on my knowledge of the Facebook Platform, I wanted to address the data and shed some light on each of the potential reasons the company outlines for decreased engagement from third-party publishing applications. I have also included several takeaways that will help you make the best decision.

What makes me qualified to comment? I have spent the past four years working on the Facebook Platform. Buddy Media's software is used by the world's largest retailers, media companies and brand marketers to publish content to Facebook -- to a combined total of just short of a billion fans. Buddy Media was one of the first three companies named to Facebook's preferred developer group, we have some of the deepest pools of data about engagement on Facebook and intimate knowledge about how Facebook's advertising and Page products function.

Lets get into the four potential reasons for lower engagement that I outlined above:

1) Facebook collapses 3rd party API updates.

From the EdgeRank Checker report: "When the same 3rd Party Platform has multiple updates within your feed (regardless of the Page or People who created the object), Facebook will collapse the objects and only display a single object. This can potentially kill visibility for objects that are caught in this collapse."

Let me go on record to say, categorically, that this is the primary reason for lower engagement for Facebook posts. If your fans don't see your posts, they won't engage. And if they don't engage, your EdgeRank score goes down. If your EdgeRank score goes down, the next post you make will be penalized as coming from a "less engaging" Page. This is what I call the engagement death spiral. Many of our clients come to us from free tools and immediately see large increases in engagement simply from the fact that we are able to increase the visibility of their posts.

There are three primary types of applications:

  • The first are consumer applications like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck that are used by millions of people.
  • The second are multi-tenant enterprise products like the Buddy Media Platform.
  • And the third are single-tenant, branded applications used by many large companies.

I can confirm that the free consumer applications have been getting collapsed. (I am careful to use "have been" as I expect Facebook may change this at some point, if they haven't put that in motion already). So when you publish via Twitter, Hootsuite or others, your posts will be buried under other friends' of your friends on Facebook.

So when my friend Dan Roth from LinkedIn published to Facebook from Twitter, here is what it looked like in my feed. You will notice that Dan got through. 172 other posts from my friends who used Twitter did not.

Takeaway A: Right now, be careful of popular consumer apps to maximize engagement on Facebook.

The second group of applications is multi-tenant enterprise, "software as a service" solutions like Buddy Media. All users of the software share one application on Facebook, which publishes content to Facebook Pages on behalf of the Page owner.

I can only speak for Buddy Media in this regard, as I don't have complete data for others. If you use Buddy Media to publish to your Facebook Pages, either in the US or globally, you are safe. Your posts get through. You have nothing to worry about. They will not be collapsed or aggregated. If you are using one of the other platforms, I encourage you to be safe and confirm this with your vendor to make sure you're not being lost in the feed.

Here is an example of two posts from our platform within minutes of each other yesterday. As you can see, they are not collapsed.

Takeaway B: You can practice safe posting with Buddy Media (and potentially others, but you should ask to make sure you're not being collapsed!)

The third group of applications are single-tenant, branded applications used by many companies to handle their publishing. These are applications sold by various social media management system companies with the promise of adding your brand's name to every post. It sounds like a solid idea, but it's not.

All of these applications are impacted if the Page owner is publishing frequently (2-3 times a day, minimum). This means that these so-called "branded publishers" get collapsed in a user's news feed. Like the free, popular consumer apps, many of the posts are hidden to fans today in an aggregated state, and they never see the posts. That's a problem.

Here is an example of a post that was published at around 5 PM ET yesterday from Verizon. I'm using it for illustrative purposes as I am a customer and I happen to check out their Facebook Page from time to time.

Verizon published multiple times in the last few days. A very small percentage of Facebook users are likely to see and consequently click on the, "See XX more posts from XX" link below the post (Only Facebook knows how many people click this link). So when they login to Facebook and look at their feed, there is only a very small chance that the user will engage with the posts.

The only upside of using one of these applications versus the free applications, if any, is that all of your posts get collapsed together, instead of being mixed in with content from other companies and individuals (see Dan's post above). But the downside of the lower engagement far outweighs any potential branding benefits.

Takeaway C: Branded publishing applications should not be used to maximize Facebook engagement.

2) Facebook penalizes 3rd party API's EdgeRank

From the EdgeRank Checker report: "When an object is created in Facebook, it is assigned a weight. We believe that Facebook strategically reduced the weight of objects created through the API. The reason behind this strategy would be to encourage more content creation within the Facebook Platform. This ultimately increases the value of their platform while increasing ad impressions."

Facebook rarely comments on EdgeRank. So unlike the first possible explanation above, I can't say definitively that Facebook does this or doesn't do this. Therefore, neither can EdgeRank Checker, and further, EdgeRank Checker presents no specific data to support this hypothesis. EdgeRank Checker claims specifically, "We believe that Facebook strategically reduced the weight of objects created through the API."

However, I strongly doubt that Facebook has made a conscientious effort to penalize 3rd party publishers. We believe that the lower engagement is a direct result of status updates being collapsed and hence hidden in the newsfeed, and not because Facebook is assigning them a different weight.

Facebook believes strongly in the power of people versus the power of just computers. Facebook's head product genius Chris Cox told the Wall Street Journal last year, "It's so easy to go try and find an algorithmic solution to a problem. But this isn't about computers—it's about people."

Cox coined the term "social design," a concept that drives all of Facebook's products. Actual engagement by individuals determines what gets through. Not just computers. And in order for that to work at scale, content published into the system must be treated equally. Otherwise, the people-based system breaks down, as the best content doesn't have a chance to rise to the top of the pile.

Similarly, posting from outside Facebook is a key part of Facebook's strategy. It has opened its platform to let the social graph run free on the Internet and communicate back with Facebook. Artificial barriers to entry would affect the user experience and contradict Facebook's open strategy.

Specifically, EdgeRank Checker believes, that the goal of the penalization is for Facebook to increase the value of their platform by increasing page views on Facebook.com. In my four years of working with Facebook, not once have I seen Facebook prioritize an advertising product above user experience. The site controls a third of all ad impressions in the US and, in essence, already has unlimited ad impressions. It certainly doesn't need to stack the cards against certain types of content to try to generate more impressions.

Lastly, I'm a data guy. Data never lies. We were not planning to release this data today. But we decided to in order to move this conversation forward and to a better place. I asked Tami Dalley, the head of our killer analytics and research team, to run some numbers. She stayed at the office all night to report the following.

Tami divided Posts made to about 2,000 Buddy Media-powered Facebook Pages into three buckets:

  1. Buddy Media Posts: These status updates were made by our clients to their Facebook Pages from our platform.
  2. Facebook Direct Posts: These posts were made by our clients to their Facebook Pages from the Facebook site directly.
  3. Other Third-Party Application Posts: These were posts made to our clients' Pages from third-party applications, including Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, branded publishers and others.

Since the beginning of the year, status updates to Buddy Media-powered Pages made through the Buddy Media software actually perform in line with posts made natively via Facebook and have engagement rates more than two times higher than posts made by all other publishers. So for now, it's safe to say that Facebook is not currently collapsing posts made via Buddy Media or negatively weighting their EdgeRank. (I can't speak for other multi-tenant SaaS applications on Facebook.)

Since the beginning of the year, both Buddy Media and Facebook saw more than 2X more engagement than all other third-party publishing applications. (Because there are more than 1M applications on Facebook, we were unable to break the third-party applications down in more granularity, but hope to do that in the future).

This data is directional only and is being used just to confirm my points above. I've asked my team to put together a more detailed report and I hope to share that with you all soon and encourage other companies in the space with data to release theirs as well.

Takeaway: Facebook makes changes regularly. Content that drives engagement today may not drive as high engagement tomorrow. Always be optimizing your posts and track results.

3) Content is not optimized for Facebook

From the EdgeRank Checker report: "One of the conveniences of a 3rd Party Platform is that you can simultaneously update Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, your blog … Unfortunately, this typically requires the social marketer to optimize their content for all the social networks at once. Twitter has character limitations at 140, Facebook allows for many more characters. Some networks allow photos to be attached, while other networks do not. This distracts the social marketer from specifically optimizing their update for Facebook."

Optimizing content for Facebook is critical. It must be done to succeed on Facebook, as well as the other social platforms. This is why Buddy Media's tools allow for easy preview of posting across different platforms like Facebook and Twitter to make sure the format is appropriate for each platform.

Buddy Media published a report in April titled "Strategies for Effective Facebook Wall Posts: A Statistical Review". Much of the data we found is in line with this explanation.

For example, posts between one and 80 characters had a 27% higher engagement than average. However, the shorter posts accounted for only 19% of all posts. And questions work better than statements (15% better engagement, we found).

Optimizing the content you place on Facebook is a very important topic that we focus heavily on. But in order to truly understand it, you need to take into account many factors. In our report, we looked at post length, URL shorteners, post timing (by hour and day), key words and more. And we broke Pages down by industry as we saw massive differences in engagement by industry. None of this was done in the EdgeRank Checker report.

Takeaway: Pay attention to formatting your content for Facebook. A well-formatted post gets much better response rates. Higher engagement rates lead to higher engagement rates. It's a virtuous engagement cycle!

4) Scheduled or automated posts have potential for lower engagement

From the EdgeRank Checker report: "Posts that are scheduled typically struggle to have high engagement. This is most likely due to the nature of a scheduled update. It's difficult to create unique engaging content several hours or days in advance. Any negative impacts of scheduled posts are most likely correlations with poorly developed content."

There is no scientific correlation on engagement between scheduling content and publishing it straight to Facebook. Like Hootsuite and others, you can schedule posts inside Buddy Media's software. Many of our clients post real-time during the day and then schedule content during the off hours. In the Buddy Media report, we revealed that brands that posted outside of normal business hours had 20% higher engagement rates on their posts.

We don't advise automating content posts. Just hooking up a Twitter or RSS feed to your Facebook Page will not drive engagement. But very few Pages owned by companies that care about engagement just hook up a feed, set it and forget it.

Nonetheless, I don't imagine that scheduling or automating posts alone would cause a 70 percent decline in engagement across one million posts.

Takeaway: Don't set it and forget it. It's an easy way to kill engagement.

A few final thoughts before we go back to updating our Facebook Pages …

  • Facebook is fluid: Facebook is a rapidly changing platform. As Facebook evolves, your approach needs to evolve as well. Using a tool that lets you track closely what's working and what's not working is critical. I imagine Facebook is already planning changes that may affect much of what I write above. Facebook doesn't comment on EdgeRank. Its data does. Watch your data and do more of what's working and less of what isn't.
  • Enterprise publishing applications for Facebook do more than just get content onto Facebook: Getting the right content to the right users in the right format onto Facebook is critical if you want to succeed. However, there are many reasons why your company may want to use an enterprise system. This includes granular rights administration, deep analytics, geo- and language-targeting, data privacy, security, auditing and more. Make sure your solution is the right one for you. One of the biggest issues for large companies with global fans and businesses is language control. Publishing in the wrong language to users is an easy way to hurt engagement. Take advantage of tools that let you control the language and location settings based on the user preferences.
  • Stay cool: When the EdgeRank Checker data was released and covered by Inside Facebook, we immediately started receiving phone calls and emails. This space is noisy. But remember, this is a marathon. It's not a sprint. If you have the right tools and teams in place, you can make the right decisions for your business and don't have to rely on stale data from businesses that are much different than yours.
  • Stay tuned! More great Buddy Media data reports coming down the pike shortly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Lazerow is CEO of Buddy Media, whose Facebook management system is used by global brands and agencies. He founded Golf.com and sold it to Time Inc., and U-Wire, which was sold to CBS. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/lazerow

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