Top Five SMEM Lessons Learned in 2012: The Demise of Facebook

The third lesson we’ve learned this year is a new one, and one I wouldn’t have guessed six months ago. One that many folks, when writing their crisis communications plans six months ago wouldn’t have guessed. It was the demise of Facebook as a crisis messaging tool. Yep, demise, I said it.

(That doesn’t mean Facebook is useless in a crisis–in fact, there are situations and topics where Facebook is still the very best method of communications. But today I’m talking about using it as a crisis messaging service, which is important because Facebook is written into so many crisis plans to be used in just that way.)

It took a number of years, a lifetime in social media, for Facebook to start offering useful Pages for non-person entities like businesses and non-profits to stake a claim on the social network. And it took a few more years for the General Services Administration to negotiate Terms of Service with the social networking giant, signaling that it was “okay” for government to put a toe into the virtual world. A couple of years, and one IPO, later, we have government agency Pages littering the Facebook landscape. (And given how underutilized some of them are, littered is the correct word.)

And then, this fall, something changed. An algorithm, to be specific. (For folks who said that geeks would never rule the world…)

The specific algorithm is the EdgeRank one, which determines how many people see a particular Page’s posts. The idea is that the more interaction one’s Page has, the more likely it will be that Page’s posts will be seen by it’s followers. You used to post something and about forty percent of your followers would see it in their feed. Today, the number is between ten and fifteen percent. (So when you proudly tell your executive that your agency has just reached 100 followers, no more than fifteen people are seeing your posts organically.) Coincidentally, this change happened around the same time that Facebook started offering Pages the ability to increase the EdgeRank of their posts, for a fee.

And people revolted.

Of course, just days later, Superstorm Sandy hit and government agencies all over the Mid-Atlantic used their new social media plans to post to Facebook, only to see the effects blunted by this new algorithm change.

For years, social media acolytes have pitched using social media as a way to get direct, opt-in only, agency-to-person messaging utilizing other people’s distribution networks (read: free), around the media filter. And for the most part, that pitch has been successful (because it was right).

But now? I can’t promise that anymore. I can only promise that some tiny percentage of the people who have signed up to see what you’re posting will see it. Any fantasies you had about posting a boil water advisory on your Page and having 10,000 people in your county see and share it are gone.

And besides all that, just listening to some of the money-making ideas coming out of Menlo Park, one has to wonder how much longer government will tolerate plying along. From the Instagram Terms of Service debacle to allowing access to people’s Messenger for a dollar per spam message, well, one has to wonder how much longer we can consider it a prime messaging network.


15 thoughts on “Top Five SMEM Lessons Learned in 2012: The Demise of Facebook

  1. Good stuff, Jim,. As ever.

    I’d go a step further. Facebook isn’t just effectively dead as an emergency channel it’s dead as a channel for government too. The idea that you can send messages to your network and 10 to 15 per cent get delivered without some extra payola is a dead duck for the public sector.

    You wouldn’t expect that from your postman. I don’t expect that from my digital postman, either.

    Sure, Facebook isn’t the Royal Mail (as we have here in the UK). It’s free and they’ve got to make a living. But let’s all stop pretending the line ‘Facebook is free and always will be’ stands up to scrutiny.

    Matt Murray wrote this cracking comm2point0 blog that articulated the unease I’ve been feeling far better than I have:

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Dan! I love that post, it was one of my inspirations for this post!

      As for it not working for government comms altogether, I don’t totally agree. For a messaging tool, I do agree. But there are certainly situations when it can be useful, if you move away from the idea that Facebook is a push messaging platform only.

      I’ve heard anecdotes of folks using their Facebook Pages as destinations for rapidly changing information. One example comes from Superstorm Sandy, where a local police department posted road closings on their Facebook Pages, and while their reach was much lower than they expected, local folks would update individual posts as they could. Instead of just receiving information, they began to curate the sticky information for the police department.

      Now I think there might be a place where this could more easily happen (a blog, perhaps), but like we always say, go where your audience is.

      As always, thanks so much for your interest and support, Dan!

      1. Good points, Jim. I put my hand up and say I’m a teensy bit jaded with Facebook pages and more so seeing the looks on the faces of people from across my council who are trying their best to create interesting content which isn’t having the reach it could do. I can absolutely see your point about updating and sharing real time info. One thing that strikes me is the case study of the UK hyperlocal blog who had something silly like 500,000 page impressions in five days around the time of the riots in 2011. Why? They had good links to police and were able to shoot down real time rumours because of these links. Their Facebook page is here: and Steph and James can be found on Twitter as @essitam and @jamesdclarke.

  2. On the other hand, Facebook and other social media channels are about conversation. And, it’s not always government or agencies leading the conversation. Sometimes, it’s those that pay our salaries. That’s why it’s important for us to join the conversations that are going on about us.

    We’re experiencing this first hand, right now:

    It’s important for us to engage and not just to improve our reputation.

    1. I COMPLETELY agree, Pete. That’s why I tried to note that I think this just for Facebook emergency messaging, and not abandoning Facebook totally. Thanks so much for stopping by! (Also, great work on the flood work!)

      1. Thanks Jim

        I’ve just re-run stats for one of our pages since July 2011 – when Insights changed. Over the period, our likes have more than doubled from 260 to nearly 590. The “weekly Reach” numbers show some underlying organic growth but with pronounced spikes for which we can account. But, I don’t seem to be seeing a dramatic EdgeRank induced “cliff”.

        I’ve got some more analysis to do for this and two other pages. Interesting so far…


  3. I’m curious to know if localized Page posts (those where a specific city, state, or other demographic is selected) get a higher percentage of followers seeing that post vs. general Page posts. If that was true, then it might be a case where FB is pushing you to more localized information rather than blasting it out to everyone.

    Does anyone have any data from Insights to test that out?

      1. I agree, I wonder about that. I’m following up with some of my Facebook gurus on this point. I’ll let you guys know if we’ve seen any difference.

        Thanks so much for stopping by!

  4. Great stuff, Jim. Appreciate the insight here. Just wondering your thoughts about Twitter as an emergency response messaging tool? Same concerns apply? I’ve advised clients that Twitter overall is a better primary emergency messaging tool (after your own website) in part because of the role it plays in media coverage. thoughts?

    1. I couldn’t agree more. You’ll see in my upcoming post that the media relies almost completely on Twitter. I use it to monitor my entire local media landscape and have scheduled interviews and interacted with the media via Twitter. It’s fast, short and to the point: everything the media wants.

      Great to hear from you Gerald!

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