Following Facebook’s changes to its News Feed algorithm, we hosted a panel discussion with brands and publishers to explore the potential consequences. Our Senior Editor, Ray Murphy shares a summary of the key points that were discussed.

On 11th January, Facebook sent alarm bells ringing across the advertising industry after announcing it would prioritise posts that created ‘meaningful social interactions’ over those from businesses, brands and media. Some claimed it signalled the death of organic reach for branded content, while others hailed the move as a win for the wellbeing of the platform’s two billion monthly users.

Although it's unclear when the algorithm changes will come into effect, what is clear is the reluctance of the company’s co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to continue shouldering the blame for the dissemination of fake news and extremist content.

“The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do,” wrote Zuckerberg in early January. “My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues.”

But what do these changes to Facebook’s algorithm mean for brands, agencies and their audiences? To answer this and other burning questions, we assembled a panel of those at the coalface, to learn what steps they’re taking to become #FacebookReady.

Moderated by our Chief Strategy Officer, Mobbie Nazir, speakers included: Rich Burgess, Social Media Manager at Audi UK; Lauren Davey, Head of Digital Content Distribution at Barclaycard Business; Peter Heneghan, Head of Communications at LADbible; and Leo Ryan, Vice President of Customer Success EMEA at Spredfast.

So, did Facebook’s announcement come as a surprise to our panel and what steps could they take to produce more ‘meaningful’ content?

The meaning of meaningful
“It’s great news for us,” said Heneghan. “We see ourselves as being inherently social. Our content is designed to have what we call ‘meaningful connections’.”

“The best branded content is as equally strong as editorial,” Heneghan added, suggesting that to stand out, brands and publishers will have to focus on original storytelling that ‘brings people together’.

Other members of the panel were unsurprised by the announcement, revealing their social strategies were placing greater emphasis on partnerships to produce ‘meaningful’ content.

“It will bode in brands’ favours to work with influencers and publishers to get that cut-through on the channel,” said Burgess, adding that Audi UK were moving to a model of ‘doing less content, better’.

Partnering with influencers also gives a brand more credibility, suggested Davey, especially in the case of B2B publishers whose audience are ‘naturally sceptical’ about what they put out.

“That’s the stuff that’s really resonating at the moment,” Davey added. “The algorithm change hasn't necessarily changed our strategy—it’s enforced it.

Organic vs paid: The death of organic content?
The squeeze on non-paid content is nothing new. In the first half of 2017, some publishers reported a rapid decline in organic reach, while later that year Facebook trialled taking non-promoted posts out of the News Feed.

If a move towards paid-only was almost inevitable, does January’s big announcement mean Facebook ought to be viewed as another form of paid media? Davey believes so, and is already working to, “Get people away from this [idea] that social media is free”. Spredfast’s Ryan, on the other hand, felt it was a ‘mistake’ to see the platform in that way.

“There’s still customer care, there’s still advocacy...There’s a whole range of business needs that can be met on social that aren’t about paid,” he said. “Brands who have grown up on the snack that is broadcast…they’ve got to go cold turkey and get back to why social mattered.”

“Organic for us is probably somewhere [Audi UK] won’t be touching for the foreseeable future on Facebook [...] but customer service is still there,” said Rich Burgess. “It’ll be interesting to see how Facebook will [advise] on how to create more on their platform in that area.”

Zuckerberg has admitted that he expects to see the changes have a negative impact on engagement, but seems willing to take the blow in order to improve the overall experience for Facebook users. And while the alterations to the algorithm will present some challenges to the ad industry, ultimately, it’s a move that might help Zuckerberg win back users’ confidence.

You can watch the full panel discussion here. Thanks to all those who attended.