Marshall MansonManson

In 2012, Facebook famously restricted organic reach of content published from brand pages to about 16%. In December 2013, another round of changes reduced it even more.

By February 2014, according to a Social@Ogilvy analysis of more than 100 brand pages, organic reach now hovers at around 6%, a decline of 49% from peak levels in October. For large pages with more than 500,000 “likes,” organic reach hit 2% in February. And Facebook sources were unofficially advising community managers to expect it to approach zero in the foreseeable future.

The ability to build communities of fans, and then maintain contact and encourage engagement using content published to fans’ news feeds was a critical aspect of Facebook’s early appeal to marketers. The opportunity of achieving engagement at scale motivated many brands and corporates to invest millions in developing communities and providing for care and feeding via always-on content.

With organic reach removed from the mix, it would be easy to conclude that Facebook will be just another paid channel. In the context of engaging an existing community, it is becoming precisely that: paid support will be required to reach existing community members. But the evidence is clear that Facebook fans have incremental value: a ComScore study found that one retailer’s Facebook fans were 27% more likely than a control group to make a purchase in the four weeks following a paid campaign.

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Even so, the power in Facebook has never been about branded communities in and of themselves. Facebook’s value, therefore, remains its potency to generate earned conversation and engagement at scale. The requirement to distribute content to community members via paid shouldn’t change that. Fans will still see brands’ content in their news feeds and, if the content is interesting enough, will pass it along to their friends. And there’s real value in this. According to Nielsen, social ads that carry a friend’s endorsement (“Your friend Mary likes Acme Cheese”), generate a 55% higher ad recall than non-social ads.  And of course, earned remains squarely at the top for delivering value with 92% of global consumers saying they trust “Recommendations from people I know” and 70% saying they trust “Consumer opinions posted online.”

Careful targeting of paid content can also enable brands to reach brand advocates who are not members of the brand’s Facebook community. These non-fan advocates are identifiable because they have engaged with the brand, are also potentially powerful drivers of word of mouth, even if they aren’t fans of the page, and are often more vocal and engaged than the most active members of your community.

In summary, the model has shifted. Previously, brands were using “owned” to fuel “earned”. Going forward, they’ll need to use “paid” to fuel “earned,” but that doesn’t make the earned any less valuable.  Success will require deploying paid differently — in smaller increments of both target audience and spend, and optimizing in real-time to ensure that spend is efficient and effective.

So how does this new model affect brands’ approach to content development? As brands began to pursue engagement at scale, an editorial model emerged where brand storytelling became appropriately sensitive to news, trends, and events happening in the moment. That model is proving the value of brands acting as publishers.

The demise of organic reach won’t change this. As sites like BuzzFeed, Business Insider, and others have demonstrated, the imperative is to create timely content that fans and advocates want to discuss and share. The requirement is for an approach that provides for real-time, planned content and big campaign moments that wow.

More broadly, social media remains a hugely valuable place for brands and businesses to engage with communities of customers, advocates, influencers and stakeholders. And a great deal of unexplored opportunity still awaits. Innovative ideas in areas like social CRM, real-time marketing, advocate and countless others continue to emerge.

 Organic Reach

This chart details recent changes in average organic reach of content published on Facebook, as analyzed by more than 100 Facebook brand pages around the world, accounting for more than 48 million total fans. Go to http://social.ogilvy.com to see the full report.

However, the prime lesson as we approach Facebook Zero is to avoid overcommitting to a single platform. The right recipe for social starts with clearly defined business objectives, folds in a strong understanding of what the audience wants, and a few measures of clever storytelling designed to facilitate engagement. The story’s requirements — Are there photos? Should we use video? Are we creating, aggregating, curating or all of the above? — and the audience’s behavior should dictate platform selection.

Facebook Zero is a reality now facing every brand and business with a presence on the platform. This isn’t an academic exercise. Action is required, and specific decisions will need to be made with regard to content planning, paid support for social media activities, audience targeting and much more.

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Marshall Manson is the Managing Director of Social@Ogilvy for Europe, Africa and the Middle East.