Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Facebook's News Feed And "Attention Rationing"

Added on by Tom Webster.

IMG 0221Last week, I attended the Marketing Profs Digital Marketing Forum in Austin, Texas. Besides putting an unholy hurtin' on my wallet at Allens Boots, I walked away with a richer appreciation for Facebook, and what will surely be one of 2011's hot topics, News Feed Optimization (hey, let's give it an acronym for good measure: NFO.) Regular Facebook users are no doubt aware that Facebook's default news feed changed a while back, from a chronological, roughly real-time stream of your friends' activities, to something a little more "selective." Facebook's optimization algorithm, EdgeRank, essentially scores your interactions with your Facebook friends, and promotes items in your stream from people you favor with your attention, every time you read their profiles, click on their links, or comment on their updates. Close friends are assigned more weight than distant acquaintances, comments are weighted more heavily than the easily-given "likes," and newer tends to trump older.

What this means is that regardless of how many "friends" you have on Facebook, if you confine your interactions to a small, select group, you may never even suspect that the others are posting updates. I've certainly seen this in my own feed, which now reliably rotates items from the 15-20 people I interact with the most, and rarely, if ever, shows updates from distant connections. In short, my news feed has become a true meritocracy: it's hard to get my attention by accident.

Yes, you can change your view back to the chaos of "real-time view," but the stats I heard in Austin (uncorroborated, so unquoted here) suggest that few do so. So, the business of NFO begins. Thinking about my own Facebook marketing efforts on behalf of the day job, there are three obvious conclusions, and one that is perhaps not so obvious:

1. Companies are going to have to work very hard to make it "above the fold" for the average user.

2. Content marketing on Facebook is going to have to be an equal mix of frequency, relevancy and engagement - if people aren't actively engaging with your content, and doing so with regularity, off you go into obscurity.

3. If you are not able to consistently do #1 and #2, you might rethink putting effort into Facebook at all - punting may be as effective as half measures, and cost a lot less.

Those who follow and report upon this space already know these issues, so I'm not exactly breaking news here. Here is the not-so-obvious part: my Facebook behavior is changing as a result. My news feed is a mix of friends and marketers at this point. I miss my friends. I'm finding myself a bit stingier with likes and comments these days, as I am reluctant to "teach" Facebook that I want my stream littered with information that I just don't care about all that much. In the past, I was profligate with my "likes," clicks and comments. Today, those EdgeRank markers are more often to go to people that I actually have a real personal relationship with.

It's made Facebook more useful and, frankly, fun for me. I got my friends back. Yes, I know that they never really went away, but the vast middle of the bell curve on Facebook isn't going to work too hard to excavate them. For marketers, this may mean that the pendulum is starting to swing a bit in the opposite direction - towards the landscape occupied by people like my friend Tim Hayden at Blue Clover: making meaning is all about making experiences - touching people online and offline, with quality interactions, small, passionate gatherings and lots of face-to-face time. Are there still some marketers at the top of my stream? Yup. Had dinner with some of them this past week. These, like my high school and college classmates, are my genuine friends.

A brand is not my friend, but the people behind a brand could be. Increasingly, on Facebook, I am rationing my attention - making better choices, fixing my news feed one friend at a time. I use Facebook very differently from Twitter - much more like mainstream America does - and a brand is going to have to reach out to me beyond the page to really "optimize" its presence in the stream of my life. In short, despite the easy-come, easy-go culture of friend accumulation that social media has fostered, good ole' Dunbar's Number is not only still relevant, but increasingly more important than ever.

Finally, imagine this - what would Twitter be like if they introduced their own version of EdgeRank? Now that would be a sea change.

As always, I welcome your thoughts - about Facebook, about EdgeRank, and, of course, my new boots :)