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Summer 2016 Update on Facebook Stats and Merit

Last Updated: Jul 20, 2016 04:27PM EDT
A message from Jason Fox, Merit's co-founder and head of technology:

Each summer, many of our clients pull together end-of-year reports to showcase their success with Merit over the past twelve months. Since July 2015, our clients have published updates to more than 3 million Merit pages of their students, and reached tens of thousands of stakeholders in the process!

Social media is one of the many channels Merit uses to connect stories of what it means to be a student at your institution with stakeholders. Because of ongoing changes to Facebook, you may have observed some trends in data while looking at your Merit reports. It’s important to have the correct context for these numbers, as there are many factors at play which have recently impacted how content shared to Facebook (whether via Merit, your fan page, or other types of sharing) is presented to audiences.

So, let’s dive in and explore why changes made by Facebook might mean lower year-over-year numbers in your Merit reports. What’s really going on?


Organic Reach

A successful Facebook strategy used to be all about building your audience -- get as many people as you can to ‘like’ your page on Facebook and whenever you posted content, your audience would see it. Sadly, and to many people’s great frustration, this is no longer a viable strategy. Over time, Facebook has changed its Newsfeed algorithm so that fan page posts are not guaranteed to show up in your audience’s feeds anymore. Facebook claims this was done to make the Newsfeeds more engaging to their users. However, it also conveniently created a market for them to sell you preferred placement in that Newsfeed -- in short, they want you to pay for that placement now. Organic reach has dropped off a cliff for most fan pages, as your social media manager has no doubt observed. For fan pages with less than 500,000 likes, organic reach is now down to 1-2%.  

When we look across all of our customer’s Facebook engagement stats over the last three years, we can see the impact of these algorithm changes for the posts Merit makes to your students’ Facebook Newsfeeds, as well:

June 2013-2014
  • 5.3  Actions / Post (Avg.)
  • 26.1  Views / Action  (Avg.)
  • 134.1  Views / Post  (Avg.)
June 2014-2015
  • 6.0  Actions / Post (Avg.)
  • 35.3  Views / Action  (Avg.)
  • 198.1  Views / Post  (Avg.)
June 2015-2016
  • 3.3  Actions / Post (Avg.)
  • 23.7  Views / Action  (Avg.)
  • 72.7  Views / Post  (Avg.)

As you can see, there is a decline in all statistics, but most dramatically in the number of views per post. That means the content Merit is automatically posting into Facebook is just not being seen as often as it used to. This is not a result of anything you are doing wrong; organic reach "just ain't what it used to be."

Your social media manager likely has seen similar, or even more dramatic, drop-offs in “organic reach” of your university’s fan pages over the last several years. Fan pages have been among the worst hit of all the entities in the Facebook ecosystem and many are now hovering around 1% organic reach (meaning if their fan page has 1,000 fans, posts made to that page might, on average, reach 10 of those fans).

From the outset, because Merit’s content is positive and personalized, we’ve always had close to 10 times the average reach and engagement on Facebook when compared to industry norms. This is still the case! Merit’s posts on the whole outperform general content in the aggregate ; it’s just that the baseline of industry norms has eroded as Facebook more aggressively throttles content via its Newsfeed algorithms to push brands to pay for reaching audiences now.

Note: There is another factor at play here, but we cannot tell to what extent. We discovered and reported a bug to Facebook in the way it reports views through its Insights API, which is the tool we use to report engagement stats to you through your Merit reports. The bug has resulted in Facebook under-reporting views through their API -- but how often and by how much is unknown. There is an open bug ticket in Facebook’s issue tracking system for this. Our development team has been constantly contacting Facebook to request resolution on this issue, but as you might imagine, getting information on the status of this bug has been difficult. Unfortunately, there is no phone number to call, no person to complain to at Facebook. All we can do is wait. If you’d like to see the details, here is the link to the bug report: However, regardless of this bug, the overall trend is clear; organic reach ain’t what it used to be.

Instant Articles

Instant Articles is a relatively new development. Facebook is now encouraging publishers to give Facebook the content of their articles so that it can serve them up to users inside of Facebook itself, rather than drive viewers off the platform to an external website. Facebook claims this is a better experience for users because they do not need to wait for the articles to load on an external website; Facebook can serve the content themselves right away. While this is true, it also keeps your visitors captive on Facebook where they can control and monetize their “eyeballs” with ads, etc.

Facebook is not admitting to this yet, but, the industry is questioning whether or not Facebook is now also favoring this type of captive content over content that links to external websites when deciding what to show users in their Newsfeeds. Publishers are also starting to see a dramatic drop off in referral traffic from Facebook corresponding to this recent development. As scary as this sounds, this might be an area where Merit can help. Because Merit can (and does) behave like a publisher within Facebook’s ecosystem, and not like a fan page, we are exploring whether Merit itself can adopt “Instant Articles” and push Merit updates in this new format into Facebook. Our clients will benefit from our ability to develop for this new platform and if we’re able to integrate it with Merit, we’ll automatically roll it out to all customers.

So, what does this all mean for you?

It’s important to remember that while Facebook is indeed a walled garden in which they make (and frequently change) the rules of play, it still represents a huge potential for reaching millions of people with your stories of student success. And you should know that Merit is 100% committed to helping you successfully navigate the ever-changing social media landscape.

To that end, we will be exploring the following options:
  • Utilize Facebook's Instant Articles API - As I mentioned above, this seems to be the direction Facebook is currently heading. There's still a lot to learn about Instant Articles, as they only just recently opened this API up to everybody, but, rest assured, we're on it!  If it makes sense to post your stories as Instant Articles we’ll have this implemented by the end of the summer.

  • Add video attachments to achievements - According to some accounts,posts with video get the most organic reach in Facebook. So, in situations where you have video related to an achievement, we’ll allow you to attach and share that video in social media. This was something that was actually already on our roadmap, so, you’ll be seeing these changes released soon.

  • Beyond Facebook - Beyond Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, we’re also exploring Snapchat, Instagram and other platforms to see if there is a way in which Merit can help you spread the word on those networks. And we’re always opened to new ideas, so if you have any please feel free to shoot your customer success manager a message.

Over the past three years Merit has generated almost 60 million views in Facebook alone for your stories. Through keeping up with industry trends and exploring new avenues, Merit will continue to adapt to remain the best and only way to reach this audience as well as high schools, hometown newspapers, government officials, parents and (soon) employers, at scale, with your stories of student success. Merit is committed to ensuring that everybody, no matter where they are, knows what it means to be a student at your institution.

Please always feel free to reach out to your client success manager if you have questions about how Merit can help you achieve your goals!

Jason Fox
Co-Founder and Head of Technology

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