If followers can sponsor updates on Facebook, social advertising has a new horizon

The frequency of sponsored posts looks set to grow.

This week, I found that one of my Facebook updates received significantly more attention that others I’ve posted. On the one hand, it was a share of an important New York Times story focusing on the first time a baby was cured of HIV. But I discovered something that went beyond the story itself: someone who was not my friend had paid to sponsor one of my posts.

Promoted post on Facebook.

According to Facebook, the promoted post had 27 times as many views because it was sponsored this way, with 96% of the views coming through the sponsored version.

When I started to investigate what had happened, I learned that I’d missed some relevant news last month. Facebook had announced that users would be able to promote the posts of friends. My situation, however, was clearly different: Christine Harris, the sponsor of my post, is not my friend.

When I followed up with Elisabeth Diana, Facebook’s advertising communications manager, she said this was part of the cross-promote feature that Facebook rolled out. If a reporter posts a public update to his followers on Facebook, Diana explained to me in an email, that update can be promoted and “boosted” to the reporter’s friends.

While I couldn’t find Harris on Facebook, Diana said with “some certainty” that she was my follower, “in order to have seen your content.” Harris definitely isn’t my friend, and while she may well be one of my followers, I have no way to search them to determine whether that’s so.

In these situations, “sponsored” is the label you’ll see on promoted posts, Diana explained. She also confirmed to me that anyone can (or will be able to) sponsor/promote the public post of someone else, “if they are following them or are friends with them.”

If that happens, the sponsored post will then be boosted only to friends of its author, as opposed to an entire network of followers, said Diana. In the United States, she said that will cost about $7. If this is broadly rolled out, it will be interesting to see if PR companies or news outlets quietly opt to boost stories.

The only constant on Facebook is change

What this all seems to herald is a broader move where getting seen on Facebook will depend much more upon your willingness to pay for it. This is, of course, the dynamic that has long existed on radio and television, unless you can earn “free media” coverage by being newsworthy.

Given the recent kerfluffle over the cost of sharing on Facebook and criticism of the Facebook newsfeed, issues around algorithmic transparency only seem to be growing.

While Facebook posted a “fact check” in response to Nick Bilton’s New York Times column, arguing that “overall engagement on posts from people with followers has gone up 34% year over year,” my experience on the platform matches his: even with nearly 100,000 subscribers, my updates aren’t receiving anywhere close to as much engagement as they did before last November.

Given the reactions I’ve seen to his column, I believe that Bilton speaks for many journalists and others who have turned on subscribers, along with quite a few Page owners. What we see on Facebook is now driven not just by what our friends and family share but how we and others respond to it, as interpreted by algorithms, along with our interests, expressed by Likes, and the social networking giant’s need to make money.

I remember quite clearly when this shift began, on November 3, 2012. WolframAlpha analytics told me that an update with a screencap and annotation of Facebook’s prompt to “pay to promote” received the most comments of any picture in 2012.

Pay to Promote on Facebook image

My feeling last November was that paid promotions would result in my updates becoming deprecated in the newsfeeds of others. Feelings, however, have to be balanced with data. Recent research suggests that, like most users, I have underestimated the audience size for my posts.

A new study (PDF) by the human-computer interaction group at Stanford University’s computer science department and Facebook’s data science team found that a median Facebook user reaches 60% of his or her friends over the course of a month.

Percentage of Facebook friends who saw a post

I’m not sure if making public updates sponsorable will fundamentally change how we use or experience the world’s biggest social network. Will having followers promote posts degrade your relationships with friends or your interactions with them? Does it create an incentive to be nicer to them? Perhaps the latter, but the rest of it seems uncertain.

What does seem clear is that, over the past five months, Facebook users have been seeing fewer updates from friends and more content targeted to their “Likes.” This now include updates containing links or ads regarding products, services, causes or politicians that their friends “Like” elsewhere online.

Given that Facebook is a public company that provides a free, advertising-supported product and needs to grow its revenues, these changes aren’t surprising. That said, these changes feel like one more step away from the clean, uncluttered network I joined in 2007 to privately share details about my life with friends and family.

If this new pay-to-promote feature catches on with brands and corporations, they will have a quietly effective new means to influence us through our friends. I still find Facebook valuable, but my relationship status with Facebook is now set to “it’s complicated.”

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  • Since you, like me, are a journalist, Alex, I’ll comment on that perspective first: This doesn’t change rules of journalistic ethics. It just means that journalists who once had the luxury of letting editors deal with these issues will have to spend more time thinking about their personal ethics and how to manage their relationships, reactions, and responses to these sponsorships.

    Professional considerations aside, I wonder if this move by Facebook will change friends’ actual social relationships. We all have friends who share too frequently, sometimes to the point of being annoying or irritating; what if you suddenly become that person among your friends because someone else sponsors a post?

    What if the inconsequential comment you make late at night because you know only a few friends are online gets elevated to an inane remark the next morning because a third party sponsored it and it gets blasted out to all of your friends?

    Or what if the important things you really want your friends to see are deprecated because someone else thinks the animated GIF you shared is worth sponsoring instead of the post on digital rights?

    Sponsored posts leave me with more questions than answers, but I guess we’ll have to see how they work in practice to know those answers for sure.

    • digiphile

      Those are fantastic questions. I’m glad you posed them here, along with the point about ethics. I don’t think anyone has answers yet: we’re going to need to see how this changes the use of Facebook or the way people relate on it.

  • Hi Alex,

    If you read through the FB/Stanford research paper, their analysis is only for “friends” type relationships and doesnt include “follows” – they also count as “engagement” anything over 990 milliseconds of “viewability” of the status update… all in all the real numbers are clearly not the one you state of 60% over month and average per post/status update.

    Michael Leander did some research a few months back on Engagement rates on Facebook and the ratio were in the sub 0.16% for any one with over 100K fans.

    • digiphile

      I’m glad that someone read the entire paper carefully and commented. That is a low barrier to something being “viewed.” Do you have a link to Leander’s research?

  • Have you watched Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on the art of asking?


    She closes with:

    I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, “How do we make people pay for music?” What if we started asking, “How do we let people pay for music?”

    /end of quote/

    I think there is a parallel here. You’re a great curator and journalist. How do we let people help you promote your work?

    • “How do we let people help you promote your work?”

      That’s an interesting question. Facebook’s new function provides a way to do that.

      But in this case there’s a secondary concern: How do you — or can you — know the intent of the promoter?

      An individual promoting a post is one thing. A company or organization promoting a post is another.

      Or, is all amplification good amplification?

      • Yes, and that speaks to Saleem’s points below. What’s that new line about how Warhol got it backward and we’re all going to be obscure for only 15 minutes?

        On a small scale, I often laugh when I receive notifications that someone has endorsed me for X or Y on LinkedIn — often for skills I don’t actually have or wouldn’t say are my strongest suit (last night: focus groups — I’ve never led a focus group in my life). But those endorsements are on my profile now, like it or not, accurate or not. How does one go about refusing an endorsement or a promotion?

        • Heh. I keep waiting to get endorsed for endorsing ;)

          You bring up a good point. These tools — endorsements, sponsored posts, etc. — are blunt instruments. My hope is that natural iteration of these functions will lead to better buttons and levers.

    • digiphile

      I haven’t watched it yet, although I plan to do so. The short answer is to say that I’m deeply grateful when people reshare my work to their networks, offline or online, and I’m glad that O’Reilly makes it accessible and easy to do so.

      The longer answer, which Mac and Saleem open up further with their question, is more difficult. I don’t think authors, editors or film makers can or should be held responsible for how their work is amplified or depicted.

      Given I’ve seen some musicians become quite unhappy when politicians have used their songs for rallies, however, there can be plenty of complexity introduced by association.

  • Interesting. One does have a way of searching their followers. If you go to your timeline there’s a box next to “friends” and “photos” that shows number of followers. Clicking on it will take you to the follower list and you’ll be able to see each one.

    • digiphile

      If you click on the link I provided, you’ll be taken to that page. I have nearly 100,000 people who have chosen to follow me or a list I’m on. I can’t search them there.

  • Alex, I can envision a small business owner reading your post and trying an interesting test. Next time they put up a post up on their personal FB page promoting their business FB page (which many due) then they might “incentivize” some of their followers to sponsor ?

    • digiphile

      I’ll be quite curious to see how this evolves.

  • Great, well written and very informative article Alex. Thank you for sharing.

    Thanks @bernard for the mention of the Facebook engagement rate post on my blog. I’d also like to be updated on the relaunch of Ning – could you DM me @michaelleander?

    • digiphile

      Thank you, Michael.