On the PopSugar Moms Facebook page, PopSugar’s most popular page with nearly a million likes, most videos surpass 100,000 views. A few have cracked a million views.This video about milk-and-cookie shot glasses went viral, racking up more than 9.8 million views since its Feb. 25 post date.
You can read the full article here if you want but the essential takeaway is this: Cookies in the shape of shotglasses drove obscenely large amounts of traffic to a site that harnessed the power of Facebook native video.
That’s fair enough but, having listened to Andy Mitchell, director of news partnerships, Facebook, speak at the International Journalism Festival recently about how user choice and engagement would be one of the key drivers for ‘surfacing’ content on Facebook, I do wonder this: As most journalism – particularly regional news – has literally nothing to do with cutesy shotglass cookies and milk, are those stories going to sink without trace?
Mitchell spoke about Facebook’s future at the IJF (the video of his talk is at the end of this post) and it’s clear that video and native publishing is where he and Facebook see that future pointing (Buzzfeed and the New York Times are among those publishers who are in the first tranche of working with Facebook on this) and that Facebook’s algorithm was key to content flourishing in the Facebook ecosystem.
He’s obviously used to giving keynotes and was initially unruffled when the less-than-enthused audience questions started up. But he did start to get exasperated when various hacks started quizzing him about responsibility, integrity and censorship. George Brock has written a great post on his thoughts (and he was one of the questioners, too). My notes from the session at this point say “AM said a lot of words, none of which answered the question” – and I see George Brock came to the same conclusion in his post too.
So Facebook thinks it is a perfect platform, particularly with regards to mobile, for news brands but there are a few things that I wonder about:
1. If your audience growth strategy is tied to commercialising on your platforms, how quickly can a regional news publisher adapt (again) to make content commercially viable on Facebook? I believe in the idea of social media news, with its own commercial life support system untied to a platform, but I don’t see anyone pointing the way in how to crack that yet. And Facebook is not going to trip over itself to help publishers find a solution when it is competing in that very same space.
2. PopSugar’s cookies-n-milk video numbers are phenomenal. Not sure a crime scene in Leicester is going to be the same kind of draw, even proportionally. Lifestyle content – and the Lad Bible, of course – can be numbers monsters; regional brands who try to emulate that have to constantly reinvent how they are packaged, pitched and presented or the inevitable “slow news day” comments pile in. They risk damaging the brand’s reputation. Even apparently popular regulars, like property porn articles, start drawing criticism from jaded Facebookers after a very short time.
3. Cookies-n-milk stories aren’t journalism but they are informative, fun, sharable and popular so, if getting on people’s news feed is the goal, is Facebook – that monster mainstream sites rely on so much – descending into a Reddit/VideoJug repository of trivia and how-to-decorate cupcakes or how-to hairstyle time-lapse videos, with an occasional cryptic status update from an old school friend? Is the only way to buck the algorithm is to play by Facebook’s rules and post native video or text? That’s not so much a strategy as a distress tactic.
4. Facebook says it wants to help publishers – specifically news brands with their “slow mobile experience” get their content front and centre on a massive publishing platform, that said brands happen not to have any commercial stake in or ownership of. And that might just be ok, but Facebook effectively washes its hands of what happens next. It says the new feed algorithm responds to reader interactions, and that users should use other sources, not just news feed, to get a holistic view of the news. Personally, I’d say before a Facebook exec makes a breezy public statement like that again, he or she should read some of the comments under an average news story; they’d quickly realise most readers don’t even click-through to the article – they read the social media headline, look at the photo, form an opinion and type ‘slow news day’ or possibly post that damn photo of Michael Jackson eating popcorn. Very few go off to find a wider source of information to add context, nuance and depth.
Some commentators say journalists and mainstream news brands have moved past the point of reporting news, and are now curators and editors of news, verifying and checking the social noise to sort the clear signal. That’s a fair idea, but where does the Facebook strategy (and algorithm) fit into this? Can you edit and curate if the platform where content is being published dictates, on the interactions of the shot glass cookies crowd, whether that work is seen? And on that note, how long can Facebook resist calling itself a publisher?
International Journalism Festival video: