How I Survived the Facebook Reach Apocalypse, and You Can, Too

Part of a series on social media strategy for higher ed

About a year ago, my Twitter feed was filled with articles warning of the great “Reach Apocalypse” (reachpocalypse, in some portmanteau-obsessed circles). Facebook was throttling brand pages. No more free organic reach. The only way for fans (and non-fans) to see your content is if you pay to play.

Well, at a public institution like mine, our budget for all social media activities is zero dollars and zero cents. Paying to play wasn’t a viable option for us a year ago (it still isn’t, honestly). So, we didn’t. We shifted our strategy instead.

If Facebook is only going to show our content to users (fans/non-fans) if the algorithms think it’s valuable (receives engagement, especially shares), then we’re only going to focus on creating valuable content.

At this point, you should be thinking, “If your content wasn’t valuable, why were you trying to post it in the first place?” Well, dear reader, the answer is simple: what is “valuable” to the institution is not necessarily what is valuable to your audience.

In higher ed comms, especially social media, it’s typical to get bombarded with requests to promote events or stories that may be interesting or important to the person/org hosting the event or writing the story, but for your audience? Not so much. When they’re spending some down-time scrolling through their Facebook News Feed, do you really think they want to see a dull piece of institutional news wedged between a funny photo of their friends and timely national news article (or BuzzFeed listicle)? They don’t. They’re going to scroll right on by.

Think about the kind of content you interact with in your own Facebook News Feed—it’s personal, it’s funny, it’s interesting/educational, it’s emotional, it’s inspiring. Content that makes you feel. Content that draws you in. Content that you can read 5 minutes after it’s posted or 5 hours (or even 5 days) and get the same value.

Save those “this event is happening today!” posts and the press releases for Twitter, where that immediate event info and straight news-y content is highly valued by audiences. It doesn’t belong on Facebook anymore.*

This shift in strategy—only post valuable, quality content—worked for our school. Despite Facebook’s “reach apocalypse” algorithm changes in early 2014, (and again in spring of 2015) our overall reach per post has actually grown in most cases. In fact, for the “Commencement season” (April–May), our cumulative reach increased 47%, yet our number of Facebook posts decreased by 42%. So, with a little rounding, that means our reach nearlydoubled, from only half as many posts. 

The best part is, by focusing on quality (and by that, I mean “has value to the reader”) instead of quantity, we were freed from the convention of trying adhere to a posting schedule. If there’s no mandate (official or unofficial) to post to Facebook 3 times a week, instead of scrambling to put together 3 mediocre posts, you can use that week creating 1 truly valuable piece of content. And really, everybody wins. More people actually see the great things at happening your school, and your audience is excited by or finds value in your content. Trust me, that makes them like you even more.

Here’s how I did it, and you can, too:

  • Quality over quantity. Make it your mantra.
  • Prioritize. I’ll talk about this more in another post, but determine what the priorities are for your social media communications (recruitment? fundraising? reputation building?), and focus on posts that help you reach that goal. Make those the priority, and then figure out ways to fit in everything else.
  • Know your audience. Look beyond the demographics from Facebook Insights, what kinds of posts does your love to engage with? I know you’re thinking, “pretty pictures of campus!” It’s true, everyone loves those. But, have you thought about why? It’s not purely aesthetic (of course, that helps), in most cases, it’s emotional—nostalgia of remembering when you walked those steps, excitement about attending your dream school, or even the reminder to take a break from daily student life to appreciate the beauty around you. How can you capture and share those feelings in other posts? What kind of stories/images/videos can evoke those same feelings?
  • Platform segmentation. As I mentioned above, reserve Facebook for your top shelf content exclusively. Use your Twitter account for updates that need repetition or have a time-sensitive aspect. Use your Instagram for “in the moment” photos and visual event teasers. Use Facebook to share a special moment or stats from the event afterwards, when there’s something valuableto share with your audience.
  • Invest in video content. Facebook’s algorithms now favor video heavily, so lean into that trend, and create fun, interesting, emotional and short video content. Videos can reach huge audiences, even if they’re as simple as a hyperlapse campus tour! It depends on the topic, but attention spans for video on Facebook are extremely short. Keep that in mind, and make sure the most important messages in the video come first. (Just like the old news story model— lead with the most important/engaging element.)

If you were paying attention, you might be thinking, “Wait, invest? But you said you have a zero dollar budget!” It’s true, by invest, I mean place value upon this skill. We did so by hiring student interns (one at a time, for 15hr/wk, a position we already budgeted for) who help write most of the content for all of our platforms, but who also have well-developed video skills. We picked students who can do more than just write pun-filled tweets (though, they’re really good at that), and give them the time to create high-quality videos for Facebook (and YouTube). If I have to pick up the slack for daily post/engagement on social media while they edit videos, that’s what we do. It can be hard to find students who can do everything (they exist! I’ve hired two in the last year!), so consider splitting your student position so it’s 10hr/wk for one student focused on writing posts and engaging online, and 5hr/wk for a video student. There are ways to make it work. Be creative; it’s worth it.

That’s all the tips for today. The point of this post is simply to say, organic reach is NOT dead. All you have to do is create stellar content your audiencewants to see, and they will. Work with the Facebook algorithm bots, not against them. It worked for us, and I’m pretty sure it can for you, too.

*I realize there are always going to be compromises on this, and there are days when you’re going to have post that release or tease that event with Facebook because it rises to a certain level of importance or to please certain people internally. And, that’s okay! Do the best you can to make them work, and accept that they may not “go viral,” but you’ll have fulfilled your obligations.

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