The long, slow decline of organic reach on social media

There’s an interesting extract in Roger McNamee’s Zucked about how strategically Facebook have reduced the significance of organic reach (i.e. unpaid distribution of content) on the platform. The promise of being able to communicate directly to a vast audience through Facebook pages has been central to the motivation of individuals, networks and organisations who have directed their resources towards engaging on the site. But there has been a steady decline in the percentage of followers who will see a post for free. As he describes on loc 1147-1161:

Every year or so, Facebook would adjust the algorithm to reduce organic reach. The company made its money from advertising, and having convinced millions of organizations to set up shop on the platform, Facebook held all the cards. The biggest beneficiaries of organic reach had no choice but to buy ads to maintain their overall reach. They had invested too much time and had established too much brand equity on Facebook to abandon the platform. Organic reach declined in fits and starts until it finally bottomed at about 1 percent or less. Fortunately, Facebook would periodically introduce a new product—the Facebook Live video service, for example—and give those new products greater organic reach to persuade people like us to use them.

There’s a difficult balance to strike here between nudging people into using paid advertising and obliterating the economic rationale for using Facebook in the first place. Once there is a long term trajectory of engagement, the effectiveness of the platform will still beat the alternatives even with declining organic reach. For many actors organic reach is what brings them to the platform in the first place, in spite of the fact the business model relies on soliciting advertising income. But will the long, slow decline of organic reach ultimately end with its demise? Almost certainly not but this tension is at the heart of the business model yet the dynamic it gives rise to is extremely subtle.

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