In May of 2012 I decided to try an experiment. I wanted to see what kind of Facebook Community I could create over the course of three months. I created a page called “Save the Supreme Court--Re-elect Obama.” I did this because I was concerned about what might happen to the Supreme Court if President Obama lost, but I was also thinking about it as an experiment for promoting a documentary, something I had done as a marketing consultant, for films like “The Island President.” I could be getting ready to make a film about the Supreme Court, and using Facebook to promote that would involve essentially the same work-- utilizing targeted Facebook ads to assemble a community of people who were interested in the activities of the Court.
I gave myself a budget of $100.
My hundred bucks purchased a wide variety of tiny ads that turned up hundreds of thousands of times on the Facebook pages of people I felt might be interested in the Supreme Court, or had progressive politics. My $100 took me to about 800 members, but then I found myself unsatisfied and hungering for an even thousand. I threw caution to the wind and splurged on another twenty bucks to get there.
I was stunned by how ridiculously cheap the Facebook ads were. Of course, I had spent many weeks experimenting with different images, copy lines, target groups, and daily budgets to make them so cheap. I had to monitor the ads all day long, 7 days a week, until I got my budget down to three bucks a day and basically forgot about it. Getting my 1000 likes for $120 demanded a lot of time and imagination, but I figured that most independent filmmakers probably had a lot more of those two things than money.
Facebook didn’t seem like any business I’d ever known. It was almost like a charity, bringing people together for a very nominal fee. Perhaps that’s why Wall Street investors were screaming. I was touched that for $120 I was able to assemble a group of a thousand people who wanted to talk about what I wanted to talk about. They sure did. What an opinionated group!
Once I established my page with my $120, Facebook showed each and every one of my posts to at least 600 of my fans. Getting them to respond was slow-going at first, but it changed completely when I started making graphics. At that point, my engagement went through the roof, as the video below proves. It wasn’t unusual for me to get dozens of comments, and hundreds of likes and shares.
Needless to say, I was thrilled with these results. I had always heard that Facebook was a powerful tool for filmmakers to promote their films, but here was specific evidence about how that exactly worked. I also noticed that almost nobody in the independent film world was doing it right. If people could change their methods, I thought, it would be incredible for taking independent film to a new level. As a film marketing man with 35 years of experience and more than a little success under my belt, I knew the importance of promotion. I became a passionate Facebook booster, and enthusiastically shared what I’d learned with all my friends. One of them was Ted Hope. He changed my life by encouraging me to write and teach about Facebook. Around Labor Day that year he asked me to write something for “Truly Free Film,” and that’s how it started for me. A few weeks later I was giving my first lecture at the New York Foundation for the Arts.
While I was preparing my NYFA lecture, I read a post by Mari Smith, perhaps the #1 Facebook blogger and speaker. Even though she was one of the most popular people on Facebook, she suddenly noticed that Facebook was showing her posts to a lot less people. She wrote that many others had noticed the same loss of “reach.” This was confirmed by hundreds of comments I read online that ranged from people who had a few hundred followers to George Takei, who had millions (and was pissed off). It seemed clear that somebody at Facebook had flicked a switch and now the platform didn’t allow you to reach your followers for free anymore. Not only did you have to pay to get your followers, you also had to pay every day to reach them.
Unfortunately it was at that time that I was closing down my Supreme Court page and trying to get my Facebook business in gear. This time around ads cost hundreds of dollars more to get me to a thousand followers. After I achieved that, I had to pay money practically every day to get my posts read. That continued until January, when Facebook, without any explanation, started refusing to promote my posts. I would just get an email saying they had been turned down.
Eventually I found out through bloggers that Facebook had instituted a new policy for image-centric posts, limiting text to 20% of the image. I thought back to my Supreme Court page. Nearly everything I put there was graphics images with a lot of words splashed across them. Under the new Facebook policy, these would not have been “promotable.” I’m sure that page would have failed with this rule.
This was particularly disturbing to me because the crux of my blogging and lecturing was teaching people how to make graphics like the ones Facebook was denying.
I tried to reduce the text on my graphics to 20% but this made them much less effective on the other social networks I was using. They just didn’t look as good as the old ones. They didn’t get anywhere near as many repins as the ones made before the 20% rule. And I didn’t want to lessen the impact of Pinterest because I was already getting more traffic to my blog from Pinterest than I was from Facebook, as w well as other benefits, like enhanced SEO.
Here was my choice: 1) Pay money to Facebook for the right to make worse graphics; or 2) make better graphics that went out to more people on Pinterest and Google+. I went back to making good graphics and I continued to put them up on Facebook. I just couldn’t promote them. As time went by without me being able to promote my posts, my reach on Facebook slowed to 29 people a day.
Today 80% of my blog traffic comes from Pinterest and many of my boards come out very high in a Google search, including Social Media for Filmmakers (#1) and Social Media for Artists (#3).
Compare this to the Oreos Facebook page one of the most marvelous uses of social media I’ve yet encountered. It has nearly 35 million followers and yet it’s on page three in a Google search. (It was on page five until recently.) The reason that a little guy like me is doing better with social network SEO than a multi-national corporation like like Mondelēz International (owner of Nabisco), is that success on Facebook doesn’t offer fringe benefits outside of Facebook, in the same way that Pinterest and Google+ do. Using Facebook as magnificently as Mondelēz does will not elevate SEO like using Pinterest or Google+ in a pedestrian way. If Mondelēz had an Oreos page in Google+ with five thousand members, I think that Google+ page would be #2 on a Google search for “Oreos” (after Oreos.com). Instead Google searchers must wade through a few pages of articles about whether Oreos are as addictive as cocaine before they reach the link to the extraordinary Oreos Facebook page.
What do I make of all this? First, Facebook should still be home base for millions of social media marketers, if they have a following and a budget. It’s where the most people go. Second, Facebook has every right to make money, as does any business. I might not agree with every choice they make, but I don’t begrudge them that.
Do the changes in the Facebook business model matter? It depends on who you are.
Facebook was once a site where somebody with very little money and no following could leverage Facebook into something very big. This was a big wet kiss for unknown independent filmmakers, and there are countless stories about filmmakers who successfully used Facebook. I think it is a rougher road for most people to start out today, in December of 2013. And it’s even harsher for filmmakers who spent years building a substantial following only to discover that they don’t have the budget to reach all those people they once engaged with for free.
In April I gave my last lecture on Facebook. After that I began rebranding myself as a “Beyond Facebook” type of guy. Right now, the center of my social media and internet life is my blog and Pinterest. For fun I like going on Twitter, Tumblr, Artstack and Reddit, and I’m exploring Google+. But recently I suddenly decided to go cold turkey and stop posting to my Facebook fan page. I reached a moment of clarity that time was finite and I simply got more benefits when I devoted my time to other networks. Also, I like looking at the future. People can tell me that the future is not here yet--and they’re right--but perversely I like to pitch my tent there anyway.
I now see Facebook in my rear view mirror.