AdAge published an article last month detailing the
decline of organic reach on Facebook
as well as Facebook’s shift to encouraging pages (i.e. businesses) to buy ads in order to promote themselves. This shift is all well and good if you’re a for-profit page on Facebook with a dedicated online marketing budget. Standard ads are still relatively inexpensive so even business with small marketing budgets can compete, but as the article points out even that is likely to change as more and more pages buy ads. The pages that really end up with the short end of the stick are non-profit universities and organizations.

Per Facebook’s terms of service universities cannot have individual profiles. They must have pages or risk being deleted. The AdAge article quotes a Facebook spokesperson saying, “We’re getting to a place where because more people are sharing more things, the best way to get your stuff seen if you’re a business is to pay for it.” Since Facebook apparently isn’t making any distinction between pages for non-profits and pages for businesses, one has to assume that universities and other non-profits will have to pony up to keep up or expand their current levels of reach. This will be especially difficult for institutions that don’t have central marketing departments or dedicated web budgets.


Advertisement on a banana
For those who might read this and start looking at alternatives for reaching prospective students rather than succumbing to Facebook’s pay-to-play world, the landscape doesn’t look good. You could start giving out free bananas with advertising stickers, but assuming that you want to stay online, no other platform has the reach and engagement of Facebook. Twitter is the closest competitor, but it can be hard to showcase the unique stories that make a school stand out in just 140 characters. Instagram and Pinterest are too narrowly focused to effectively tell a complete story. Tumblr may be an answer in the future, but right now, it doesn’t have the
engagement and interaction
from key groups to be a true replacement.

The simplest alternative isn’t really an alternative at all, but rather continuing to post as you normally do and encouraging your audience of individuals to share for you and spread the word. In this case, simple doesn’t mean easy.

Using my own university as a test case, we averaged 1 share for every 25 likes during a recent three-month period. That’s a steep drop-off without a clear path to getting more of our community to share the content rather than just hitting the like button. We’re diving into our content to examine the attributes of our most shareable posts, but finding those attributes and adjusting the focus of our posts is definitely a long-term project. In the near future, universities and non-profits may have no choice but to advertise or see their reach decline even further.

So you decide to advertise…

If your web team — maybe that’s you, yourself and you — decides to advertise, you are faced with several options. Do you put money into promoted posts, text ads,
video ads
? I was kidding about that last one. If you have the budget for video ads you can stop reading, you’ll be just fine. Assuming your budget is of the more modest variety, you’re left with the first two options, promoted posts or newsfeed/right column ads.

Promoted posts are the simplest option because they don’t require writing any additional content and they can be seen on desktop and mobile. They are also the most inexpensive way to advertise, but our team found that they don’t get quite the same reach as traditional ads even though the targeting options are similar. The conclusion that we’ve drawn is that promoted posts can help your content gain some views that hopefully lead to people sharing it organically, but if that doesn’t happen your ROI will likely be pretty low.

Right column ads are the next step up. The targeting and bids can be set to generate consistent traffic from audiences large and small, but they cannot be seen on mobile devices. Even if your audience is on a desktop, the right column ads are distinctly separate from the rest of the page and easily ignored. Right column ads are still the most common ads I see on Facebook because they are affective and inexpensive, but I won’t be surprised if more and more people shift to newsfeed ads.

In my experience, newsfeed ads are the most successful of the three options. They provide the most flexibility in terms of content and the most stability in terms of ROI. The newsfeed format looks the most like native content and it can be seen on mobile as well as desktop formats, which leads to higher engagement numbers. Newsfeed ads are slightly more expensive than the right hand column ads but given the higher click through rates it has been money well spent for us.

Speaking of money, my university started advertising on Facebook because it was a less expensive alternative to advertising on the large search engine platforms, but if more businesses and organizations have to buy advertising just to keep up their reach, let alone marketing specific programs or events, that affordability will probably be coming to end. The only certainty is that Facebook will keep changing and social media professionals, especially those will small marketing budgets, will have to keep innovating to reach their audience. After all, it’s a Facebook world; we just share in it.