Facebook for Small Businesses: Stone Cold Truth

I’ve always been cool to using Facebook for marketing small businesses. Even in the face of statistical and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, some of my colleagues have gone so far as to brand me a crazed digital heretic for not cheerleading my clients and students on to the world’s dominant social media platform.

With Facebook’s latest changes to its filtering algorithm, cool has turned stone cold.

The Birth of Cool

In a previous life, I was the founder and chief bottle washer for MilwaukeeMoms.com, a parenting resource site for parents raising kids under 6-years-old. Before I sold it to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2006, fully 80% of our traffic went to our discussion groups where parents could talk about a variety of parenting topics and, generally, to meet one another. We were a forerunner to Facebook, years before the college based network was offered to the world as “social media.”

My experience with MilwaukeeMoms.com offered two critical takeaways for understanding the viability of social media marketing for small businesses:

  1. People use social networks to connect with friends, family and people with like interests.
  2. Businesses are not seen as “people” by end users, and their presence in social environments is viewed as advertising, unless they can consistently offer valuable content to end users beyond a coupon or a deal.

And, even if your business blogs and posts useful third party news and information, you’re competing against something end users will always value more than you — their friends and family. After all, that’s why the joined in the first place. Liking SMBs, big brands and causes is ancillary to their true motivation for logging in and checking their news feed. Consider the following findings from Mashable:

Facebook Use Chart

See any mention of businesses? Nope, because they’re out of context with the end user experience. I knew that back in 2006, and, after 11 years on the platform, it’s only gotten worse with less engagement and more rigorous demands for content to keep pages viable.

And It’s Getting Even Colder

Starting in 2016, Facebook page admins saw a precipitous drop in the organic reach of their posts. SocialFlow did a study that put the decline at 42% for 2016, and  it has continued to plunge to levels of 2-6% based on audience size. That means that if you have 100 users in your audience only 4-6 of them will actually see your post in the news feed!

Why did Facebook shift from encouraging all businesses to join to tweaking its filtering algorithm the detriment of business owners? Simple: Facebook now wants your business to buy advertising to reach the same audience that you worked hard to grow, period.

Their official position is a little less cynical. When asked “Is organic reach dropping because Facebook is trying to make more money?” Facebook’s VP of Publisher Solutions explained:

“No. Our goal is always to provide the best experience for the people that use Facebook. We believe that delivering the best experiences for people also benefits the businesses that use Facebook. If people are more active and engaged with stories that appear in News Feed, they are also more likely to be active and engaged with content from businesses.”

That might seem like corporate B.S., but it’s actually consistent with the reasons why people join and participate on the platform. It’s about them, not your business. And the “best experience” is to place a priority on posts from friends, family and pages with a history of high engagement. Translation: Your auto repair shop’s three posts a month on auto care are virtually invisible unless you interrupt a user’s feed with an ad.

Big Freeze Out on the Horizon?

If that isn’t enough to cool you on Facebook, consider the fact that last year Facebook conducted a limited test in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala, and Cambodia for a new user interface that, like Gmail, would filter business posts out of a user’s news feed and place them in a new area called the “Explore Feed.”  The company says it doesn’t plan to implement the feature globally, but, if precedent serves, filtering out business posts can’t be too far away.

So, Now What?

I’m not saying that your business should exit Facebook, but, if you don’t have a content publishing strategy with engaging content and a monthly ad budget, your page isn’t worth much. The better strategy is to follow the lead of larger companies by investing more in e-mail marketing, which dwarfs all social media in terms of ROI and sales conversions. With no filters and 100% reach, you’ll be talking to the people who should matter most to you  — your customers.

But maybe not. Some businesses may not like the fact that for every dollar invested in email marketing they could see a $38 return. If you know any of them, please have them give me a call.

Pat McKenna is a digital strategist, social media manager/instructor, web designer and founder of MojoWeb Productions, LLC. in Milwaukee, WI. He can be reached via e-mail or by calling (414) 732-3397. Keep up to date on Pat's latest scribblings by subscribing to StrategicMojo, the monthly e-newsletter no SMB can be without!