Facebook Fans Are Meaningless

In a meeting recently at work, we were talking about the use of social media, how to get people to come to the museum, and one person said something to the effect of, “Well, we all can agree that we want to have more followers.”

We all nodded in agreement. No matter the strategy, we all want to have more people “Like” (formerly “become a fan of”) our institutional Facebook page. The more people who do that, the more people see what’s going on, come to the museum, participate in building community, etc. Right? I mean, that’s the metric.

Then it hit me– No. It makes absolutely no difference how many people “Like” your Facebook page.

I’m overstating it slightly, but that’s what I thought at the time. My realization was– and this may be obvious to others– the number of people who “Like” your FB page is an essentially misleading, and almost meaningless metric.

But whether you’re a nonprofit museum, an activist organizer, a brand manager, or a guy with the most amazing Spin Doctors cover band you’ve ever seen, it’s the only metric you get.

The thing is, most of the time, nobody but first-time users visits your FB page. Most of the actual page traffic is going to be people just encountering what you have to offer on Facebook for the first time, exploring. After that, what really matters is not how many people Like your page, it’s how many people’s News Feeds you show up on.

The News Feed is the primary vehicle with which we explore the FB universe. It’s your firehose of information. But it’s not a firehose. At least it isn’t for many users. You see, Facebook defaults to “Top News,” not “Most Recent.” So for many users, the News Feed is curated for them by Facebook’s algorithms. And from what I can tell from some looking around, nobody seems to know much about those algorithms. Well, the engineer who designed News Feed just explains it by saying it’s a robot, but that just makes me feel talked down to.

Facebook has created the new Google Juice. Let’s call it FACEJUICE.

The beauty of FaceJuice is that it eliminates Search Engine Optimization, at least for the immediate future. You can game a search engine, at least somewhat, no matter how complex, as long as it behaves the same for every user. And while Google personalizes for those who log in, only a portion of their business is from users with accounts.

Basically everyone who uses Facebook, on the other hand, is tracked. They’re a member with an account. If you use it at home or at an internet cafe halfway across the globe, you’re going to log in before you get a really useful experience.

And because of that, the FaceJuice flows freely, the “robot” assigns value to every object a little differently, and Search Engine Optimization just can’t factor for every person. This is good for the individual user– it means that your news feed tends to be the most interesting, controversial, amusing, etc. posts from the people you interact with the most. It’s The Best Of Your Friends. And that’s nice. For the most part, nobody’s trying to game the system to sell you something.

And it works well for Facebook, because the only way to beat the system, to overcome the unpredictable rapids of FaceJuice, is to game the system by simply paying Facebook. Become an advertiser. Then, your FaceJuice doesn’t matter. You get guaranteed views, if not click throughs. And as an advertiser, you get more detailed metrics, analytic data, etc. So you can track if you’re actually connecting with the people you’re trying to sell to.

The one place where FaceJuice is not really an added value, but actually a major problem, is in group community building, organizing, and outreach for people who aren’t in it for the money, and don’t have the ad budget.

If you’re trying to organize a rally at city hall or promote your town’s local history museum, FaceJuice actively works against you, at least if you’re trying to use Facebook to get people interested and involved. You have no way of knowing how many of the people who “Like” your page actually get a given post. Or any of your posts. Probability would indicate that the more Fans you have, the more people’s News Feeds you’ll creep up onto, but there’s no way of knowing which posts are having the desired effect, getting the word out.

Did the last thing you posted on Facebook get zero responses because it wasn’t compelling to your followers, or because it was buried in FaceJuice? You have no way of knowing.

Since I’ve already brought up the Google comparison, let’s look at another part of the Googleverse– Youtube. Youtube has a nonprofit partnership program that adds value for nonprofits who want to use their platform to promote their causes, build their community, etc. Facebook seems to offer no such program. Although I’m sure they’re free to advertise.

All of this is all the more reason for nonprofits, organizers, and educators to not play in their garden. Right now Facebook is basically the only game in town– although that may not be true soon with the unveiling of Google Me and Diaspora. But even so, try to point as much of your content outside, so you can actually have analytics, and at least judge somewhat what the value of your participation on Facebook really is.

And stop counting Facebook fans. That number means nothing.