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Facebook EdgeRank and what it means for publishers

November 1, 2011
Image of Bill Shankly

Social media more important than life and death? Bill Shankly may have had a view on that!

Had a great conversation yesterday with a friend of mine in the US. After talking about how the leaves on the trees combined with heavy snow to cause pandemonium on the streets of America, our conversation turned to the effectiveness of social media – and, to coin a neologism, “virality“. A natural turn of events in a conversation, as you might expect…

The conversation was timely because in yesterday’s Publishing Perspectives, the question was raised: how much is social media visibility really worth? A question which should further be asked is this: do your marketers know what they’re doing in order to be able to measure its effects?

In today’s social-media world, many long-in-the-tooth publishers (and many younger ones too) act like rabbits in the (allegedly proverbial) headlights when social media is mentioned. There seems to be an acceptance that if the company has a Facebook site and does things on Twitter then everything is fine and dandy. Some publishers have a place on Facebook or Twitter and that, it seems, is that – boxes ticked; “we’re doing social media”.

Well yes and no. Take a look at many publishers’ social media pages and really you wonder what the difference is between aimless meandering on Facebook and equally pointless mass mailings of brochures to a bought-in mailing list.

The entries are dull in many cases: “new book on copywriting by Alf Scrivener launched today”; “don’t forget that Arthur Crown will be talking on Twitter today about Mediaeval Numismatics”; “Professor Wolfgang Beer-Wolff will be discussing his book on Early English Poetry and  Christian Eschatological Typology on the French Radio Show Non-Plus at 10.30 today – catch it if you can”.

Little wonder that chairmen and women and managing directors up and down the kingdom are looking at their overheads and asking themselves why they’re paying someone to do this. Although, as we have seen, they know it has to be done. What’s the real story then?

The social media story, in a nutshell, is this: interact frequently and relevantly to customers and prospects who matter to you. Facebook calls this process EdgeRank.  As they say in my home town, “you what?

In Facebook Newsfeed – the core display area – Facebook classifies each news item you produce on your site as an “object” and, when someone interacts – either by liking, or – better – by commenting on your post, the object then has an “edge”. The more interactions, the greater the edge rank. As Facebook explains on its site:

The News Feed algorithm uses several factors, including: how many friends are commenting on a certain piece of content, who posted the content, and what type of content it is (e.g. photo, video, or status update).

If you feel you are missing stories you’d like to see or seeing stories in your News Feed that you don’t want to see, use the different News Feed Controls to adjust your settings and give us feedback about your preferences.”

The incredibly clever algorithm which controls those stories that appear examines three areas:

  1. Affinity  between the viewing user and the edge creator (where the edge creator is the person who comments, tags etc)
  2. Weight of the edge type (e.g. tag, comment etc) – comments, for example, may show greater interaction than a plain “like”
  3. Time decay – a factor determined by how long ago the edge was created

As can be appreciated, the greatest science is rendered greater by those who know how to exploit it. And here something happens which old marketers have known about for years: you need to know who your customers are, what they like, and how they behave. Measurement, therefore, is crucial.

Yet even at this point, some publishers still act like dodos on Mauritius – they know it would help if they could learn to fly yet nothing’s happened so far to encourage them to do so. Until a British warship laden with hungry sailors appears on the horizon…

Facebook engagement is not about having another conduit for your “unique” take on things. That’s merely brand extension by subtle copywriting technique. Instead, it’s about understanding the very nuance of your brands and triggering relevant “hot buttons” in the minds of your customer base.

This is particularly crucial when you reflect that Facebook populates different people’s “walls” with stories which its algorithms determine have relevance beyond the wall where the story started. It’s when friends of friends start to pass on material that stories go viral. Which is why it is that Facebook marketers need to understand the very blood of their product relevance when crafting entries.

So, going back to the Publishing Perspectives question: how much is social media visibility really worth? Well, a lot, actually – if you know what you’re doing. As with all marketing, ask yourself this question: what do you want your customers to do and why does this matter to me? This one question will then open the doors to measurability.

Companies like Starbucks (25+ million friends and counting), Coca Cola (35 million) and Adidas Originals (11 million) engage with customers and prospects big time. They will measure impact on a global scale: sales in peak periods; leveraged sales through promotional activity by region or season; sales through given store chains. All is measured and tested, time and again.

What is clear, though, is that a comparison between number of friends and given response to a social media initiative by statistical analysis alone does not make compelling reading for those looking only at stats.

Take Adidas as an example, yesterday they had a hallowe’en feature which attracted (at time of writing) 994 likes, 152 comments and 81 shares: a total of 1227 interactions from a universe of 11,304,352 – a potential “response rate” of 0.0001%. Yes, on the face of it, not good. Using other statistics, Adidas has 60,156 people “talking about” it on Facebook – 0.005% of its universe. Hmm – that’s a subscription product response rate if ever I saw one.

Statistics are not the main thing here – but they tell you when you’re engaging in the right with with your customers and when you’re not. You can compare campaign with campaign, entry with entry, to assess brand engagement, learn and develop your marketing. But never forget that there has to be a commercial imperative at the end.

In these frightening days of publishers selling their shirts to the book trade and to Amazon just to stay relevant and visible, Facebook and social media permits two things: brand relevance in getting people to choose your products in the retail outlets and, more crucially, brand engagement and getting people to buy your products from your own website. Assuming, one hopes, that your website allows people to buy directly from you…

So is social media really worth the effort. You bet – but only if you understand the concept of EdgeRank and – crucially – what makes your customers tick. Facebook writing must NOT be palmed off onto some junior lackey or someone who fancies a bit of social media. Like all marketing, it’s too important to be left to rank amateurs and corporate gadflies.

But neither is Facebook just something to hand to marketing who are told to “get on with it”. As the late, great Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly might have said: “Some people believe that Facebook is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed in that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

Or, to cite one of his more pithy statements: “If you are first, you are first. If you are second, you are nothing“.

Measure, test, refine, change, get better. Ignore how social media works at your peril.


Image of Bill Shankly courtesy of Liverpool FC website, with apologies.

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