This blog post was originally published on Gabriella's personal website
The other day, I was chatting with Katharina F. Heil, President of the Erasmus Mundus Students and Alumni Association (EMA). I volunteer on EMA’s Management Board and I will soon be managing EMA's social media presence, so we were discussing a future social media strategy for the large alumni association. Katharina mentioned that another large alumni association that we often partner with, Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA), is going off of Facebook. You read that right, completely leaving the platform. This was news to me! A huge organisation with such a huge network—over 17,000 members representing 140+ nationalities all around the world—completely removing themselves from one of the biggest social media platforms? I was really surprised by the news, but my first thought after the shock wore off was ‘I kind of dig that…’. Facebook isn’t what it used to be. First of all, Gen Z views Facebook as a bunch of old people who don't understand social media, and fewer and fewer young people are using the platform, which means a large decline in possible target audiences. And even if those younger people are still scrolling through Facebook, they’re definitely not posting or engaging as much. Organic reach is so minimal, the only option for many businesses and organisations is advertising. This is the so-called ‘pay to play’ model: you can’t play (get engagement, make sales, gain followers, etc.) if you don’t pay. And people do pay. They pay a lot because Facebook’s targeted ads are very targeted. If you watched ‘The Social Dilemma’ (2020) on Netflix, then you know what I’m talking about: how our information is gathered by the tiniest bits of data, turned into detailed information about what we like, who we like, where we live, what we want, and then sold in the form of targeted advertising options.
Ethical concerns around Facebook are definitely growing. That’s one of the biggest reasons MCAA is leaving the platform. In a statement, they wrote: “Our core values include openness and communication. We work tirelessly to guarantee the privacy and the rights of our members, to establish clear ethical practices, and to advocate for an informed society where it is easy to access sources of information and weigh their credibility. Facebook, one of the digital giants shaping today’s society, has neglected those same values. From the Cambridge Analytica Scandal (read more here) onwards, the news stream of questionable Facebook activities has been uninterrupted. Facebook was involved in the distribution of fake news, troll bots, and hate discussion that influenced the democratic debate, in Europe and overseas. The company has leaked and sold personal data to controversial companies. It has executed dubious practices, including paying minors for using their services and investigating competitors. And this list represents only a brief summary of what has happened in recent times.This is why the MCAA has decided to leave Facebook. We refuse to endorse a company that contributes to spreading fake news and creating a disinformed society. We believe in a connected society where social media can have a broad and positive impact, and not at the price of transparency and ethical practices. We advocate for constructive debate and for the diffusion of knowledge. We believe that our voice on Facebook is too often overpowered by forces that favour populist movements and shallow, if not purposely misleading, discussions.” - MCAA Website Despite all these negatives, is leaving the platform really the right move for businesses and organisations who need to reach wide audiences and who rely on social media for marketing and engagement? The MCAA announcement got me thinking: is this the future? Is MCAA the first of many organisations to move away from Facebook? And if that’s the case, what are they moving toward? There is no single social media platform now that can 100% replace Facebook and which doesn’t raise the same ethical concerns or have a similar ‘pay-to-play’ model. I can’t imagine a renowned association for alumni of various PhD programmes, such as MCAA, suddenly switching their social media strategy to focus on Tik Tok, or maybe the next up-and-coming, majorly exclusive social media platform, Clubhouse. I posed the question and asked for reflections in one of my favourite Facebook groups (no, the irony of that is not lost on me), ‘Freelancing Females’. I received an overwhelming number of responses, and here are some interesting viewpoints from several experienced social media managers: Terese Mörtvik, owner of TEMOCC, a hybrid agency in communication, marketing and organization, said, “With Facebook's aggressive algorithm, people just aren't pressing like or commenting like they used to. They're afraid that they will get stalked by content from the same sender if they do. They like you, just not THAT much, if you know what I mean. So they have become a lot more discerning in what they engage with and it's even more about pushing the right buttons than before. The content can't just be good, it needs to connect with them on a personal level. [...] I completely agree that Facebook is draining as a social media manager. Though I feel like all social media has become a nightmare in terms of generating organic reach for a company.” So, if the solution is not to completely leave Facebook, what is the solution? How can we keep a presence there, especially on a platform where we often find our voices drowned out by pop-culture debates, bullying, or political shouting? Is there a space for those who want to have meaningful connections without spending a ton of money on advertisements? In my opinion, the answer is Facebook’s Groups feature. Looking at my own Facebook usage, I barely spend time scrolling through my newsfeed anymore, but am very active in several Groups in topics ranging from curly hair care to travel groups, Things Found in Walls, and Freelancing Females. Facebook’s Groups is where it’s at, colloquially speaking. Groups are often private, and sometimes have exclusive membership for only certain people, which make them a good option for an alumni organisation, for example. The group members are interested in the specific niche topic that the group focuses on, and they want to be there, want to interact. Members often have to state why they want to enter a group and have to follow rules that administrators enforce, which also make the groups a more safe space than just posting on your feed, which can be one solution to the ethical concerns that MCAA had. Additionally, Groups content is prioritized by the Facebook algorithm, increasing the visibility. Ryan Holmes, founder of Hootsuite, wrote on Medium: “[Facebook] recalibrated its algorithms to prioritize engagement with friends, family and Groups, while downranking public content shared by businesses, brands and media. Under the auspices of community building, we’re now seeing significantly more posts from Groups on our feeds and fewer posts from company Pages or media publishers.” This means that if an organisation publishes a post in a group, more people will probably see it in their home feeds as well. You might have noticed too that Group content is everywhere these days!
Instead of leaving Facebook completely, joining or forming niche groups can allow for organisations and businesses to reach more people than through their own page, and specifically reach people who are already guaranteed to be interested in that topic. As Mollie Rittenhouse, founder of Second House Creative, a social media and marketing agency, told me in the Freelancing Females Facebook group: “Facebook groups are everything, [but] depending on the business, I believe it's important to have a presence on FB, even if it's just 1 post a week that links to your blog or podcast.” Deleting your official page and only being in a group may not be the answer, but keeping a minimal presence on your official page while engaging the most in groups can really help you achieve your social media goals. The lesson here is that social media platforms change, and you have to change with them. Instead of pouring all your efforts, energy, and money into your Facebook page or ads (or even leaving the platform completely), consider keeping your page with minimum management but spend your time engaging in meaningful discussions in groups, where you can keep your engagement levels high, minimise the risk of the ethical concerns you have, and maintain a connection to your network. At least, that’s what I’ll be focusing on with EMA’s social media strategy when it comes to Facebook.