How Facebook algorithms and a stupid post about cranky wine relate to the election

offbeat-home-wine-post

Around 9am last Thursday, Megan regrammed a silly Instagram picture of these bottles of amusingly-named wine. This set off an insane chain of events that resulted in, five days later, 13 million people seeing this piece of content.

Put another way, the weekend before one of the most divisive presidential elections in US history, the robots that serve America our information decided that what 13 million of us really needed to see was a throw-away post about wine labels that said "FUCK" on them.

For me as a publisher, this was an insane content marketing story to watch unfold. Come with me on this journey as I unpack what it says about the media, the work of my editors, my company, and even the American election.

First, let's talk about what this says about the work of my editors. It's a little agonizing for everyone that a throw-away post Megan regrammed from her phone (thumbing just a few words and ?!?!?s) reached more people than all the rest of our content combined this year. Not only that, but it did so by many orders of magnitude. Let's just bow our heads for a bit for all the effort that my editors (and editors everywhere!) put in to produce interesting, insightful, entertaining, or at least distracting content on the web… and how no matter how hard you work on stuff you think is important, it can be a piece of tossed-off fluff that goes crazy viral. Mad props to Megan for producing this post… sorry about all the hundreds of other posts that everyone ignores?

(…13 million people! Sorry, sorry. Let's get back to the point here.)

Second, let's talk about what this post did for my business. 13 million people saw the post, but here's how that translated into numbers of real value to me:

  • Since the post did not include a link to offbeathome.com, it garnered us almost no traffic. Of those 13 million people, only about 1000 of them a day found their way to offbeathome.com, which means traffic was up about 10%.
  • Of those 13 million people, roughly 8000 of them followed Offbeat Home on Facebook — that's a follower increase of 17%.
  • Despite the fact that the post promoted a business (who has to be fucking STOKED!) right now, it was not a sponsored or monetized post in any way. Promoting businesses via advertising is how my business makes money, and this post earned my business exactly $0.00.

Now, the value to my business may be a long tail — the 10% increase in traffic may help me sell future ads on the website! The increase in Facebook followers may help to continue boosting traffic! (I'm doubtful, given engagement rates — but one can hope.) Maybe the increase in visibility will bring in new sponsors? One can be hopeful, but one can also be realistic and say… probably not. Ultimately, this post got my business a little exposure and engagement, but no dolla dolla bills.

And finally, what does this say about Facebook itself and the way its algorithm chooses to spread content? Well, I have some MAJOR FEELS about this issue… which feel especially relevant on election day. I did a 10 minute FB live video to ramble my thoughts:

The tl;dr: I am totally baffled, and a little bit unsettled by the robots here. I love you, algorithms… but I do not always understand you.

The success of this nugget of content suggests that I have a lot of thinking to do about my business model. What role does a .com website play in a world of third-party social media platforms that want to be content management systems? What kinds of placement should we be selling? If my business is helping other businesses reach my readers, what can I learn about where those readers are and what they're looking for? These are big issues that a lot of publishers are thinking about right now… and it's a good thing I like thinking about them, because when you work on the web… there is no final product. It's constantly shifting, and you better genuinely enjoy shifting with it, because it never ends. Let's do this!

  1. I would be super interested to know how the reaction is going down over at Church & State wines…

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    • …RIGHT?! My sales manager has been in touch with them, but I'm not sure if she's heard anything back yet. Based on what I saw in our Facebook comments, they may not even be fully set up to distribute in the US yet.

    • I checked their FB page. They're happily welcoming new followers, so presumably it's going well.

  2. Does this remind anyone of the Basil post from a few years ago? No, just me? 🙂

    • I thought a lot about Basil! It was an SEO post, so while it was surprising… It was a slow, steady burn. This is a weird maaaaaassive spike… And way, waaaay bigger.

  3. What interests me the most about this is that I saw the original post on Instagram, smiled to myself and moved on to some happy kittens or some such insta-candyfloss. I then saw your post about something on Offbeat Home going viral and hopped on Facebook to have a look at what it was. I simply couldn't find it! It wasn't in my feed and didn't come up near the top of the offbeat home Facebook page, and I did a lot of scrolling. I was completely baffled until you explained which post it was. This clearly doesn't help you understand the robots any more, it's probably even more confusing now, but I thought I'd throw in my two cents about how very much the algorithms are deciding for us what we apparently want to know.

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    • Yep! This is the weirdness of the algorithm… it somehow shoved that post down the newfeeds of 13 million people, and yet if you actually WANT to see it, it's not actually that easy to find. That's the magic of Facebook: it serves things up for you, and then quietly buries everything it chooses not to serve up.

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  4. I am utterly fascinated by not only the success of that post, but also your thought process here. I'm currently re-fashioning my own business model so it's food for thought.

  5. Thank you so much for posting this. I think it's a really important conversation to be having…especially now post-election (WHAT IN THA ACTUAL FUCK)….how did media consumption affect be outcome, where are people consuming their media, and how does Facebook and its algorithms play a role….frankly, this is pretty shocking and slightly terrifying. I feel like the robots are controlling what we see. Well who controls the fucking robots? What is their agenda? I hope you're ok with me posting this to my Facebook (face palm) in the hopes that others see how ridiculous this is and perhaps start to question where/how they get their info. Who knows how many will actually see the content?? Sigh.

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  6. Just a random HI! And to let you know that your posts are fantastic and I devour each and every one (on all 3 sites, home, bride and here… however just got married so I'm a little wedding'd out right now.. but I digress.

    ANYWAY the point is, I wanted to pop in and say Thank you for making amazing content, both the fluff and the in-depth posts. Because of these Empire posts, I've changed the way I interact with my favourite sites, as well as my least favourite (refusing to add clicks / comments to negative sites and not give them the satisfaction of my interaction etc). It's also been helping me understand marketing as I prep (well prep would be generous, it's still very much a blobby idea in my brain noodle) for launching my own e-store. Somehow you take what I can't wrap my brain around in marketing books, and translate it into language that clicks instantly.

    I too do not understand Facebook's algorithms, but I do "get it" more now because of you. I too wasn't sure what had gone viral at first.. but I did find it and shared it tagging the wine lovers on my FB. With any luck it brought you more traffic 🙂
    OK I'll stop rambling now, just wanted to say thanks <3

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    • You are so welcome! I'm so glad I'm able to make the stupid language of "marketese" feel more accessible… like many industries, the marketing world makes up its own codified language to make what it's doing sound more interesting or important than it is. At its core, marketing is just persuasive storytelling focused on selling shit. It's just stories! Stories that hopefully make you money! 😛

      And as for the Facebook algorithms, being confused is sort of the point. Algorithms can get gamed — all the shady folks doing gross SEO trying to trick Google know this very well. The same is true of Facebook. Basically, both Google and Facebook have created a window to content that publishers can try to use organically… or you can just pay Google or Facebook money to end up at the top. Tale as old as time….

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  7. So… I fucking love this blog. It's my favorite. Thank you for taking the time to SHARE what so many of us are thinking!

    And as a FB data junkie myself … this story is SO relevant. So close to home. So beautifully, ironically poignant. OF COURSE the algo-bot knew that on the eve of an election, silly wines are what we needed. Facebook is no place to be elitist, clearly. But those new Page Engagement Custom Audiences in Power Editor will be stellar.

    In the meantime, let's not overlook the obvious hint. I need snarky Offbeat Empire wine. STAT.

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  8. One of the right wing groups in the UK garnered itself a massive social media following by sharing memorial posts about dead celebrities. People would see a nice pic with the celebrity, a quote, and "share if you miss [dead celebrity]" and they'd do it. Then they'd see more from that page. Then they'd start seeing stuff from other pages with similar interests to the right wing group. They saw more posts from friends who also liked and shared stuff from the right wing pages. The echo chamber was built around people without them ever even expressing an interest in the original right wing group or it's philosophies.

    (and then a guy assassinated a politician shouting the group's name, and somehow people keep insisting that it's only ISIS that uses the internet to radicalise people, not white supremacists)

    I have a strong suspicion the reason posts like yours and theirs go viral on facebook is partly because there's so little content facebook can't figure out who not to show it to. It just figures wine = over 18s, and then shows it to everyone who's ever liked a post on your page, or has a friend who liked a post on your page, or has liked a post about wine, or swearing, or has a friend who has. Both companies have paid for advertising in the past, so facebook wants to show off to you how far it can make things go. And suddenly… virality.

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