Thomas Umstattd, Jr. wrote this post as part of his podcast at AuthorMedia. I asked permission to make it available to you as well. This is extremely important to understand for authors and publishers trying to use Facebook as part of their marketing efforts.
Check out the great work Thomas is doing to help authors navigate the labyrinth called “publishing” at AuthorMedia.com.
Growing up, we had a book of business phone numbers called the Yellow Pages. It was delivered to our house every year. When new technology made printing yellow pages cheaper and easier, we received three different yellow-pages business directories from three different companies in a single year.
Then, the yellow pages stopped coming. The same technology that made printing yellow pages easy and profitable eventually killed the yellow pages. Why look up a phone number in a year-old book when you can search Google and get a current contact number plus reviews?
The same thing happened to the typewriter. The electronic typewriter was a huge development in printing and communication, and some models even had a built-in spell checker! But the same electronic technology that made typewriters better and cheaper ended up killing them off altogether.
The best days for a piece of technology often come right before the worst days.
As an author, you don’t want to be caught printing yellow pages when the world is about to abandon that technology for the next big development.
Facebook is about to undergo a major transition. They’ve made big announcements about the changes they are going to make to the platform. In addition, Apple and Google have also made announcements that will change how Facebook works. Facebook in 2021 will not be like Facebook in 2020, and that’s not speculation. The CEOs of all three companies have publicly announced the changes to their investors in their corporate-earnings calls.
These changes will have massive consequences for authors, and you need to know what’s coming. You can either surf the waves of change or be sucked underwater by them.
The best way to surf the waves of change is to know they’re coming. To do that, you need to know where they came from.
So, let’s start with a short history of Facebook.
A Short History of Facebook Marketing for Authors
I first got on Facebook in 2005 when it was only for college students. At first, Facebook was just a list of profiles, like a list of “About” pages. You would upload your photo, your class schedule, and your interests. Since you were only allowed to post one photo, many students changed their photos every day. I remember walking through the computer lab seeing guys at every computer scrolling through pages of photos of their female classmates. In those days, it really was a book of faces.
Later, Facebook added the wall feature. Students could post updates on how they were feeling, and they could view the walls of other students. You could also write on someone else’s wall.
Around that same time, Facebook added Groups. Initially, these groups correlated with existing campus groups. I was in a Facebook group of football fans at my school and a group for members of my small group at church.
Many Facebook groups were political from the very start; so, of course, the local chapter of college Republicans and college Democrats both had Facebook groups. About half the Facebook groups I belonged to in those early days were political. But politics in those days were a little bit different.
Some of the most popular groups on Facebook at that time were committed to a cause:
- Protesting Facebook’s new newsfeed feature
- Mourning Pluto’s loss of planetary status
- Protesting allowing high school students on Facebook.
We all knew that letting our younger siblings get on Facebook would lead to something worse: our moms getting on Facebook. Perish the thought!
In those days, Facebook was also a dating app. When you added someone as a friend, you could also add how you became friends. Options included “had a class together” and “hooked up with,” among others.
Facebook advertising was limited. Ads were called “campus fliers,” and they were mainly a way to spread the word about campus activities. I liked it because, at my small, private university, it was the best way around the campus censors. If you wanted to post a paper flier in the student union, you had to first get permission from the school. But that rule didn’t apply to Facebook’s campus fliers.
I know it sounds strange now, but Facebook used to be a beacon of free speech.
Eventually, Facebook opened to the public and allowed companies to create fan pages.
Fan Pages were a great way for authors to talk directly to their readers. If an author posted a status update or photo to her fan page, every single fan would get that post in their timeline. The more fans you had, the bigger your “platform” was. Publishers paid close attention to how many fans an author had on Facebook.
The First Rise and Fall of Facebook Groups
To promote the new fan pages, Facebook diminished groups until they were nearly impossible to find. I looked for the original “When I was your age, Pluto was a planet” group that once had millions of members; and it looks like Facebook removed all but 26,000 members. But I suspect they removed all the members, and 26,000 people have rejoined the group years later. I found an archived article about the group, and this Wired article looking back on the group from 2007.
In 2010, Facebook killed off these “Version Zero Groups.” If you were an author using a Facebook group to connect to your readers, your connection was severed. Your platform was gone. The groups feature was later reborn as a crippled version of its former self, and many groups were encouraged (or forced) to transform into pages. For years, the best way to interact with your readers was through a fan page.
The Rise and Fall of Facebook Pages
Facebook kept pushing pages and eventually dropped the word “fan” in favor of the word “like.” Instead of becoming a “fan” of a page, users “liked” the page. Around this time, they added a like button to everything. Now users could click the iconic like button on posts, photos, web pages, and blog posts.
Pages and profiles posted more and more content to the news feed. If you had 150 friends who posted twice each day and you “liked” 50 pages, you would have 400 pieces of content to see and sort through. That’s overwhelming!
So, Facebook started to filter what users saw and didn’t see first. This gave Facebook more control over how users viewed the world. It also set them up for their billion-dollar platform change.
At that time, the go-to Facebook marketing strategy was to buy Facebook ads to get more fans. Once someone liked your page, you could reach them for free with your posts. The more fans you bought with ads, the bigger your “platform” was.
Then Facebook changed the algorithm. Suddenly a page’s posts didn’t go to all fans. It was only shown to some fans. First, it was 50%, then it was 25%, then 15%, then even less. I worked with clients who spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads to acquire fans, only to learn they could no longer reach all those fans for free.
To reach all their fans, they would have to pay again to “Boost the Post” so all their fans could see it. Facebook made billions of dollars charging users to reach fans they had previously reached for free. Authors and companies had to pay between $5 and $500 to reach the fans they purchased through ads in the first place.
Today, most users can scroll for a long time on Facebook without seeing a single organic post from a Facebook page. If you do see a post from a Facebook page, it’s likely an ad. The only way pages can reach their fans is to advertise. I did a couple of videos and a podcast episode about these changes in 2018.
The Rise and Fall of Facebook Live
Around 2016, Facebook started to push their live video feature called Facebook Live. Whenever you started a live video, Facebook would notify your fans that you were live. When your fans started watching your video, their friends would be notified that they were watching your video. For a while, Facebook Live was an incredibly effective way to reach new people. If you could be interesting and keep people watching, you could get hundreds or even thousands of people watching you.
Facebook started slowly tuning down the feature in terms of how much promotion authors received inside the platform. Friends of fans stopped getting notifications, and the exposure declined from there.
Then the Christchurch Mosque Shooting was streamed on Facebook Live. After that, Facebook tuned the feature so far down that you rarely see live videos on Facebook.
Today, if you want people to watch your live video, you need to email them beforehand and get them to put it on their calendar, so they remember to tune in.
The Second Rise and Fall of Facebook Groups
After nerfing Facebook pages, Facebook decided to resurrect them with a whole new version of the groups feature. Groups grew in importance, so much so that Facebook’s 2020 Superbowl Ad was all about Facebook groups.
For the last couple of years, an author’s go-to strategy was to create a group revolving around their book. In the group, authors could talk directly to readers, and readers could talk to each other.
This brings us to 2021. When I log into Facebook, I see a few posts from friends, a bunch of ads from pages, and posts from groups.
Mark Zuckerberg laid out his vision for the upcoming changes to Facebook in his most recent earnings call. Zuckerberg said, “We can make it so that groups on Facebook are not just a feed and a place where you post some content.”
But that is exactly how many authors use Facebook groups, and now it’s going away.
The groups feature inside of Facebook will be overhauled and deprioritized inside Facebook. That means fewer readers will see group posts, especially group posts that don’t map to local, real-world groups. For instance, a Facebook group for “readers of a knitting book” will get deprioritized more than the local “Austin, TX Knitting Club” group.
What should authors do?
First and most importantly, get the email addresses of your group members as quickly as possible. Remember, Facebook has destroyed the groups feature before. We don’t know how far they will go to disconnect you from your readers. The changes are already underway, so move quickly.
You must be able to contact your readers regardless of what Facebook does. You need a reliable way to let readers know about your future books and about the future location of the community if you have to move. The icebergs are sinking. While you don’t know if your iceberg is sinking, you should jump off while the iceberg still floats.
In addition to collecting email addresses, you may want to set up a MeWe group as a backup. MeWe is a rapidly growing alternative to Facebook. I have been stunned at the rapid growth in the Novel Marketing MeWe Group. MeWe works like Facebook worked in 2010. All posts are shown in chronological order, and there is no filter to determine what posts users see first.
Many older authors have a bias against MeWe because the name sounds funny. If this is you, please realize that disliking the name is a bad reason to miss out on what might be the next big social network.
What I am doing
Currently, I manage three Facebook groups. I have one for Obscure No More, one for the Book Launch Blueprint, and one for Novel Marketing listeners.
I plan to move all my groups to my own social network. I am tired of relying on free platforms. The platform I’m considering is called Circle.so. Circle will allow me to create an Author Media community that is integrated with my courses. Circle’s Teachable integration is not available yet, but as soon as it is, I plan to start the migration.
I do not recommend this move for most authors. Circle costs between $40 and $200 a month. That is more than most authors can pay for a community. Once I launch my new groups, it won’t cost you anything to join, but it will cost me a monthly fee to maintain them.
The Rise and Fall of Facebook Ads
Facebook ads have come a long way since I bought campus fliers promoting Senior Skip Day. Over the years, I have managed roughly $100,000 in Facebook advertising spend for various clients. I have seen Facebook’s advertising platform change.
At first, the main way to target people was by targeting the pages they liked. An author who spent a small fortune getting Facebook fans actually helped competitors because they could then target her fans on Facebook. These ads often had the format “If you like author X, you will love author Y.” We didn’t realize it at the time, but that early advertising helped competitors as much as it helped the author.
But the tools available to advertisers now are far more robust. Facebook knows more about its users than they know about themselves, and that’s why Facebook ads are so eerily relevant. Facebook gives authors access to their big data through the use of “lookalike audiences.” Anytime you target a “lookalike audience,” you are using Facebook’s neural network to find people whom Facebook thinks will be a good fit for your ad.
The more data Facebook has about a person, the more accurately it can predict their behavior and interests. It is so good at this, there is a superstition that Facebook listens to you through the microphone on your phone. It doesn’t, but what is scary is that it doesn’t need to. Facebook has enough metadata on you it doesn’t need to listen to you, which is scary in its own right. Facebook can predict what you are going to want before you want it. In short, more data means more effective ads, which means more money for Facebook.
Many indie authors discovered they could find and target readers of specific niches and turn a profit with Facebook advertising. Even some traditional authors have successfully used Facebook ads to grow their email lists by promoting their reader magnets.
Facebook is not making major changes to its ads platform, but its ads will change regardless.
Why? Because of Apple.
Apple announced its plan to add significant privacy improvements to iOS. In short, Facebook will have to ask Apple device users for permission to track their online behavior, and most users will tap “no” when asked.
In Silicon Valley, they say, “The devil is in the defaults.” By default, Facebook tracks the user’s behavior all over the web. Facebook knows what websites you visit and what you do on those websites. They know the best place to hide a dead body is behind the “advanced settings” link on a privacy page because no one ever goes there. But the new version of iOS will present a popup asking users for specific permission to track them around the web.
That tiny change will make all the difference.
Most users are too intimidated by Facebook’s complicated privacy pages to dig through them and forbid web and cross-app tracking. But if users are presented with a simple yes/no question, most of them will click “no.”
Facebook is not a fan of these changes.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, had a hissy fit about them in the latest Facebook earnings call. Facebook does not want iPhone users to have a simple yes/no choice about whether Facebook can track what websites they visit. They want the privacy page to be intimidating because the more data Facebook collects, the more money they make.
Facebook has been protesting Apple’s privacy changes in full-page newspaper ads. They’re waging a PR campaign against Apple. Their campaign argues, “These new privacy protections will hurt small businesses.” So far, the campaign has not worked; and Apple is standing strong for user privacy.
Google saw how much goodwill Apple received from the announcement of this change, and now they have announced that they might implement similar privacy changes on Android. That said, Google tracks users and sells the data just like Facebook. So Google is less financially motivated to protect user privacy than Apple.
At this point, it’s hard to say what Google will do for sure.
While iPhone users make up a minority of users, they have an outsized impact for advertisers because they are wealthier and more educated on average. This is especially important for authors because it is believed that iPhone users buy more books than Android users.
What These Changes Mean for Authors
If you advertise your books on Facebook, you may have a harder time finding new readers. As Facebook collects less personal information about readers, your ads may become less effective and more expensive. If the costs of reader acquisition increase enough, it may become impossible to advertise on Facebook profitably.
Facebook is expecting a 60% decrease in revenue for advertisers. Many advertisers may find that Facebook ads no longer work, and they will stop buying them. We can’t know for sure if that will happen, but Facebook is clearly terrified.
That said, Facebook’s stock price is trading near all-time highs. Investors do not seem to believe Facebook’s advertising revenue will fall off a cliff. Who knows? Perhaps the changes won’t be as big as we think. Or perhaps the hedge funds are missing out on making a killing shorting Facebook.
This change may hurt larger advertisers, and Facebook ads may end up getting cheaper for indie authors.
As Yoda said, “Impossible to see the future is.”
What should authors do with their Facebook ads?
If you advertise on Facebook, track the performance of your ads carefully. Just because they were working last month doesn’t mean they will work this month. If you start losing money on your ads, Apple’s privacy changes may be the reason. On the other hand, your ads may become more profitable as other advertisers drop out. The only way to know what’s happening is to measure.
I have a couple of episodes that will help you measure your data:
I have been on Facebook since the beginning. For years, I’ve told authors that Facebook isn’t a good place to build a platform. Facebook is a foundation of constantly shifting sand. Authors who invest a lot of time and money in Facebook may see all their efforts turn to nothing overnight.
Imagine an author who got into Version Zero of Facebook Groups. She invested countless hours inviting and interacting with readers, and suddenly it was gone.
Imagine the author who spent a small fortune promoting her author page so she could reach her readers for free only to learn that reaching those same readers would now cost her $50 per post.
Imagine the author who grew a following around her Facebook Live video streams only to see her viewer numbers drop off a cliff. She may have wondered if she had alienated her audience or didn’t have what it took to go live. But in reality, Facebook changed the algorithm due to an event on the other side of the world; and her platform was destroyed in the crossfire.
Since the beginning of the Novel Marketing Podcast, I’ve taught that authors should build their platforms on digital real estate they own. That means having their own website and email list.
When I started recording episodes in 2013, authors were often told they didn’t need a website. A Facebook page and Google+ page were supposedly the only digital real estate an author needed. Facebook and Google+ were free, so why waste money on a website?
Now Google+ is gone, and Facebook has changed a dozen times since then; and it is changing again.
We addressed this belief in episode #2 of the podcast. It was titled, “Do authors still need a website?”
Spoiler warning: Yes. Yes, authors still need an author website.
In that episode, we talked about the decline of MySpace and how websites and email were more effective and reliable ways to communicate with readers. It was true eight years ago, it is true now, and it will still be true eight years from now.
Don’t build your platform on shifting sand! Don’t build your platform on Facebook.
If you want help building a website, I encourage you to take my free course 7 Secrets of Amazing Author Websites. It will show you how to build your own amazing author website even if you are not a techie person. You will learn how to craft the kind of website your readers will love. Best part? This course is 100% free.
Students who have never built a website discover that by the time they’ve completed this course, their own website is live on the Internet. Sometimes they do it in a single day.
In this course you will get:
- Step-by-step video guide on how to get started with Bluehost
- Step-by-step video guide on how to set up the Divi theme
- Video tour of the WordPress dashboard
- 7 Secrets of Amazing Author Websites