Paid Distribution Part 2: Facebook’s Not-So-Friendly Handshake

June 02, 2017

Paid distribution of branded content and its implementations are debated fiercely amongst the world’s top publishers. This is the second post in an ongoing, 4-part series around the topic. Further posts will tackle, Content Networks, and Strategies. Stay tuned!

As I discussed in my first post, publishers need to rethink how they approach the paid distribution of branded content. More specifically, I highlighted how some publishers have adopted a sophisticated, hybrid approach to their paid distribution – using their audience data when targeting in Facebook to extend the reach of their campaigns with appropriate audiences.

However, when it comes to Facebook and the promotion of branded content, there is more to the story. Over-reliance on this particular social platform can potentially raise serious issues for publishers.

At the highest level, social audiences are different than a publisher’s onsite audience. On social, users are in a passive discovery mode and from a brand loyalty perspective, they don’t access social networks to read editorial or custom content from a specific publisher. These readers will instead click on the first headline or image that peaks their interest. They are simply looking to surf the web and idly spend their time.

When that same audience is on a publisher’s site, they are in an active engagement mode. They are looking for content related to that specific publication, the subject matter covered, and the perspectives of specific writers or editors. Simply put, these readers are more likely to engage with the publisher’s content.

At the same time, Facebook has very different motives when it comes to the promotion of branded content within its environment. It’s no secret they are trying to grow this part of their business, but clearly have identity issues: are they an advocate for the publishers? the brands? the readers? or perhaps just themselves? Facebook will likely continue to tread a thin line between these different groups and their respective best interests. However, with recent news surrounding their Handshake Tool, we start to see where their true loyalties lie.

The Handshake Tool – or “Audience Optimization” as they call it – allows Facebook to de-prioritize branded content and neutralize its organic potential. All publishers and influencers are required to divulge any posts that promote branded content, and they are denoted with a “Paid” disclosure.

Facebook’s “Handshake Tool” as seen by publishers (left) and users (right).

While this is a fantastic and sorely needed disclosure element on Facebook, the amount of control it hands to Facebook is problematic. Not all content is equal. Millions of articles are posted to Facebook everyday and exactly how and what content migrates to the surface of people’s feeds is beyond what this short blog post can address. That being said, by requiring the “Paid” tag on promotions to branded content, Facebook now has the ability to future de-prioritize these posts and in turn require publishers to put more paid resources behind these posts to drive views and clicks. This makes Facebook more money.

Facebook has already done this to brands. When they forced brands to adopt the Brand Pages format, they took away their ability to create organic traffic and deprioritized them in the newsfeed unless they paid up. It worked for them in this space. So I’m confident this will too, work well for Facebook in generating more revenue.

The real challenge for publishers? – brands and agencies get transparency into this payment as well. They can now easily see how the publisher spent driving clicks to the branded content, and back-calculate details on the markup publishers are charging them.  They can also see how many of the total views to the content program were driven from Facebook.

Keep all this in mind when evaluating your distribution strategy; publishers should take a “me first” approach, avoiding both severing their organic options and over-relying on Facebook. The social network didn’t gain their revenue dominance by creating altruistic tools for brands and publishers. Once a publisher relies solely on their paid distribution, back-tracking is incredibly difficult and you are at their mercy.



JULY 2017

Polar’s Snapshot of Global Branded Content Performance presents the complete picture for major markets and publishers this past quarter.