Facebook is changing – this See Through News project helps local businesses save money via effective climate action
If you know how Facebook advertising works, and just want to get to the bit where local businesses can save money by measurably reducing carbon, just skip to the bottom of this article.
If you don’t, here’s the step-by-step…
- Local businesses everywhere need to alert their community to their business or event
- Effective local advertising often requires money
- Facebook is the world’s biggest platform for local business advertising
- Recent changes in Facebook’s algorithm allow businesses to reach more people for less money
- See Through News exploits this tweak to incentivise businesses to save money by reducing carbon
How ‘Local’ Newspaper Advertising Now Works
‘Local’ newspapers continue to successfully dupe local businesses. Here’s how.
Before the Internet, local newspapers had two revenue streams:
- Selling dead trees (subscriptions for paper editions)
- Selling advertising printed on those dead trees (classified local businesses ads)
The Internet obliterated both revenue streams. Hardly anyone buys physical newspapers any more. Many local titles have abandoned paper editions altogether, and moved entirely online.
Advertising revenue still exists, but has become a complex transaction involving a critical third party – social media.
Silicon Valley now intervenes, and when it comes to local businesses the major player is Facebook. The vast majority of a local paper’s advertising revenue (around 80% on average) comes via their Facebook Pages.
The movie The Social Dilemma brilliantly illustrates the subtle mechanics of this new transaction, but in brief, advertising is an eyeballs businesses, and Facebook has all the eyeballs.
The Eyeball Business and local advertising
Very few people use local newspapers’ websites, nearly everyone uses their Facebook Pages. This has allowed Facebook to cream off the lion’s share of advertising revenue (also around 80% of total local advertising spend), leaving local newspapers to survive on the scraps.
That’s why so many venerable local newspapers became functionally bankrupt, and were snapped up by corporate agglomerators. Facebook’s dominance of local advertising has been a major driver behind these corporate behemoths’ cost-cutting business model. They sacked reporters and editors, and replaced them with digital brand managers, ‘SEO journalists’, and filled the pages they used to write with robot-written articles, user-generated content and concealed advertisements.
The resulting decline in journalistic ethical standards, negative impact on local democracy, and the obstacle that presents to effective climate action, are what the See Through News Newspaper Review Project seeks to expose.
Local papers, however, encourage local businesses to keep thinking there’s a direct correlation between the fees they charge, and the number of local eyeballs seeing their ads.
The reality is more complex. For any business that wants to save money and advertise effectively, it’s important to understand exactly how it works.
How your ‘local’ paper dupes local businesses
When people – including local businesses – think of ‘Facebook’, they usually think of Facebook Pages.
Pages form the backbone of Facebook’s phenomenal success. Facebook Pages are the reason every month around 3Bn of the 7.9Bn people on Earth use a Meta service.
Nowhere is the reason for this popularity clearer than local businesses advertising to local people – unlike weekly printed classified ads, ads on Facebook reache way more people, and get instant live responses.
As they did less journalism, and turned into advertising platforms for global hedge funds, ‘local’ papers switched their sales pitch to local businesses. Their glossy Media Packs no longer cite their plummeting print circulation figures when convincing customers to pay them for local ads.
Instead, they tot up the cumulative ‘reach’ of their Facebook Pages, deliberately conflating these numbers with the old-fashioned circulation figures.
They can sound pretty compelling to local businesses. Unless you’re quite expert in understanding social media algorithms, it’s easy to be duped.
Needless to say, your ‘local’ paper isn’t going to enlighten you how meaningless their figures are.
So we will.
What those impressive ‘Page Followers’ Numbers Actually Mean
What does that impressive number of Facebook Page followers really tell us?
This number is where most local business owners’ understanding of how Facebook works usually reaches its limits. This suits the local paper fine, as the truth makes their advertising charges hard to justify.
What’s the important thing for someone currently paying for advertising in their local paper to understand?
A Facebook Page’s total Followers is NOT the same as an independently-certified newspaper circulation.
It’s simply a historic total of the number of individual profiles that have, since the Page was set up, clicked ‘Like’. It therefore includes:f
- Dead people
- People who no longer live in the local area
- People who no longer use Facebook
- People who were only ever interested in one particular post
- Tourists or visitors who have no ongoing interest in the local area
So a local newspaper Facebook Page created 15 years ago that has 30,000 Followers, might, if it’s lucky, have around half that number of active current local residents who might see a local business’s ad.
Facebook presumably has a pretty accurate notion of how many Page Followers are acrive, but it’s not in their interest to let anyone else know.
It’s actually even worse…
Local paper’s media pack implies (but doesn’t actually promise), that all those Page Followers see every ad, but this isn’t true even if they were all active.
Facebook only places their post, with your ad, on the timelines of a tiny proportion of its total Page Followers. Facebook calls this the ‘organic’ reach.
The larger the Page following, the smaller the percentage of Followers Facebook includes in this organic reach. For a Page with 30K ‘Followers’, of whom probably only 15K are active local Facebook users, the ‘organic’ reach granted by the Facebook algorithm would typically be in the range of 0.5-2% of the total Followers.
In order to be seen by more, a Facebook Page admin must pay Facebook to ‘boost’ the number of people who see your ad. This is how Facebook makes money.
Local newspapers are reluctant to pay for additional reach. Why would they? Apart from eating into their narrowing margins, there’s no need.
Indeed, boasting about boosting would only draw attention to the low numbers of eyeballs that actually see the advertising local businesses pay for. So long as advertisers keep paying their monthly advertising fees, often out of habit, a ‘local’ paper has zero incentive to reveal the actual number of people who see your ads on their timeline.
Take that local newspapers with 30K Followers. The number of them who actually see your ad could be 1% of that, i.e. 150 people.
So when you pay your local paper for online advertising, that’s what you’re buying.
Facebook makes its money by limiting the proportion of a Page’s followers who can see a post – the more popular a page, the smaller the proportion of its followers who Facebook will show it.
By contrast, an engaging post in a Group can be seen by up to 100% of a Private Group’s members, and really popular ones can be seen by many multiples of a Public Group’s membership. This is because posts in Public Group, unlike those in Private Groups, can be shared outside the Group.
So in summary, Facebook:
- constrains the number of people you reach via a Page post
- puts no limit on how many people you can reach via a Group post
Why Groups are replacing Pages
Facebook Groups have been around for a long time, but are suddenly becoming very popular.
This is partly a Facebook push, the result of its boffins gradually tweaking its algorithm to favour Groups over Pages,
It’s also partly customer pull, the result of us becoming fed up with being ‘sold’ things by Pages (AKA Profiles), whether corporate or personal. We prefer feeling like we’re part of a group.
Facebook Groups are collectives of like-minded people, united by something in commong, whether it’s a specialist interest, or a common geography.
The collapse in local newspaper circulations, as they cut more staff, and stuff their pages with more ads, has given rise to ‘news deserts and ghost newspapers’.
But in such deserts, people still need to buy and sell, seek plumber recommendations, discover local events, find lost cats, warn of local rogue traders etc..
This void has been filled by local Facebook groups, like local Buy & Sell Groups, Market Places or Notice Boards. These often reach far larger proportions of the local populations that even pre-Internet local papers.
Why Groups are better
This all explains why we engage more in Groups, and why engagement in Groups has a far bigger reach than the same engagement in Pages.
Facebook doesn’t currently apply ‘boosts’ to Groups, thought they may in future. For the moment, they want to make sure they grab all available eyeballs. Groups are way more engaging than Pages, and the more you engage, the more of your delicious data you’re supplying.
This means ads posted in groups are not only seen by more people than those posted on Pages, but the people advertising may not even have to pay for their ads.
The Rise of the local Notice Board
Many local business owners have realised this, and have set up local ‘Notice Board’ groups to promote their own businesses as well as serve their community.
The groups owned by local businesses are usually easy to spot – just click on the profile of the Group Admin. Often, you don’t even need to do that. If every 5th post is an ad for the same local taxi company, or accountancy firm, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce who’s in charge.
Repetitive advertising from a single firm can be annoying, but groups run by local businesses can still be very successful, as they serve an important community function.
Good moderators, even if they happen to be local business people seeking to make money, keep out the spammers and trolls, care about their community, and moderate in a sensitive and responsible way to avoid name-calling and abuse.
Some local Groups have become so successful, their Admins can charge local businesses for advertising in them, just like local papers. After all, they’ve acquired the eyeballs, and have every right to profit from them.
At least this ad money is going to local businesses, and not distant billionaires.
Why See Through News Groups are best
See Through News runs many local Notice Board Facebook Groups. Without giving away the trade secrets of our volunteer social media experts, this is because STN is ahead of the game in:
- predicting tweaks to the Facebook algorithm
- knowing how to exploit these predictions to competitive advantage
- knowing how to set groups up to optimise growth and reach
- working out how to create posts and comments that will generate maximum engagement
Just look at the numbers.
After just over a year, our pilot groups in Salisbury and Chippenham, similar sized market towns in the county of Wiltshire, now have memberships in excess of 15% of the total local population. And both are still growing at a double-digit rate every month.
See Through News is now using the same model to set up other local Notice Board Groups around the UK. Many are growing at triple-digit monthly rates. As they grow, members volunteer to moderate them.
As our pool of volunteers moderators expands, we’re expanding this model globally, and seeing the same rate of growth.
I turns out that the Facebook algorithm, and humans, are pretty much the same everywhere in the world.
The Advertising No-Brainer for local businesses
So what are embattled local businesses supposed to make of all this? How can all this technical detail help them struggle through recession, inflation, and cost-of-living crises?
As we explained above, the more engaging a post is, the more likely Facebook is to share it to an individual’s news feed. In the case of Groups, far more likely. This is why anyone currently paying money for advertising really needs to understand how Facebook works.
So how does this save a local business money?
If you post your ad into a group with x number of members, and it’s accepted by that group’s moderator, and it’s engaging, it could be seen by all x members (Facebook, confusingly, sometimes also calls them ‘Followers’, the same term it uses for Pages) .
This means that a Facebook Group of a few hundred could have the same effective reach as a Page with 30,000 Followers.
Some local Facebook groups are much larger than this. Popular Notice Boards or Buy & Sell groups can have memberships of up to 50% of the entire local population.
How See Through News can help local businesses save money
Salisbury, Wiltshire, has a population of 45K. Our pilot Salisbury Notice Board group currently has a membership of more than 7K, and is still growing at 10% per month.
Local Notice Board Groups administered by See Through News currently approve advertising from local businesses free of charge. We weed out dodgy businesses, and don’t let them post too often, but our members are happy to see them in moderation.
Having understood what’s under the bonnet of the Facebook machine, the options for local businesses become stark:
A) Hand over your hard-earned money to corporate-owned ‘local’ newspaper, and be seen by low hundreds of people in your community
B) Stop further enriching NY hedge-fund billionaires, and instead post your ads for free* in your local See Through News Notice Board group, where it’s likely to be seen by thousands of people.
*this is where we get to the bit where we measurably reduce carbon…
If you’re familiar with the See Through News Goal, you may be wondering how any of this stuff about local advertising, however intriguing, is related to Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown.
Our methodology identifies a useful need or function, which we use as a starting point to drive Unwilling Inactivists towards effective climate action. We’ve just explained how useful local Facebook groups are to communities around the world, so it’s a great way to start ordinary people on the path to carbon drawdown.
If you’re familiar with our zero-budget approach, you’ll know none of our Projects currently makes any money.
But we’re proposing to make an exception for this project. As soon as our volunteer coders have got our prototype up and running, we’re going to start charging to advertise in our groups too.
The difference is:
- any money we make will go 100% to cover our running costs
- the more successful our system is, the less money we make
How saving advertising money can lead to reducing carbon
Everything See Through News does is designed to measurably reduce carbon.
This means our ‘output metric’ is not dollars and cents – not even as a proxy for success, but carbon reduction.
We’re now working on coding the mechanism to enable this, and the carbon auditing system that’s critical to implementing it.
We’ll update this article as they come on line, but here’s what we’re planning:
Local businesses will be objectively rated for their carbon intensity
See Through News will charge them to advertise in STN social media platforms in inverse proportion to this rating
The most carbon-intensive businesses will be charged market rates. The least carbon-intensive businesses will not be charged anything.
The devil is of course in the details of this rating system and its application, but the general principle is:
- the less carbon you produce, the more money you save
- a perfect outcome is zero revenue