Facebook: What Are They Selling?

To answer the very important question of the title, you need a little background, which is illustrated by a question from reader Steve in Texas:

Some time ago, I “Liked” the This is True Facebook page, but almost never see any posts. I figured you weren’t active until I went back to the page, and saw a ton of stuff I thought was great! How come I’m not seeing it regularly? I see most posts from my friends.

Loyalty Unrewarded

Facebook: What are they selling?Irritating, isn’t it? Facebook promised companies that if we built up an audience to our “pages,” we’d be able to build “community” and post stuff they could see. I spent a lot of effort driving readers to my Facebook page in 2013, and built up quite a following — and a lot of new Facebook users, by the way.

But I declined their offer to sell me Likes …for 25 cents to a dollar each. I thought it would be better to have people who actually like This is True follow the posts there, not random people Facebook paid to click a button.

The people who actually Like this publication naturally expected that they could follow the posts there when they clicked that button, except Facebook lied: they show posts to only a very tiny fraction of the audiences we built for them, and that fraction is declining.

Before getting to why, let’s help Steve: who does Facebook show posts to “organically”? Those who interact with the page’s posts a lot. So, a tip: if you want to actually see True’s posts on Facebook, you have to either “Like” a lot of them, and/or comment on them. Pretty much on every one you see: it’s a signal to Facebook you want to see more items like that. Stop clicking Like and the number of posts you’ll see will quickly drop off.

You can also go to True’s Facebook page, and in the upper panel where it says “Liked” note there’s an arrow to pull down: Click the arrow and click on “Get Notifications” to …yep… get a notification of new posts. Few know about it, and many of them don’t remember, or bother with it.

How Bad Is It?

Well, as of this writing there are 10,500 people who have clicked “Like” to say they want to see True’s posts on Facebook. One recent popular graphic post (on Tuesday) has (as of this writing) 108 “shares” — people posted it on their own walls, to show it to their own friends. Pew Research says that adult Facebook users have an average (mean) of 338 friends. So of the audience of my 10,550 plus their 36,500 or so friends, 47,050 people saw my graphic, right?

Not even close; I wish it was even 10 percent of that! As of this writing, Facebook reports that 3,926 people were “reached” (had it on their screen as they scrolled by). At least some of them actually looked at it, because several dozen people subscribed via that graphic. Facebook offers to “Boost” the post to show it to more people — for money. That’s the ol’ bait and switch from “You can engage with the community you have built on Facebook!” to maybe — if we pay Facebook.

How much? I clicked the “Boost Post” button to see. The default is to pay for it to be seen by people who already Like my page! (You can also choose “People who like your Page and their friends” and “People you choose through targeting.”) For $150, I can “reach” an estimated 3,000 to 4,700 people …who have already made it clear to Facebook they wanted to see True’s posts.

That’s somewhere between 3.5 and 5 cents each. Except, they warn, “Ads images [sic] with text that takes up more than 20% of the image may not be approved.” And since that image was a “text image,” it wouldn’t be.

You can to look at the numbers yourself:

Facebook offers to 'Boost' the post ...for a price.
(click to see larger)

It Adds Up Fast

That’s $150 for just one posting. I post several things every day, so you can see how quickly that would add up. And for what? To give Facebook content to put next to ads. Um, no. Even though that particular graphic promoted This is True, I can’t count on a $150 return on my investment …since it promotes free subscriptions. (I could, of course, choose a smaller spend, and take longer to go broke.)

So of the tiny percentage of people who “Like” True that Facebook showed that graphic to, why do they like it so much to share it? Because it’s funny, and because it promotes something they love — This is True! And isn’t that the kind of viral pass-around that made Facebook popular in the first place? Why yes: yes it was.

But now Facebook wants it both ways: they want content to put up against ads (an age-old publishing model), and they want creative people like me to pay them to circulate the content we post on their site, so they can put it next to their ads. That’s quite the business model, if you can con enough people to do it.

The graphic from Tuesday has a Mission Impossible theme. Another that came out this morning has a Dragnet theme. (Coming next week: a Twilight Zone theme and others; links below.)

By the way, in addition to the This is True Facebook page, there is also a Google+ page [retired], a Twitter page, and a Pinterest page. None of them have a policy of demanding the users who develop content for them pay for it to be seen.


A year ago in an earlier blog post on Facebook (Facebook: Starting to Circle the Drain?), I talked about how Facebook was planning to reduce the “organic reach” of posts to just 1-2 percent of the potential audience, so that content creators would have to pay to reach the other 98-99 percent.

“I just won’t,” I said then, and “I can’t be the only one ready to give up.” Well, they haven’t cut it that much, but even with a pretty engaged audience, the This is True Facebook page is only getting 6-9 percent reach. Likely, when they tried to go lower, content producers stopped posting content. In other words, it wasn’t worth the time investment, and more and more independent content producers are reaching that conclusion, as it occurred to me a year ago. At some point, I will likely also make the decision to stop playing on Facebook’s turf.

So meanwhile, please do share the This is True graphics (links below) while at least some of your friends are likely to see them. Because Facebook has experimented with asking individuals to pay for their friends to see posts too! Yes, really.

Make no mistake, I’m not complaining: Facebook has a right to make money by whatever legal means works, and they certainly haven’t done anything illegal (yet… though their “bait and switch” might be immoral or unethical). The point here is to explain what’s going on. Because to answer the question….

So What Is Facebook Selling?

…what you need to know first is, Who is Facebook’s Customer? And here’s the answer: You …are not Facebook’s customer — advertisers are. So what is Facebook selling them? You.

Welcome to the corporate Internet, which is why I’ve tried again and again over the years to promote independent voices — sites like Cathie Walker’s Centre for the Easily Amused (long gone), Chris White’s Top 5 (gone), and Wendy Northcutt’s Darwin Awards (apparently now gone). We independents are being drowned out, because giant media companies have now realized that there are billions of dollars to be made …from you and your attention.

The only companies who can sustain pouring money into Facebook are those who make big money from getting your attention — which is measured by how much of your money they can capture. As long as they can put $150 into Facebook and get $300 out of you, they turn the handle as fast as they can to repeat the process. The smaller, independent voices you love just can’t compete.

Or… “It’s People! Soylent Blue is People!

As Promised, and so you don’t actually have to go to Facebook to see the True promo graphics I spoke of above, here they are:

The 'Mission Impossible' image
It reads:

Good morning Mr. Phelps. For more than 20 years, This is True has published weekly by email to bring thought-provoking entertainment to the world. By provoking thought, its creator, who goes by the name “Randy Cassingham,” hopes to make the world just a little bit better each week.

Amazingly, basic subscriptions are free to help bring common sense to the largest possible audience. However, this glimmer of intelligence is drowned out online by corporate megasites designed to subjugate the citizens.

Your mission, if you decide to accept it, is to lead smart people to the ThisIsTrue.com web site so they can get their own email subscriptions. The future of the world just might depend on it.

Good luck, Jim. This meme will self-destruct once Facebook can’t make more money from it.

Yes, to answer the confusion of one Facebooker: Randy Cassingham is indeed my real name.

See and share this image on Facebook, on Google+, or on Pinterest.

The 'Dragnet' image

It reads:

Smile, Darn It! It’s Friday!

Let me tell you something, mister: Friday is a great day! Every Friday evening the free edition of This is True comes out. Even I can afford that on a cop’s salary. It tells stories of the kind of dum-da-dum-dum obliviot punks that I bust every day. So if you don’t already have a free subscription, you’re really missing the boat. Get right over to ThisIsTrue.com to subscribe, and smile at the great stories every week.

See and share this image on Facebook, on Google+, or on Pinterest.

The 'Twilight Zone' image

It reads:

Imagine, If You Will, a World Run by Obliviots.

That world would not be the Twilight Zone, but rather the real world, described every week in This is True, thought-provoking entertainment online since 1994. Basic subscriptions are free: that’s a world everyone can afford to sample. Visit ThisIsTrue.com and subscribe, and help make the world just a little smarter.

See and share this image on Facebook, on Google+, or on Pinterest.

– – –

Bad link? Broken image? Other problem on this page? Use the Help button lower right, and thanks.

This page is an example of my style of “Thought-Provoking Entertainment”. This is True is an email newsletter that uses “weird news” as a vehicle to explore the human condition in an entertaining way. If that sounds good, click here to open a subscribe form.

To really support This is True, you’re invited to sign up for a subscription to the much-expanded “Premium” edition:

One Year Upgrade

(More upgrade options here.)

Q: Why would I want to pay more than the minimum rate?

A: To support the publication to help it thrive and stay online: this kind of support means less future need for price increases (and smaller increases when they do happen), which enables more people to upgrade. This option was requested by existing Premium subscribers.


20 Comments on “Facebook: What Are They Selling?

  1. Used to be a subscriber to This is True, but when I liked your Facebook page, I figured now I can get it all on Facebook without having it in my inbox. Slowly those articles came more and more seldom and now I rarely get them. Oh well, I’ll sign up again.

    The newsletters have never been available on the Facebook page. I experimented with having one sample story per week there, but because they weren’t “Liked” and Shared enough to make them spread, there was no return whatever on the time invested in making them. The only way to get the content is through an email subscription: I’m not letting Facebook monetize all of my work! -rc

  2. Hmmmm…. thanks, Randy, Your lecture explains why my Prof page started out so well & reached many, and now is way down. And ‘like’ you I don’t want to pay.

    To justify paying, there has to be a return on investment. A “Professor’s” info page ain’t gonna get one. And what about all those pages of local governments, trying to tell residents of emergency conditions? They set up Facebook pages to do that, and Facebook wants THEM to pay too. To communicate emergency information?! Outrageous. -rc

  3. How long do you think it will be before programs like AdBlockPlus are made illegal?

    Illegal? Never. But I would not be surprised if some web sites (like Facebook) won’t work at all if the ads are blocked. -rc

  4. Hello – My name is Jeff and I’m a Facebook advertiser.

    I suppose this is once again a matter of “you get what you pay for”. In order to build critical mass Facebook started out showing all posts to everyone, and then turned down the volume to create a supply and demand situation. I don’t like it either, but it worked… And like most things in life, the system as it now exists rewards those who try harder — you do an excellent job putting out things that people want to share and comment on, extending your organic reach.

    On the other hand, if Facebook turns down the volume too far, they will kill the cash cow.

    Spending $$ to boost a post I agree is AWFUL ROI. A sucker bet for sure.

    I find for certain purposes Facebook advertising is very effective and a win for both the producer and consumer. Let’s say I put on music shows (because I do 😉 ). I can target ads to fans of the act and of that kind of music. They see the ads and get to enjoy live music they like, and I get a successful show and get to keep doing it. Just costs me maybe a couple dollars per conversion. It’s not just the big companies that win, for us smaller fry conversions (actual sales) is where the benefit is.

    ps: The “Purity of Essence” speech from Dr Strangelove for your next graphic. 😉

    I know your company, and if you can make Facebook ads pay (get a return on your investment), more power to you! That said, most people on Facebook didn’t sign up to see ONLY, or mainly, advertising. They thought they would see things that they asked to see: posts from friends and companies they “Like”. Just as I don’t have a problem with Facebook (or you!) making money, the Soylent Blue — the commodity they’re selling — has a right to understand what the tradeoff is, and it’s not only significant, it’s changing the face of what they can see online, not just on Facebook.

    As for Dr. Strangelove: mwah hah hahhhh! I… just… might…! -rc

  5. I’ve always known the customers are the advertisers, and the product is the audience. The idea that we are being sold, rather than just access to us, makes me profoundly uncomfortable, but may just be a different spin on the same thing.

    Ultimately, though, I don’t think the problem is what we are, I think it’s what you are. Facebook’s business model bears no resemblance to yours. You’re not part of the audience, so they assume that you’re one of the customers. The concept that someone would put effort into writing something intelligent, and hope to make a living from that, doesn’t seem to fit into Facebook’s worldview. The traditional ads seem almost incidental now, with the action in the newsfeed instead. The “posts” that appear are either clickbait to generate ad revenue on other sites or ads for some product explicitly being sold.

    I use Facebook to catch up with people. I never tried to use it as a substitute for other sites/lists, as involving a third party (and a commercial one at that) seemed like an unnecessary complication. In hindsight, I’m rather glad.

    I also use Facebook to keep up with friends and family, so I’m both a user and a target customer. Perhaps that helps me see the schism. -rc

  6. A world run by obliviots. That’s a scary concept that not even Rod Serling would have come up with. Sadly, it seems to be happening. Yep, truth really is stranger than fiction.

  7. Lately I’ve been engaging most on Twitter. Everyone who follows me sees everything I post, organic network growth there is very fast and it tends to be more free from both marketing shenanigans and the toxic political environment of certain other social networks.

    I’m doing more on Twitter too (I’m @ThisIsTrue), but haven’t decided if it’s a good platform for the kind of graphics I’m discussing here. -rc

  8. Where did the Soylent blue thing come from? I did a search on Google and found absolutely nothing informative.

    It came from my imagination — I coined it to refer to Facebook. Of course, it’s based on Soylent Green, a 1973 scifi film based in the year 2022 — which is rapidly approaching. The movie characters, also, famously realized “it’s people!” -rc

  9. Thank you, Randy. I never really stopped to think how Facebook was making money. Probably because I stopped using it eight years ago — but even so, I’ve often thought of going back.

    Things like this make it less likely I ever will.

    Knowledge is power. And power is (sometimes) not wasting hours on a website that adds little real value to my life.

    There is value in Facebook, but it’s best to go in with your eyes open. -rc

  10. A friend who does advertise with Facebook says it is just a numbers game.

    We are content producers and have seen results like yours over the years. We do not pay Facebook at all so anything we get is a bonus. Our posts and uploads are just other things we do to generate interest. It takes very little effort to share a bit of content already created for our regular channels. Besides, it’s fun.

  11. Leo LaPorte “The Tech Guy” said in one of his podcasts: “If the website isn’t selling you a product… then YOU are the product.”

    Kinda makes me proud to be selling real stuff, like books, subscriptions, and cards, rather than selling out my audience. -rc

  12. Like you Randy I have a business page on Facebook and also use Facebook personally. From both perspectives I’m getting less value from Facebook all the time.

    I used my Facebook business page primarily as a place to cross-post from my blog. It has been a convenient platform for some people who follow me. But with the changes over the past year or so most people who liked my page are not getting the information.

    I’m not actually upset about Facebook wanting to monetize the business side. It becomes another business decision about whether or not Facebook as a platform is an effective enough vehicle to pay for it. In my case, the answer is no. So I no longer have a reason to keep a professional page on Facebook.

    On the personal side, the whole point of Facebook is to stay in touch. And I’ve found over the last year or so that I am not getting the information I joined Facebook to get. Significant events in my friends’ lives are not showing up when I login to my account. I have found out about a few completely by accident long after the fact and am starting to wonder what I’m not hearing about. And of course I realize that my friends in turn are not hearing from me.

    I understand the advertisers are the real Facebook customers, but if the membership leave because they are not getting value, there will not be anyone to advertise to.

    A succinct summary of the implications involved. The bottom line seems to be, Facebook used to be a useful platform …but is rapidly getting less and less useful. A pity. -rc

  13. As a very small business owner still running in the red as a new start-up, I was lured over to the idea of reaching out to the “hundreds” of people who are my friends and the thousands who are the friends of my friends! ‘No brainier’ right? So I put together a campaign and hit twitter, Instagram, Facebook etc. Couldn’t hurt, right?

    Immediately I began to get the pushy emails two a day at least from Facebook telling me my site would not be seen unless I advertised! Hmmm…that’s not the way they presented it AT ALL!!

    So I took my capitalist product elsewhere and just made a personal page. Voila! Thousands WERE seeing it and sales picked up. I haven’t cancelled my Facebook Page for the business because I like to direct people there from my two personal pages, Instagram, Twitter and email. I’m not exactly shameless…I’m too busy for that. But I won’t pay for what was offered for free. They need to be up front.

  14. I am a paid subscriber to “This is True”. I have never had a Facebook account and I’m not going to any time soon. At first it was just because there was something that I couldn’t put my finger on that seemed a little fishy. And then their constant shenanigans with security settings and the like sealed the un-deal. I was (and am) just plain turned off by their “All your data are belong to us.” attitude, and remain determined not to give them mine.

    I used to point out to friends when they would complain about the ‘customer service’ that they, as ordinary users, get from FB that they have no right to expect better. They are not, in fact FB’s paying customers — the companies that FB sells their data to are and I was sure that they like their customer service just fine.

    Now I see from your experience and some others that some of the actual customers aren’t liking their deal either.

  15. I feel exactly the same as Paul, and I too will never have anything to do with Facebook.

    And my feelings about ANY website page that is too intrusive with their ads, or tries to block my use of Adblocker, will get just what they deserve…..a hurried click to exit their page, never to return there!!

    And I think that’s fine: commercial sites are free to block users who block ads, and users are free to leave. That indeed is how it should be. -rc

  16. A few years ago an Australian friend suggested that I go on FB to read what she posts, as she was coping with some exhausting matters in her life and hadn’t time to answer emails. I signed up and then quit within a week. FB inundated my inbox with requests for me to friend countless numbers of people, many of whom I had never heard of. Needless to say, I quickly signed out of FB permanently. Your post about FB confirms my good sense in opting out.

    One can, of course, choose what “notifications” should come by email. I have 99% of them turned off. -rc

  17. I had noticed something weird with FB. I would put something up myself, and when I clicked SUBMIT, I couldn’t find it. It was buried way down on my page below stuff posted by people I didn’t even know.

    Oh, well, I do my keeping up with friends mostly by email.

  18. “So of the audience of my 10,550 plus their 36,500 or so friends, 47,050 people saw my graphic, right? Not even close; I wish it was even 10 percent of that! As of this writing, Facebook reports that 3,926 people were “reached” (had it on their screen as they scrolled by).”

    Wouldn’t a 100% hit rate require that ALL those people were watching their timelines 24/7 or scrolled all the way down to their last access every time they checked their timeline?

    Seems to be that way on Twitter, at any rate.

    Yes. It’s a theoretical maximum, not anything anyone should expect. Hence, “I wish it was even 10 percent.” LONG gone are the days that one of my posts would get 50,000 “impressions” (back when I didn’t even have 10,000 “Likes” to my page). -rc

  19. Over a decade ago I signed up to Facebook to be able to co-ordinate certain activities with some friends by using one person’s wall like a forum — we were all on slow rural dial-up Internet links. It was so long ago there were no ads being shown on it. After the project was finished, a few months later, I tried to use the site to keep in contact with people. However, it soon became full of other people’s entries and I was buried in emails about the various games and things it had — many were from contacts wanting me to joining a game with them. I tried to delete the account, but couldn’t find out how to do it after ten hours of searching. In the end I changed all the contact information to that of FB HQ senior staff and the name and killed off every contact like etc, then just left it be. A relative told me the listing was still there seven years later, have checked for some years.

    FB is NOT social media, it is anti-social media, the same with twitter, linkedin and the rest. Go to anywhere you see teens and young adults and you’ll see them all sitting around reading or typing on these sites and NOT talking — suggest they leave that to talk with you face to face and they stare at you for being rude.

    I refuse to use or promote such sites now, and have done that for some years.

    To close a Facebook account, just google “Close Facebook account”. I don’t get game requests because I turned them off. Yes, it’s all a game, and there are pros to the sites if you choose to use them. And if you do, it’s best to learn what tools are available to make the sites behave the way you wish. Or, at least, as close as possible to it. -rc

  20. A couple of years ago our local newspaper announced that they’d no longer accept “anonymous” postings on their comment page. I complained to one of the editors at the time that I wasn’t interested in signing up for what I feel is a very unsecure service just so I could post comments. She replied that she understood my feelings and the paper would be keeping an eye on how the policy was working.

    After a couple of years of frustration with being unable to post comments to many of the on-line bulletin-boards run by newspapers, magazines, and opinion sites, I decided to give in. My daughter talked me through the sign-up process. Guess what? I entered my real name (unverified), my real birthdate (unverified), and my email address. Wah-lah! One jen-you-wine anonymous unanonymous Facebook account.

    I wrote back to that editor, pointing out that I was able to sign up for an account with all of my valid information without having any of it verified. I went on to point out, “Ah, but are you sure that I’m really Gerry Xxxxxx, born xxxxxx, whose … email address is xxxxx @ xxxx.xxx? Maybe my real name is actually Shmegegeh Metapipik, born 8/14/87, whose email address is actually IMABozo @ hotmail.com. So how is your policy ending online anonymity working? Th’inquirin’ mindless wantza know.”

    I still haven’t heard back from her.

    My daughter explained that originally, you couldn’t sign up for a Facebook account unless you had several FB “friends” who could vouch for you. Given my experience, FB is no more secure or trustworthy than any other on-line service. And, as one of your other writers has pointed out, after signing up, I’ve been getting lots of “You have more friends than you know” emails — which I delete unread.

    Perhaps we should rename the service “Farcebook”.

    And as I told her, “One can, of course, choose what ‘notifications’ should come by email. I have 99% of them turned off.” -rc


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