Will Employee Advocacy Impact Facebook’s Ad Revenues?

In an era of information overload and brands fighting for attention, digital utilities like Google continuously tune algorithms that determine what it feels is important to optimize user experience. Often, defending the integrity of that experience motivates changes it makes to its algorithms. It’s a constant, ongoing battle: as brands try to “game the system” and manipulate the service to raise their content to the top, Google responds with algorithmic changes that re-balance the service in favor of quality links.

Social network users face the same challenges with friends and brands fighting for attention, and so over time, social tools have applied an algorithmic approach to the information they prioritize in their users’ news feeds. Twitter has largely resisted such approaches in favor of presenting content based on time, until recently. My colleague Susan Etlinger has written about Twitter’s shift to a new timeline that rises to the top the “best” content based on their own algorithm (see “Twitter’s New ‘Best Tweets’ feature: What brands Need to Know” and“#RIPTwitter: what would an algorithmic timeline mean for users and brands?”.

As for Facebook, according to Time magazine, its news feed algorithms are tuned using data by both a quantitative team of data scientists in Menlo Park and a qualitative team in Knoxville (along with hundreds of online reviewers across the US) that assess newsfeed quality based on personal preferences.

What does this have to do with employee advocacy? Just as Google has defended the integrity of its service in the past, my take is that as employee advocacy grows among brands, Facebook will take steps to protect user experience (and revenue) as well. After all, over time, Facebook has forced brands to increase advertising on its service by restricting unpaid, organic brand page posts to just a trickle ( less than 3%). As Brian Boland, VP Advertising Technology at Facebook wrote in a 2014 blog post:

“Many large marketing platforms have seen declines in organic reach. Online search engines, for instance, provided a great deal of free traffic to businesses and websites when they initially launched. People and businesses flocked to these platforms, and as the services grew there was more competition to rank highly in search results. Because the search engines had to work much harder to surface the most relevant and useful content, businesses eventually saw diminished organic reach.”

One way around diminished brand reach is to have employees post brand content on their personal profile pages; hence, employee advocacy is emerging as a branding tool across social media (not just Facebook).

Employee Advocacy introduces an interesting dilemma for Facebook. As employees increasingly post on behalf of their employer, brands are getting around the newsfeed gate Facebook has put in place (partially, we can assume, to drive the sale of advertising). I think about this phenomenon as analogous to a virus. In this case, the branded content (virus) is hidden inside a consumer post (the cell), allowing brand content through consumer profile posts. Can Facebook address this? If an employee posts about work, when is it authentic and when is it a shill? Will Facebook continue to consider employee advocacy posts as organic, or will it seek them out and filter them through its news feed algorithm? My bet is it will take action, particularly if employee advocacy—in its infancy today—becomes as widespread as it could (our 2015 Social Business benchmark report found that while among the least mature social business programs, it ranked #1 in growth—191% increase between 2013-15).

I have a lot more to share about employee advocacy soon. Look for Altimeter’s research report of this high-growth area in March. In that research, we look at consumer reactions to friends’ posts about work; employee motivations to advocate and what they share; why brands invest in employee advocacy; and best practices for addressing this emerging practice.