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A year on from Facebook’s algorithm shift how are Premier League clubs feeling the pinch?

With Facebook engagement falling by half in the last three years for Premier League's top ten clubs, Seven League consultant Charlie Beall assesses how valuable the platform remains as a marketing channel.

by Charlie Beall
A year on from Facebook’s algorithm shift how are Premier League clubs feeling the pinch?

It’s been just over a year since Facebook made its big announcement that it would be rewarding more meaningful social interactions at the expense of passive consumption.

It also said its algorithm would now favour posts from users’ friends and family over pages.

In reality, big brands running pages had begun feeling the pinch about six months prior to this announcement as organic growth became a lot harder to achieve.

Now seems an opportune time, one year on, to review how these changes have been felt in sport and the Premier League provides an interesting case study.

On 22nd February 2019, the top ten teams in the English soccer's top flight were the usual big six (Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea) and four Premier League clubs in Wolverhampton Wanderers, Watford, Everton and West Ham United with relatively smaller Facebook followings.

We decided to look at how their Facebook accounts had fared in the last year, using Facebook’s publicly available data and comparing that with growth since February 2016.

It’s clear that follower growth for the top ten as a whole is slowing. Followers grew eight per cent across these teams between 2016 and 2017. This slowed to six per cent in the next year and was only three per cent in the next.

Manchester City’s performance bucked the overall trend and can be ascribed to the twin factors of winning the league and running fan growth campaigns on Facebook.

Liverpool and Spurs ran similar campaigns (though the scale in each case is not publicly available information). Clearly, reaching or attaining a big follower number is still important enough to some clubs for them to allocate budget, even if you’ve got folks like me questioning the veracity of some of the accounts and the avidity of some of the fans.

In contrast to Liverpool and City’s growth, Manchester United’s followership declined by one per cent while Arsenal and Chelsea have flatlined for the last two years. There are a variety of factors at play here: Facebook has been doing follower culls for example, and some clubs have been spending more or less than others while some have not been spending at all.

That said, they all receive ample exposure as top teams in a global league that has fans in markets where Facebook is still growing. You couldn’t blame a club for concluding that you need to be spending with Facebook in order to grow.

The Wolves story however, provides a useful counter-balance. Newly-promoted and starting from a relatively small base Wolves were able to nearly double their following in the last year. A good story and exposure within the world’s biggest league still counts for something, and organic growth is still possible.

Looking at the overall numbers I still can’t help feeling that for established brands the age of free organic growth is largely over. As Facebook seeks to grow its ad business it would also make sense for it to keep some of its user base beyond the organic reach of those with budgets.

These ten clubs will have been tracking these numbers closely and adjusted their strategies and tactics in order to keep up with the perceived changes at play. When we aggregated the post data for the same ten clubs over the same three years it tells an interesting story both in terms of their content teams’ output and the number of user interactions garnered over the period.

The value of engagement

Given that social content is now playing an ever-increasing role in how top clubs serve their sponsors and most models for valuing social content (including Seven League’s own methodology) place a high degree of importance on interactions what we can see from Facebook’s algorithm changes is a large-scale erosion of value for these ten clubs.

Total interactions for February 2016 to February 2017 were 662 million, while for February 2018 to February 2019 this had dropped to 299 million (a 55 per cent fall). Put another way, in the last three years these ten clubs have had more than a half the value of their Facebook content slashed.

Interestingly, when we look at video, year one saw a 20 per cent increase in output and while interactions as a whole were down 15 per cent, the interactions per post were down a whopping 29 per cent.

Facebook was aware that its platform was becoming a destination for mindless or passive consumption of video and so encouraged brands to post content that was more likely to illicit an interaction.

It appears that these clubs listened as they stemmed that rate of decline to a 13 per cent year-on-year drop. Nevertheless, what we see is fewer video interactions and a lower interaction rate across the three year period.

If video posts took a big hit, status and photo posts took an even greater one. Photo interactions for example, fell from 347 million in year one to 135 million in year three. That’s a 62 per cent drop.

Output

Video posts: Facebook have been encouraging clubs to post more and more videos and when we look at a total of 7,077 in year one, rising 20 per cent to 8,492 in year two it seemed these clubs were playing along. Interestingly, year three sees a slight reduction in the number of video posts output (down 11 per cent). One might read a level of ‘cooling off’ into these numbers.

Photo posts: the output of photography has dropped dramatically in the three-year period from 10,808 in year one to 7,434 in year three and speaks largely to the growth of Instagram as a platform more suited to the posting of club photography.

YouTube posts: It’s clear that clubs have got the message that Facebook doesn’t want you to post YouTube videos on its platform. This was done 452 times in the first year and only 23 times in the last.

Status posts: again, these have been shown to be less engaging than video or photo posts and consequently, output has reduced dramatically from year one (470 posts) to year three (98).

What does it all mean?

Facebook remains a valuable engagement platform for many sports brands but the way in which it is being and should be used by sports organisations has changed.

For one, I welcome the change. We need to move on from blithely patting ourselves on the back when our follower numbers go up.

It’s time we all employed a bit of rigour to understanding the true return on our collective investment in Facebook as a platform.

These figures are a stark reminder that we shouldn’t keep feeding the beast, because the beast has stopped returning the favour.

Instead, we should focus on our business objectives and hold Facebook accountable as a marketing channel like any other - so long as it delivers more value than it’s costing us, it’s win-win.

As a performance marketing channel it has unprecedented targeting capability and as it seeks to integrate its ecosystem I rate Facebook’s chances highly.

Where we are now is a weird hinterland where as brands we’re still a bit upset that we’re not getting the organic reach and engagement we used to get and we’re not yet cold-hearted and rigorous enough to use the platform as a direct marketing tool to serve our business objectives.