Social media as we know it is changing and not in a way we are used to (“we” meaning non-Gen Z audiences). The media got used to having to follow the social media algorithms changes and adjusting content promotion or even content production. It wasn’t respectful, but you would do it for the clicks, views and reach.

Building an online audience before social media meant more work. If you had a blog or a newsletter, you had to write a lot, link to others and hope they would notice, link back or even reply to your blog. Social media, algorithmic feeds and also Google Search have changed that, making it easier.

The recent headlines and changes happening at Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, suggest things are going to change dramatically, especially if you depend on traffic from the two platforms.

A number of news articles have painted a picture of a company that has been split between trying to compete with TikTok (be more of an entertainment destination) and at the same time being your online social network (family, friends). Now, the decision was made to go all in on the former.

What does it mean?

What does the TikTok-ization of Facebook and Instagram mean for media

OK, let’s just reiterate what is happening if you haven’t been following the recent developments closely. Both Facebook and Instagram see TikTok as their biggest threat and for the past couple of months, years even, have been trying to build in the TikTok features into both platforms. That’s how we got Reels, a TikTok-clone.

Turns out, that’s not enough and now, Mark Zuckerberg is pushing for a more TikTok-like approach. The first major step is splitting the feeds (both on Facebook and Instagram) into two.

The main, default feed is going to be the algorithmic feed with posts from pages and people you don’t follow, but the algorithm has decided they would be engaging for you. Just like TikTok.

Facebook has had an algorithmic feed for years now, but it was always built around the user’s social graph – friends and family, pages and groups followed and related content when someone from your circle interacted with a different page or a post from someone you didn’t follow.

Instagram has been experimenting with inserting stuff you don’t follow for a while now (Facebook also did, but it wasn’t as much). 

Now, both platforms are going all in on giving you a tailored feed of content the algorithm thinks you will like.

Meta recently announced its second-quarter earnings results and Mark Zuckerberg explained the move by saying that Al finds additional content that people find interesting, that increases engagement and the quality of our feeds.

So, what does it mean for news on Facebook and Instagram?

It’s very early and these are more or less my interpretations of what might happen. If Meta turns both of its biggest social media networks into TikTok clones, meaning they will no longer be social first, but media first and driven by what’s more entertaining, traffic for news media will decline even more.

I tried to look for evidence of how much traffic TikTok is generating, but unsuccessfully. As far as I know, TikTok is not a traffic driver. Of course, that was never the intention of its creators.

The same was true for Instagram, yet per Press Gazette’s reporting, the BBC News Instagram account regularly drives more than 700,000 clicks back to the News site every week.

5 predictions

Now, with these changes at Meta rolling out I predict a few things will happen. First, Meta will see higher engagement. As Taylor Lorenz of The Washington Post wrote on her blog, our notions of social norms, privacy, and what constitutes entertaining content are different now.

She was reacting to the “Make Instagram Instagram again” movement endorsed by Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian. Not a small thing, as Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri had to react to that.

Mosseri basically said there are tests going on, but Instagram will change and they see people use group messages for what they used to share once publicly, and that video will grow even more.

Second, as Meta’s engagement data will rise, traffic that Facebook and Instagram have been sending to websites will dramatically decline. Yes, I think this will be dramatic especially for news sites that share important hard news that’s not entertaining. Unless they make it into a TikTok video (yes, I’m joking, although, I would really like to see someone try and report back to us what happens then).

Third, the feed algorithm changes will create more misinformation. It’s not a secret anymore that controversial content does better on social media. Maybe the golden age of misinformation is just about to begin.

Fourth, we are about to witness a new pivot to video. I suppose some news organisations will do this as well, at least just to see whether it brings more reach to their content. This is going to be more true to Instagram than Facebook as Instagram is already testing a fullscreen feed.

(Note: After finishing this column and just before publishing, Instagram has walked back some of its changes saying they still aim to proceed with everything they announced, but might take a bit longer. That doesn’t change what I wrote, the transition just might take a little longer.)

Fifth, news publishers will look for alternative traffic sources and arrive at the conclusion that there is only one major left – Google Search. OK, there is still Twitter, but for most that’s tiny, and I don’t believe it plans to double down on being a major competitor as the company is left in internal turmoil after the botched deal by Elon Musk.

If I was a young journalism student at the moment, I would focus on becoming an SEO specialist. Journalism skills combined with SEO expertise will make these people very sought after.

Google will become an even more indispensable traffic source

Source: Parse.ly’s Network Referrer Dashboard (Snapshot taken on 28th July 2022)

I can still quite vividly remember the years between 2015 and 2017, when Facebook and Google were competing to be the major source of traffic for websites.

For many years, it was Google, but then in 2015 Facebook overtook Google, which lasted for over two years. Then, in 2017, Google outpaced Facebook as the no.1 traffic source and has been the overall leading source of traffic.

Some websites might get more clicks from Facebook, but in general, Google is the leading source.

Parse.ly’s Network Referrer Dashboard (screenshot above) has a nice chart showing the biggest traffic sources to the websites the analytical tool serves (Medium, Bloomberg, Sky and NBC News are some of its customers). Google is by far the biggest referrer.

If my predictions prove to be true or close to what will happen, Google will become an even more significant traffic source for websites and news publishers. Of course, the search giant will gain even more leverage over the news and I hope even more scrutiny.

In the meantime, I suggest you double the SEO specialists working in your newsroom. If the count is zero at the moment, you might want to reconsider.