Advertisers reel in the wake of Facebook’s news ban, but hold out hope the impact will be minimal

With Facebook exercising its nuclear option for Australia's news, M&C Saatchi's Emma Parsons and Chloe Schneider examine the fallout.

On Thursday morning Australia woke up to a shock, but not a surprise. A Facebook feed devoid of news content, Instagram and Twitter abuzz with the fallout, and media professionals scrambling to figure out the impact this may have, now and in the future.

The truth is, we’ve been observing smoke signals, like Facebook shifting their focus back to friends, family and community connections, since last year. Engineers started figuring out how to effectively sweep news off the platform back in September, and Facebook warned only a month ago they were considering this move if the legislation passed. Despite the signs and warning, we were blindsided, as few expected this bold move to actually be deployed.

No heads up was given to sites reliant on a flow (unsteady as it may have been) of Facebook traffic for years, nor to advertisers who’d set up campaigns designed to exist in an ecosystem that supported news, and so the repercussion for publishers has been instant — on the first day, total sessions for the category fell by 16.1% when compared with the average of the previous six Thursdays. Meanwhile, Total Time Spent was down by 13% versus the average of the past six Thursdays.

For the public unaware of the bubbling machinations leading to this moment, pointing the finger at Facebook’s perceived greed has come naturally and their reaction has been swift, with #DeleteFacebook trending for the entirety of Thursday on Twitter.

Others, including Kevin Rudd, see this as a (albeit potentially knee-jerk) response to provocation from the Australian government, with many in the press and in social commentary saying it’s clear their proposed news media bargaining code is less about “supporting quality journalism” and more about pandering to Rupert Murdoch’s digital dish of revenge for Facebook’s marching of print down death row.

As easy as it is to be cynical about either party’s motivations, there’s no debating the fact Australia is in need of a solution that funds high-quality, fact-checked, trustworthy journalism and allows independent and local journalism to survive in an otherwise monopolised market. But this is not that. Currently, neither the code nor Facebook’s deletion of news content goes anywhere near achieving this utopia.

An alternative to both is needed. Many viable, and seemingly less brutal, alternatives have been suggested, including taxing the platform more appropriately and increasing government funding of quality journalism, and it’s perplexing that the two parties seem unable to reach an agreement. With two weeks until the code goes to parliament, some still hold a glimmer of hope that the government will make the necessary amendments, Facebook will reverse course, and we’ll look back on all of this as nothing more than a chess move.

For now, like so many times before, the industry has been forced to pivot, and quickly. And so we look to the future. We’ve been reassured by Facebook that the impact on our industry and clients will be minimal as news makes up just 4% of its content output. That said, despite Facebook’s best efforts to shift the focus back to community and connection, the reality is that 30% of Australians said they primarily use the platform to catch up with news and current affairs and 36% of the top stories on the platform globally are related to politics, so the absence will undoubtedly be felt by the everyday user. Therefore, although we’re optimistic, the long term impact remains to be seen.

For advertisers, at the time of writing the platform’s advertising tools and policies have been left unchanged. The law does not extend to advertising, meaning even news content or branded content can still be promoted, so long as it is running through ads manager rather than boosted organic content. Additionally, over the next week or so, Facebook will be reinstating the content from pages that had been mistakenly removed in the initial sweep, leaving the doors open for the majority of brands to continue building their community on the platform.

While much remains unchanged, what we, as marketers, social strategists, and content creators, need to consider is the context our creative and messaging will be living in. The brand content we’re delivering on Facebook will be competing solely with updates from family and friends. Real, relatable, authentic content will be more important than ever before. This is not, in any way, new. It’s simply an acceleration and narrowing in on a larger trend, and perhaps even a welcome reprieve from the tsunami of news, fake or otherwise, we’ve been over-consuming in our pandemic-induced mindless scrolling.

As for Facebook itself? Well, the world is not what it was way back when and, when it comes to connecting with family, friends, and our broader community, the competition is a lot fiercer than it was, so 2021 will prove an interesting year for the platform in Australia.

Emma Parsons is the social strategy director and Chloe Schneider is the head of content of M&C Saatchi.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.