Are you posting the same story to Facebook multiple times? You’re probably wasting your time

It’s often called “recirculation” in Facebook parlance, or “strategically reposting” older stories. You know, putting stuff on Facebook that you already published there days, weeks or even months ago.

The attraction for digital publishers is simple: You boost, in theory, both Facebook exposure and referral traffic with almost no additional cost. It’s a fairly philistine strategy espoused by self-proclaimed brand strategists and vendors of social media tools, usually in pitches about efficiently maximizing audience opportunities.

The problem? It’s an approach to Facebook that objectively failed at the Chicago Tribune, according to internal analysis. And if you study your own data, you’ll probably find it isn’t working for you, either.

Here’s a good example of the results we saw when we reposted previously shared stories:

First post
Second post

It’s a compelling piece about cotillions in Evanston, one of Chicago’s North Shore suburbs. Each post had a unique approach, with very different text and photos. The first and second posts were separated by two days, one on a weekday and one on a Sunday. In this example, the first post had a reach of 96,703 and the second post had a reach of only 5,614 — even though they linked to the same article. But maybe that first share was just more engaging.

So here’s another:

First post
Second post

Here we have a consumer issue with tech overtones, so we’d expect some success. The two posts have the same photo but different text. They were four days apart. Again the first share reached far more people.

One more example:

First post
Second post

Here it’s the same photo and the same text. Despite those similarities, we see dramatically different results, with the second share of the same story getting a fraction of the reach and just a single like.

In looking at a full year of Chicago Tribune Facebook data, we saw this trend repeated hundreds of times. All told, more than 88 percent of second shares of stories published on Facebook as link posts had a lower reach than the first post. And it wasn’t slightly lower. The median loss of reach was more than 70 percent. So if that first share reached 50,000 people, only 15,000 people saw that second share. It’s a trend we had anecdotally observed at the Tribune but never proved out until now.

First, second and third posts. Average, low and lower.

Now, there’s a lot of background here that’s critical in understanding the scope of this analysis — which is actually fairly narrow. So get ready for a notebook dump.

But I want to hit two points before we get too deep in the weeds. The first is that as much as we can control for variables, the quality of a Facebook post is obviously a factor. A really clever second post can outperform a first post. It’s social media. You get points for style. However, it’s clear the trend at the Tribune was biased against that success.

The second is that there are viable reasons you might want to post the same story link multiple times to Facebook despite the forecast. Maybe it’s important investigative journalism you want seen by as many people as possible, even if the number of people diminishes each time.

My point in publishing this data isn’t necessarily to discourage you from sharing the same story link multiple times. It’s to give you insight into the results based on what we’ve seen at the Tribune. And I’m hoping it’s specific enough to help anyone replicate this study as well.

The Process

For the bulk of this analysis, the goal was to measure the outcome of resharing stories. And by stories, I’m specifically referring to link posts to articles on a publisher’s website. For most traditional digital media, this is the majority of Facebook shares.

We know Facebook’s News Feed algorithm treats post type (photo, video, live video, link) as a signal to some degree in matching audience and content. So comparing a photo post (maybe with a Bitly link to a photo gallery) to that same photo gallery shared as a link post wouldn’t be an apples-to-apples comparison. For the cleanest possible look at how the algorithm reacts to second or third shares of the same link, you must keep post type consistent. In our case, link post to link post.

To construct a viable dataset, I downloaded all of the 2017 data from CrowdTangle and Facebook Insights (in chunks, as always. Fix this). Turns out, the Tribune had around 10,000 posts in 2017. I then compiled it into one Excel document that included created time, post type, Facebook URL, link URL, engagement, reach, link clicks, message, link text and description.

The objective was to check for matching link URLs.

If a link URL appeared more than once, that means the Chicago Tribune shared that link multiple times. We could then filter by date (to determine order) and post type.

My first disappointment was that I found many URLs contained UTM codes for tracking, cache busting and navigation. This meant duplicate shares were sorting as unique URLs, such as this http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/baseball/cubs/ct-cubs-world-series-steve-bartman-20170731-story.html?s or http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-donald-trump-voting-commission-illinois-met-0708-20170707-story.html#nt=oft02a-2li3.

Newsroom developer Acton Gorton ran a regex script to strip the extraneous data from the URLs. From here, I could sort by URL and find the matches. It turned out, there were a little more than 1,000 instances of the same link being shared in 2017. This was higher than I anticipated.

After sampling some of this data, I also determined that a few posts in that sample of roughly 1,000 had been created and deleted. The links went to dead pages. Perhaps a second share was removed after someone noticed it had been posted earlier. Those posts, however, still had data, albeit tiny. In response, I had to test each of the 1,000 shared URLs to make sure the second post didn’t underperform that first one because the second only existed for a few minutes. I ended up excluding six pairs of posts where one of the posts was deleted from the final data.

Then I built two pivot tables. One was around URL, broken down by created time with columns for type by reach. Then I built another around URL, broken down by created time with columns for type by link clicks.

After that, it was just sort, calculate and compile.

The Data

As Facebook metrics are always in motion, all the data were pulled on Sept. 7, 2018. The tale of the tape is as follows:

  • The Chicago Tribune shared 9,699 posts in 2017.
  • There were 1,031 total instances of the same link shared in 2017.
  • Twelve posts were excluded because either the first or second post was deleted for unknown workflow reasons.
  • 72 posts were excluded because they didn’t meet our core requirements of having two link posts to calculate between. Maybe the first was a photo post and the second was a video post.
  • There were 64 pairs where a native video post followed a link post. I’ll set those aside and get to them later.

Once all that was categorized and grouped, that left us with 424 post pairings where a first, second or third share of a link post could be identified.

Of those 424 total Chicago Tribune link post pairings in 2017, where a link post was followed by another link post, 88.21 percent of second shares had lower reach than the first.

In the 88.21 percent of cases where the second link post underperformed the first, the median percentage loss of reach was 70.74 percent with a median decline of 29,515 reach and an average decline of 60,726.26 reach.

In the 11.79 percent of cases where the second link post outperformed the initial post, the median reach gain was 53.98 percent with a smaller median gain of 6,702 reach and an average reach gain of 13,857.88. When the second share won, the victory was smaller.

Drilling down further, all the second and third link posts the Chicago Tribune shared combined for a median reach of 12,603 and an average reach of 18,113.54. This is significantly below the median and average monthly per post reach for every month for all of 2017. This suggests that not only did the second post usually underperform the first post, but it had less potential than even a typical post.

In practice, it looked like this:

First post
Second post

Or this:

First post
Second post

So, if your goal is simply audience and exposure, you’re probably better off picking something new rather than re-sharing something old, provided you have choices.

Video as a Second Post

Separately, I mentioned there were 64 instances where a native video post followed a link post. In 62.5% of cases, that native video second post with a Bitly link to the same story actually outperformed in reach the original link post. That reverses the trend even if the dataset is smaller.

Here’s an example:

Second post

But, in this same sample of 64 pairs, the link posts averaged 1,765.71 link clicks while native videos averaged only 582.95 link clicks. As an aside, native photos as a second post averaged 212.1 link clicks.

As such, posting a native video as the second share strongly helped avoid the reach and engagement loss, but those videos got far fewer link clicks — as videos do. So even if you mitigate reach loss with native video second postings, your referral potential, measured by average link clicks, is diminished by 66.98 percent, based on this sample.

The takeaway

Now, why posts behave this way is not something Facebook publicly discusses. We know, loosely, when someone you follow makes a post, an initial determination is made based on many factors like topic and post type to determine if you’re likely to interact with that share. If it’s optimal, you see it. The algorithm tries to find the best initial audience based on an individual’s Facebook behavior. It’s person centered not publisher centered.

So if you’re a person who always interacts with Cubs videos and the Chicago Tribune, which you follow, posts a Cubs video, you’re more likely to see that post. Once there’s interactions, that share could be expanded to more people based on comments, likes etc.

If a publisher shares the same link a second time, Facebook, having already tried to find the optimal matches, tries to find the second best audience. In our example above, this might be a Chicago sports fan not just a Cubs fan. This, in theory, lowers the ceiling. This also debunks any thought that there’s a safe window after which you can repost for maximum exposure.

So what do you do with all this?

Based on the Tribune’s data, if your goal is just referral traffic, something Facebook doesn’t much care about, maybe ease up on spamming the same link. The data-smart strategy would be prioritize unshared content over previously shared content.

If your goal is exposure (read: reach), native video second posts appear like an effective option, for now, to mitigate that loss. Native video second posts might be a good way to keep a hot topic — or one you want to be hot — in front of Facebook users. But you almost certainly won’t get the same level of referral traffic. And let’s be honest, many stories aren’t effectively told through video.

Lastly, despite a sizeable decline in reach, you could establish a certain threshold where you would share a link post a second time because even a 70-percent decline in reach is still above the median reach of a typical post. Just don’t be surprised when your Facebook engagement metrics wither like Chicago’s dreams of securing Amazon’s #HQ2 — or second posts about that very topic.

First post
Second post

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Kurt Gessler

Director of Editorial Ops at @ChicagoTribune et al. I also teach stuff at @UNLincoln @Unl_CoJMC. Practicing journalism et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur