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Relationship Reframes Paid Vs. Organic Facebook Debate

If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times: organic marketing on Facebook is dead. Pay-to-play, experts say, is the only way to really reach desired audiences. Regardless of industry, this has been the overall takeaway.

This clarion call has only gotten louder since Facebook announced in January that it would further prioritize content from friends and family on users’ News Feeds (see here for Facebook’s current commercial). This effectively makes it nearly impossible for brands’ organic content to rank high enough to be seen and forces them to spend more on paid ads.

Well, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of organic Facebook marketing have been greatly exaggerated. The first step to successfully fighting off that organic content death knell is identifying what connects Facebook users to those friends and family whose content will be prioritized: relationship.

Relationship Required for Effective Organic AND Paid

The challenge – for brands, at least – is that Facebook feeds effectively reflect what we want to do and see in real life. As users, we are interested in what our family members are up to; get excited about friends’ baby announcements; and engage with people on their opinion about new movies.

All of these things are built around our unique relationships, and, to be blunt, reading a post from a pharmaceutical campaign doesn’t typically rise to that same level. In general, a brand’s priorities are not about the Facebook user; they’re about the brand. It’s possible for a brand to establish a trustworthy relationship with users, but it requires commitment.

What exactly do I mean when I talk about a relationship on Facebook? Despite Facebook being a technology platform, the relationships are still human. They can be emotional, educational and supportive. Ultimately, two-way conversations are the cost of entry for a true relationship.

If a brand creates content that allows for meaningful conversation and has a clear benefit to users, it will start to receive likes, comments, and shares. As that brand’s content consistently receives engagement, Facebook will increasingly deem this a real relationship and make it more likely for that content to appear organically in the feed.

Organic growth will slowly occur as people share posts with their friends, who then share the posts with their friends. Eventually, brands will begin to build relationships via these people who are connected by shared interests. For those with patience, there is power in organic growth.

Of course, for those with less patience who want to reach more people quickly, it then is necessary to pay to promote content. However, a marketer with good Facebook user relationships – and, as a result, successful organic content – won’t need to pay as much. Facebook understands the value of relationships to users, as well as the value of those relationships to the relevance of the entire platform. Therefore, it doesn’t want to waste feed real estate – no matter how much brands pay them – on poor relationships.

How Most DTC Marketing Content Falls Short

Unfortunately, pharmaceutical brands don’t necessarily have the infrastructure to create authentic, relationship-building content that truly meets patients where they are. For a multitude of reasons – including risk, regulatory issues, and the lack of a core competency in creating content – it is nearly impossible for marketers to engage in open-ended conversations via social and digital platforms, including via unbranded campaigns. This reality limits the organic potential.

Marketers of unbranded campaigns often create generic content relevant to a perceived majority of people living with a specific condition or focused around a celebrity with some relationship to that condition.

However, not every person has the same experience with a specific condition. From symptoms to family life dynamics, people are as diverse as their feeds. Regardless, pharma brands spend a lot of money and resources forcing generic content into people’s Facebook feeds that doesn’t truly foster a relationship. Making matters worse, it creates a vicious cycle of overpaying.

What Marketers Need to Do

As marketers, we need to create a range of personal content that speaks to people at various stages of their journeys. This content must encompass a wide variety of emotional, educational and comprehension levels. For example, it’s important to include posts about clinical trials for those who are more inquisitive and proactive about treatments along with lifestyle articles about how tough it can be to wake up in the morning for the newly diagnosed.

The intent behind this is not simply to increase reach, which it still does. On a greater scale, it establishes that a brand is willing to understand where people are in their patient journeys, as well as the information, resources, and conversations they need. This increases the likelihood that a Facebook user with a specific condition will find content relevant and worthy of engagement. That engagement then makes it more likely to push that marketer’s content toward the top of that user’s feed.

There are two major obstacles here. First, it’s not easy to just start creating relatable posts, engaging around it on Facebook, and assuming it will have impact as organic content. Marketers need to be fully committed to having a two-way relationship with people and everything that entails.

Second, as mentioned previously, pharmaceutical brands can only do so much on social and digital channels, due to the regulatory environment. Therefore, the first step is to get into the mindset of “meeting people where they are.” This is done by being open to and then creating promotional campaigns, tools, and ads that show the brand understands various aspects of the patient journey, as opposed to creating a single ad or promoted post that might only be relevant to a subset of people with a condition.

However, to truly get the desired organic reach on Facebook, brands should invest in the necessary resources to understand people’s needs. The best way to do this is by partnering with companies adept at listening to relevant condition-specific conversations, moderating engagement, and adapting messaging. In short, these partnerships are the relationships brands need to create and maintain meaningful relationships on Facebook.

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David Shronk
Senior Vice President of Media at Health Union
David Shronk is senior vice president of media at Health Union. David leverages his years of working in both pharma marketing at GSK and digital measurement at comScore to create client solutions while leading business development, account management, media operations and product strategy. Health Union leverages content marketing and social media to cultivate online communities dedicated to helping people live better with serious health concerns, like migraine, multiple sclerosis and blood cancer.
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