About two years ago I created a Facebook page specifically for my landscape photography – I did so for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’m a keen hobbyist photographer and I realised that I was just going to piss of my friends if I uploaded all my photos to my own timeline – it would start looking like spam. Secondly I wanted to see if I could earn a few dollars in order to support my hobby and so a page specifically set aside for my photos was the obvious solution.
So on the 2nd of December 2011, I created the page and started uploading my photos. Progress was pretty slow initially and so I checked out other photographers to see what I could do to help drive some traffic to my page. I looked at a lot of local photographers and also the pages of better known photographers based in the cities. In many cases the better known photographers had leveraged their presence elsewhere to build up healthy Facebook page likes, but many less well-known local photographers had also built up quite impressive numbers. It didn’t take much digging to find out how.
It turned out that a kind of symbiotic relationship had evolved between landscape photographers and various organisations such as tourist bodies. Photographers would upload their photos to the timelines of these organisations, these would then be shared with the organisation’s much larger readership and from that the photographer would get new likes for their page. Everybody was a winner – the organisation got high quality photos for nothing and the photographer got a bigger audience. So far so good.
You Scratch My Back
Like many hobbyist and professional photographers I’ve uploaded my photos to numerous Facebook timelines over the last few years. Since I’m Australian many of them have obviously been locally focused but I’ve also tried my luck with popular photo-sharing pages like Megashot. The results were encouraging.
Tourism Australia’s Facebook page is the most-liked country page of them all – they recently cracked the 5 million likes mark – no other country page or country-specific tourist organisation’s page comes close. One of the biggest reasons for that success is their viral use of fan-sourced photographs to promote the country.
If you’re lucky enough to get one of your photos shared individually it’s possible to experience a huge amount of interest directed at your page. The figures to the left were not untypical of the amount of likes, comments and shares a photo shared on Tourism Australia’s page used to generate. It’s easy to see why photographers like myself were falling over each other to get a piece of the action.
Every Friday Tourism Australia also publish their Friday Fan Photos – 30 to 40 shots picked from the hundreds of images uploaded to their timeline every week by people like me. It’s an enormously popular weekly feature that has been adopted by many other pages. While the interest it generates rarely comes close to individually shared images, it’s always used to be a welcome sight to find your photo in that Friday album.
Australia.com shared one of my photos in this week’s Friday Fan Photos and, at the time I’m writing this it had over 1,300 likes and 200 shares. Now you’d think that would lead to an influx of traffic to my page and a year ago you’d have been correct. But not any more. Firstly, a year ago those numbers would have been at least five times higher and secondly the traffic that’s driven to my page from Australia’s is virtually nothing – between five and 20 new likers if I’m very lucky. Posts of mine featured in last year’s Friday photos garnered 300 new likers from a single image!
The Problem with Paid Promotion
Since I started sharing my photos on Facebook in 2011 I’ve been fortunate enough to sell them to various tourism authorities for use in brochures and the like and also to local businesses seeking local imagery for use in adverts and marketing materials. Photography is not my job and so it’s a boost to my confidence and also a welcome injection of (a small amount of) cash.
The first photo I had shared by Australia.com on Facebook resulted in a huge influx of traffic to my page; I can’t recall exactly how many but it was getting on for a 150 new likers. I noticed similar spikes in traffic whenever one of my photos made the cut and so like many other photographers I religiously uploaded them to Australia.com’s page on a weekly basis.
Everything was going well right up to the introduction of the paid promotion. When the ‘Boost Post’ button first made its appearance on everyone’s pages we soon realised that the numbers of likes, shares and comments each post attracted had plummeted, virtually overnight. It turned out that only a fraction of a page’s likers were actually seeing the posts uploaded by a page owner. Then it transpired that you could add a page as an Interest and then all those posts would show up again and so soon all page owners were demonstrating how to do this although it’s very doubtful many people actually did it. So the bottom line was that images could still go viral, but you had to pay for the privilege.
The fact is that traffic sent to page owners from shares on even massive pages such as Australia.com is a tiny fraction of what it used to be. I’ve had images shared on many Fridays over the last few months and I get virtually no new likers out of it. Has the quality of my photography suddenly degraded or are my photos just not getting seen the way they used to be?
It’s obvious to anyone what’s going on. The recently floated Facebook, now required by demanding shareholders to make as much profit for them as possible, have cut off access to all those eyeballs and they won’t reinstate that access until you pay them their shilling. It’s not Australia.com’s fault that this has come to pass, but the fact is that there’s now no fringe benefit to sharing a photo on their page in terms of return traffic – at best it simply raises the profile a bit. The same holds true for all the other photo-sharing pages – sure there’s some kudos in getting featured, but don’t expect many views or new fans out of it.
The oddity of the situation, I must admit, boggles my mind. Facebook created the Pages format so people could set up specialist online destinations for their hobby, their business, their club or whatever other personal or business interest they had. They created an online publishing system within their social network and lots of people used it. But if they’d told those people that only 10% of their subscribers would ever see their content unless they paid a fee when they uploaded a post – and that they’d have to pay that fee every single time they uploaded – how many would have signed up?
The Golden Goose
Facebook’s use to people like me is now effectively at an end. We simply don’t earn enough money to justify spending what little return we make on boosting our posts.
The counter argument is of course the battle-cry of advertising agencies, that you have to speculate to accumulate. But I didn’t ever set out to become an advertiser, I have no desire whatsoever to have to worry about this sort of stuff. I simply wanted to share photos and if people wanted to buy the odd print here and there, then I made that possible. I don’t know what the solution is in the long-term, but I’d happily pay a (reasonable) annual subscription if Facebook would only give back the eyeballs they stole from me.
When it comes to sharing photos there are unfortunately very few alternatives that are worth pursuing. Sure I can upload my photos to Flickr, but then I’m just sharing them with other photographers, not people who are simply interested in seeing cool photos. I could upload them to Google+ (and I do when I remember) but Google+ like pretty much all of Google’s services is a torture to use – designed by engineers with fat fingers. I could upload to 500px, or 1X or ViewBug or Pixoto or YouPic, but the same arguments hold true as for Flickr – they’re full of photographers, not ‘everyone else’.
I’d dearly like access to a big social sharing site that cared about photographs. Ultimately Facebook is really just a huge photo-sharing site but they compress the life out of any photo uploaded to their site, squeezing it down so much you get horrible artifacts all over it. There isn’t a service anywhere on the planet that makes photographs look more awful.
So what’s the alternative folks? Where can us serious hobby photographers upload our photos where they a) look good and b) might get seen by more than just us and our cats. Where can we go to help fund our photographic addiction?
Update: Just read this excellent article by Lauren Riley that reinforces everything I’ve said above. Looks like me and Facebook will be parting ways very soon.
Update: And another great article here by Austin Petersen describing the same effect.
Update: Empirical evidence from Ignite Social Media – “Facebook Brand Pages Suffer 44% Decline in Reach Since December 1”