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Plus Report - By Thomas Baekdal - April 2012

Facebook Insights: Debunking Friends of Fans

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Avinash Kaushik
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The real insight into understanding how Facebook works doesn't come from total number of Likes or Friends of Fans. It comes from seeing how people behave in the organic soup we call social interaction. This is where the value is, and that's what drives sales.

Last week, HubSpot published the article "How to Analyze Facebook Insights to Improve Your Content Strategy", in it, you can read that pretty much all Facebook insight data is irrelevant, and that you should only focus on 'Total Likes' and 'Friends of Fans'.

That is pretty much the worst advice I have heard all year.

And it isn't the first time I have heard this, ever since Facebook launched their new metrics, I have heard the same thing from friends, colleagues, tweeps, social media experts, and on a ton of social blogs.

But they are wrong, completely wrong in fact. ...and here is why.


I'm not going to go into the details of every metric Facebook provides, I'm just going to look at the first four - presented to everyone at the very top of the Facebook insights page. Here is mine from 42Concepts.

As you can see, I have a few thousand Total Likes, a staggering 835,000+ Friends of Fans, a very small number of People Talking About it (I haven't posted for a while on 42Concepts), and a decent number for Reach.

Let's start off with 'Total Likes' and 'Friends of Fans'. The idea is that you have a brand, it has a number of fans, who in turn, have a number of friends. So, if a brand posts something on their page, all their fans will see the post, and the 'Friends of Fans' is then the total potential reach if everyone decided to engage with it.

Or as Hubspot puts it:

Total Likes tells you exactly how many people like your page, Friends of Fans tells you how many friends of those total likes can be reached - your true total reach.


Friends of Fans is the fans of all the lifetime likes listed above (AKA all the people who could possibly see your content). This is your pool of people who will potentially see what you're posting.

What a load of crap...

The only way this could be your total potential reach is if everyone sees everything, and if 'social' were strictly linear in its construction. We all know this isn't true. Social has an 'organic structure' by default. It will never react this way!

But there are more problems with this theory as well.

What if you get more fans/likes?

First of all, if 'Friends of Fans' represents your true total potential reach, it would also be your maximum total reach. That is, the total number of people who can see your posts, but no more.

But just look what happens if the same brand gets more fans because of their previous interactions. Suddenly, your potential total reach is completely different (in this example it has gone up 67%).

Some people might argue that this is because it is 'true potential reach' at that moment. But that is just a really bad excuse. It assumes that your potential is fixed, meaning that you do not have a potential in the first place. True potential reach is how many people you can reach today + growth.

The total true reach is something quite different, and the maximum potential reach is not even close to whatever your 'friends of fans' might be.

But this is a minor point.

They forgot about EdgeRank

The much bigger point is that HubSpot seems to have completely forgotten about Facebook EdgeRank. As you probably know, EdgeRank is Facebook's system for determining which posts to feature, when, and in what order.

It's determined by a number of factors, like how often a fan interacts with your page, the type of post, frequency etc. In short, if the relationship between a fan and a page isn't high enough, your fans might never even see your post in the first place.

Most brands completely misjudge how many posts EdgeRank leaves out. An easy way to check this is just to go to Facebook Insights and check 'reach' per post, compared to your total number of fans (it will often be much, much lower).

And remember, post reach is not just how many fans see a post, but how many people overall see it. So the real EdgeRank effect is going to be even lower than that.

If, as an example, only 40% of your fans see your post, and only 60% of their friends see their interactions. What is your true reach then?

Here is the result:

Remember, 40% is a very high number. Your actual reach will most likely be much lower. And in this example, I am assuming that *all* the fans who see your post, also engage with it (which they won't).

Already you can see what a disastrous effect it has on your 'Total Likes' and 'Friends of Fans'.

And here is the thing about EdgeRank. You have no control over it. None! It is solely a measurement over how your fans decide to interact with you, not how you decide to interact with your fans. It's one-way! And you have absolutely no influence over what the EdgeRank score is between a fan and their friends.

The problem with EdgeRank is that you have to engage with people from the start of your relationship. Because when people lose interest, it is going to be extremely hard to get them back.

It doesn't matter if you start to post funnier pictures, because people below the EdgeRank threshold won't see them. You need to actually reach people to influence them.

This is why it is so important to be consistent on Facebook. If your level of quality and interest varies greatly, you end up with a high number of 'Total Likes', but most of them will have a very low EdgeRank score, causing your message to be lost among more popular content.

This, for instance, is probably a big problem for Old Spice (although they are likely not aware of it). In 2010 they launched their highly popular 'I'm on a Horse' campaign, which generated more than a billion views, and increased their fan base from about 300,000 to 2 million. That was amazing!

But then, they stopped the campaign, and for the next 6 months they just posted boring marketing messages. They still had two million fans, but ever so slowly they lost interest, and stopped engaging with the brand.

The result is that today, when they launch something new, they have a very low level of engagement.

The reason is EdgeRank. Old Spice might think they are reaching 2 million fans, but they are likely to reach a number much lower than that. And when you then start to look at 'Friends of Fans', based on the total fans and total friends, things go horribly wrong.

You don't have to be a fan

Another factor is that you no longer have to be a fan of a page to interact with it. You can just go to it. I, for instance, am not a fan of Old Spice, but as you can see in the picture above, I can like, comment and share each post just like everyone else.

For brands this can have a huge influence on their real level of reach. Here is what it looks like:

Suddenly a brand is getting exposure from people who are not showing up as 'fans', who are, in turn, generating additional exposure for their friends, who are also not showing up as 'Friends of Fans'.

This completely skews 'Total Likes' and 'Friends of Fans' to the point of irrelevancy. 'Fans' and 'Friends of Fans' only represent a part of your real audience, but you don't know how big or small that part is.

This in turn, means that your reach per post, will be heavily skewed. It will still show the number of unique people you reach, you just have no idea how many of those are actual fans. If, for instance, you are running some hugely popular campaign on YouTube, with a link to your Facebook page, you will reach a lot of people, but only a small percentage of those are likely to be your fans. It's traffic coming to your Facebook page from an outside source, interacting with your page, without liking the page itself.

Total unknowns

It gets worse, because up until now, we have only looked at the traffic we can track on your Facebook page (and the direct interaction with your posts). But there are many other ways people can interact with you on Facebook.

Here is a simple example:

A while ago, Threadless posted this great t-shirt print on their Facebook page. And as you can see in the screenshot below, it got 1,832 likes, 93 comments, and 471 shares. Pretty good.

The problem with this, of course, is that you don't know what the share of 'Fans' vs 'Friends of Fans' vs 'strangers' is. Nor does it account for any overlap (people who like and comment and share). However, that's what 'post reach', 'engaged users', and 'people talking about' is for.

But then when you click on the link, and end up on their web shop, you see that the Facebook share button says this t-shirt has been shared more than 3,000 times.

Wait-a-minute, that's not the same number as 1,832! What's going on here?

The answer, of course, is something we all know (except HubSpot it seems). There are many different ways to engage with the same content, across channels.

In this case we have three different ways:

  1. People see the post on Facebook, and engage with iton Facebook.
  2. People see the post, click the link, and share it back to Facebook.
  3. People visit the web shop directly, and share it back to Facebook.

Only the first one will show up in your Page analytics, but all of them generate the same level of exposure (they are equally important).

Here is how that looks. You have this 'extra' exposure, by someone you have no idea about. You don't know if they are a fan or a stranger. You don't even know how much additional exposure that extra traffic creates (because you have no idea what the friends of friends reach is).

There is no link to your page.

In the *real example* with Threadless, this 'unknown' traffic is actually creating more exposure than their Facebook page. But you don't know if it is because of the original post, or because of something else.

The same is true for cross-channel interactions. In my article 'The Power of One Tweet' I demonstrated how one tweet will end up on many other channels, including Facebook.

Social doesn't stay where you put it. People might see it on your page, and decide to post it on Twitter, and from there it might go to Pinterest, and then end up back on Facebook.

Viral ...oh viral!

Now comes the fun part that completely blows away any reason you might have for looking at 'Friends of Fans'. The viral effect.

For some strange reason, many people seem to believe that social interaction stops when it reaches 'Friends of Fans' - as if there is a magical limit to how many times something can be shared.

There isn't.

What about "Friends of Friends of Friends of People who know someone, who have subscribed to Friends of Friends of a Fan?" That might sound complicated, but this is how social interaction works.

One example. How you ever seen two of your friends sharing the same post, even though they didn't know each other? How did they get that same information without having a shared relationship? The answer is that they are 'related' at a much higher level - a friend of a friend of a friend.

And have you ever reshared a post like that? We do that all the time. That is how something goes viral.

The idea that sharing *stops* with 'Friends of Fans' and that this is then your 'true reach' is absolutely bogus. Your true reach is everyone who has the potential to share what you post - at any level. Here is just a simple example:

Friends of Fans is the most useless number anyone has ever invented. On one hand, it drastically over-estimates how many people you can actually reach (because of EdgeRank). On the other, it drastically under-estimates your real reach because it defines social as linear sharing, at a maximum of one level + two levels of exposure.

And it is not like these two estimates cancel themselves out and thus create a usable average. The estimates have no relation to each other, causing everything about it to be the most misleading metric possible.

The only reason why we have 'Friends of Fans' is because it looks good. It's a completely imaginary number that clueless marketing assistants can show to their bosses, trying to make it appear as if they are doing a good job.

What can you use?

As with all types of analytics, there are always shortcomings that cause problems when it comes to making accurate predictions. And there is no completely accurate measurement with any of the numbers on Facebook.

But looking at the four top measurements, 'Total Likes', 'Friends of Fans', 'People Talking About This', and 'Weekly Reach', this is how it works:

Total likes (light green box)

It indicates some level of popularity, especially when compared to other brands doing the same as you. But as you can see, Total Likes does not in any way, indicate your real audience. It accounts for a fraction of it. Worst of all, many of your 'Total Likes' are not active fans (because of the problems with EdgeRank).

The result is sketchy at best. Sure, it can tell you something about you popularity overall, but it's problematic to use in relation to your engagement level.

We don't want 'Total Likes', we want 'Active Likes'. The same way as we don't want Facebook to tell us how many user accounts it has, we only want to know how many *active users* it has.

Also you have to take into account the size and market dominance of a company. Coca Cola, a global, billion dollar company, will get millions of fans simply because of their market dominance. But does that mean it is doing better than a local niche brand with only 10,000 likes?

Friends of Fans (light blue box)

This is completely and utterly useless. Not only does it count people you will never reach, and cannot ever reach, it also neglects to take into account all the other forms of exposure.

Social sites, like HubSpot, get it wrong. It does not in any way represent your true total reach, not even your potential reach.

People Talking About (red people)

This is where it gets interesting, because 'People Talking About' counts all the unique people who in some way are interacting with your content, regardless of their status. It can be fans, friends of fans, friends of friends of friends, complete stranger etc. The only thing it doesn't count is OpenGraph engagements, i.e. your 'Like' button on your web shop.

'People Talking About' is a far more accurate measurement of your real impact.

There is a catch though. 'People Talking About' counts all types of interaction, not just those that people make in relation to your posts.

As Facebook puts it:

The number of unique people who have created a story about your Page. A story is created when someone likes your Page; posts to your Page Wall; likes, comments on or shares one of your Page posts; answers a question you posted; responds to your event; mentions your Page; tags your Page in a photo; checks in at your Place; or recommends your Place.

Each type of engagement has a different level of value. Sharing a post is obviously far more valuable than just tagging it in a photo.

This is why I always recommend that brands look more at 'People Talking About' on a per post basis, instead of only looking at the page as a whole.

But still, this is far more interesting than just looking at likes or friends of friends (and you can clearly see why in the illustration above).

Reach (red+black people)

Reach is another very valuable measurement, as it tells you ...wait for it ...your true reach!! This is the number of unique people, at any level, that have seen content from your page. It doesn't limit itself to only fans or friends of fans, this is how many people you actually reach overall (accounting for EdgeRank).

Again, there is a catch in that reach also includes advertisements for your page. So if you are buying display ads or doing sponsored posts, the views from that will also be included in your total reach.

If you are doing a lot of Facebook advertisements, you need to account for that, and look at your advertising exposure to determine what percentage of your organic reach is actually paid-for reach.

Note: You can see this in your Facebook Insights export file.

And again, I recommend you look more at per post reach, than just the reach for the page as a whole.

OpenGraph traffic (orange and yellow people)

Finally we have all the OpenGraph traffic. This is where it gets tricky. While you can measure the number of Likes and Shares (orange people) using the OpenGraph API, there is no way to know how many people you effectively reach (yellow people).

This is a bit of a problem, because in the example of Threadless, the OpenGraph traffic actually outranks the Facebook Page traffic, but you don't know in what way or by how much. You only get information about the first level of interaction.

The real insight into understanding how Facebook works doesn't come from total number of Likes or Friends of Fans. It comes from seeing how people behave in the organic soup we call social interaction. This is where the value is, and that's what drives sales.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
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