If you've been promoting your brand and books on Facebook via a Fan Page*, then stories like The Free-Marketing Gravy Train Is Over on Facebook (from Time Magazine's site) may have you in a tizzy. Don't be.
Those articles are either intimating, or stating outright, that this is some kind of plot on Facebook's part to force Fan Page owners to either pay to "boost" their posts or pay for ads in order to maintain the same level of exposure, or "Reach", as they've enjoyed in the past. I don't doubt Facebook is very much interested in selling "boosts" and ads, but the truth is that you don't have to invest in either of those things to increase your Fan page posts' Facebook Reach.
*Note that this post only applies to Fan pages, not individual Facebook Profiles (aka "Timelines"). This is because there are no tools for measuring engagement or boosting posts on Profile/Timeline pages: those pages are supposed to be for private individuals to engage socially with their private networks, they're not intended to be used for marketing purposes. So if you want to deal in Reach on Facebook, you need a Fan page.
How Do I Know This?
I manage a few FB fan pages for my day job and I've been observing the 'Reach' trends on both 'boosted' (promoted for a fee) posts and non-boosted posts. The ones with the greatest Reach are ALWAYS the ones with the most "engagement": Likes, clicks, Shares, comments. This is regardless of whether or not a given post has been 'boosted', and in fact I frequently see non-boosted posts far exceed the reach of boosted posts.
It's kind of a chicken-or-the-egg loop once the post is out there, because you have to get initial Likes, clicks, Shares and comments to improve the post's visibility in your Fans' newsfeeds. Higher visibility leads to more Likes, clicks, Shares and comments, and so on and so on.
FB is keeping the details of their Reach algorithm secret, but based on what I've observed it goes kind of like this:
You post something to your fan page. Facebook says, "Okay, we'll show this post in the newsfeed of a very small test group of your Fans, and see if it gets any engagement. If it does, we'll show it a larger group. If it gets more engagement from that new group, we'll show it to an even larger group." And so on, and so on. So Facebook isn't just blowing smoke when their reps say the new algorithm is intended to ensure that only the most 'engaging' stuff gets pushed to users' newsfeeds.
Context, and Specifics: How Many People Get To See A Post Immediately, and Ultimately?
One of the Fan pages I manage has around 16,000 fans (or "Likes"). I make three posts a day to that page, and others I work with make another 3 - 5 posts to the page each day. A typical post that hasn't been "boosted" via paid promotion is only initially shown to 50 - 60 of the page's fans. That's about .3% - one third of one percent of the total number of people who Liked the page and actually WANT to see updates from it.
If the post gets one Like, it may or may not get more exposure; that seems to depend on who is doing the Liking (more on that below). But if it gets more than one Like, the Reach needle definitely starts to move. For example, an unboosted post I made on one of those Fan pages at 5pm yesterday got an initial Reach of about 54, then it got 5 Likes and its Reach expanded to around 1200.
Likes are well and good, but it's the Shares that really kick your Reach into high gear. After that example post got its 5 Likes, it got one Share and Reach immediately jumped to over 3,500. I guess this makes sense, since a 'Share' shows a lot more interest (or, "engagement") than a Like. More Shares tend to lead to more Likes, which increases Reach even further, and so it goes.
Even so, ever since Facebook altered its Reach algorithms for Fan pages and introduced its new Reach tracking tools last year (not coincidentally, about the same time the 'boosted posts' advertising program was rolled out), I've never ONCE seen ANY page posts on ANY of the pages I manage, boosted or not, reach any more than about one-third of the page's total Fan base. Boosted posts seem to consistently hit a reach of around 15% of the page's total Fan base, and only rarely go higher.
It's true that boosting a post that's already getting a pretty good Reach organically may create a snowball effect, but since you have no control over whose newsfeeds will be included when you pay to boost a post, you can't be certain about this. If the extra Reach is only, or mostly, going to page Fans with very small followings of their own, it may not make much of a difference. More on that in the next section.
The Reach Formula Is Complex, and Has Many Factors
Another Fan page I manage has nearly 70,000 fans, and the Reach of its posts seems to be calculated a little differently from the page with the 16k Fans. For one thing, its posts generally get a starting Reach of around 800, which is about 1.1% of the total page Fans. That's considerably higher than the initial Reach on the other page, and I take this to mean that Facebook is assuming more popular pages should automatically get more Reach, right off the bat. So the size of your page's Fan base matters: the more Fans, the wider initial Reach.
Now consider Likes and Shares. I've already explained how Likes have a lower Reach impact than Shares, but there's one caveat: it also matters WHO is Liking or Sharing your post. If the person doing the Liking or Sharing has a pretty wide Reach of their own (meaning, they have a LOT of Fans or Friends), his or her Like/Share will boost your post's Reach much more than if he/she has a relatively narrow Reach. So the Reach of your Fans matters, too.
One more thing: the more engagement your posts get from Shares, the wider their Reach becomes. So even if a given post has only gotten a couple of Likes and one Share on your own Fan page, if that Share is on a very popular page and there's a lot of engagement on the Share, those bits of engagement seem to be weighted more heavily than the initial Likes and Shares on your own page.
This makes sense to me, since it's definitely in keeping with the viral nature of the web: the more people who have nothing to do with the original poster become engaged with the post, the more "viral" the post seems, and the more motivated Facebook is (it seems) to broaden the Reach of that post.
What Does All This Mean For Your Fan Page?
If you've always done a good job of posting stuff people are interested in and tend to engage with, you can just keep doing what you've been doing. It's true that no Fan page post is ever going to get the same Reach today as it would have a few years ago, before Facebook started tinkering with its Reach formula and pushing boosted posts and advertising, but at least it's a level playing field. Everyone with a Fan page, from Coke to you, is climbing uphill against the same Reach obstacles.
If you've never gotten much engagement, make a concerted effort to change that. Statistics have shown again and again that posts which include an image get more engagement than those without, so start including images in your posts as often as possible. Facebook's recent site redesign definitely shows that Facebook itself places a premium value on images: they're so much bigger on the site now! Try to tailor your posts to what's most likely to generate Shares: humor, how-to's, lists and "surprising but true" stories. Videos may not be your best bet, since not everyone can watch a video at the moment they happen to see your post.
Breaking news -type stories are popular too, but won't generally be a fit for an author or publisher page.
This is why part of my day job involves creating weekly, humorous memes to be posted to Fan pages. Funny memes spark Likes and Shares like nothing else. The second most consistently popular posts on the pages I manage are about deeply discounted, bestseller ebooks; people also like those quite a bit, and like to Share them.
Start analyzing those little Reach statistics and graphs Facebook provides at the top of each Fan page, and look for patterns. If more engagement consistently happens at certain times of day, try to post at those times. If certain types of posts consistently perform better, focus on posting more of the same.
And if you happen to HAVE a Facebook Fan page, feel free to share the link to this article!