Facebook Engagement Bait and Shadow Bans Bewares Marketing

This post on Facebook was originally written for my newsletter back in January. I’m making a handful of those emails public to highlight the growing list of benefits when you sign up to my Friday newsletter. More details at the bottom.

Websites try to keep your attention as long as possible, but the stakes are higher on Facebook where a drop in engagement can cost millions of dollars. Or FACEBOOK as it now insists on calling itself, like a shouty man outside a pub.

Content which keeps people on Facebook – like video or pictures – gets much more organic reach than content which sends people away, such as a link to your books on Amazon. Not only that, Facebook will also give preference to content which is genuinely engaging.

Please note the emphasis.

Facebook doesn’t have an army of humans sifting through the billions of pieces of content on Facebook and giving a gold star to the best of it – AI does the heavy lifting here. The way the system measures engagement is necessarily crude: what is getting Likes, comments, and shares?

In simple terms, people want engaging content and Facebook wants to show them content with high engagement, so if you can post content which triggers good engagement levels, then that content will get much more visibility.

And visibility can be worth a lot of money, of course.

Some people will seek to game engagement because it is so valuable. And like virtually any cheap marketing gimmick, doing this is actually quite counterproductive.

I’m surprised that what is known as “engagement bait” — don’t worry, I’ll have some clear examples for you in a minute — is still recommended by so-called experts because Facebook’s system has been pro-actively seeking out such content and vigorously suppressing it for over two years.

But let’s rewind.

Facebook Engagement Bait Defined

What is engagement bait, exactly? What are the rules around this stuff? How can you avoid being penalized? And what can you do instead to garner this all-important engagement? Let’s take those in turn.

Facebook show some commendable clarity here and define it succinctly:

Engagement bait is a tactic to create Facebook posts that goad people into interacting, through likes, shares, comments, and other actions, in order to artificially boost engagement and get greater reach on News Feed.

Facebook even goes on to identify multiple types of engagement bait: vote baiting, react baiting, share baiting, tag baiting, and comment baiting. It’s all variations on a theme and you’ve seen lots of these posts before.

“Tag a friend who loves brisket,” is one I saw not long ago from a (normally) savvy BBQ festival.

“Share with five people to win a weekend in Scranton,” would be hilarious but is verboeten now.

This kind of inorganic engagement prodding is not tolerated by Facebook — so serious about it, in fact, that actual examples are provided, in another welcome moment of clarity.

Facebook Engagement Bait examples

Feel free to click those examples above if you want to see the official Facebook guidance on Engagement Bait, or zoom in on those examples a little better. But don’t go looking for holes in the fences.

In case anyone thinks this is a dumb algorithm that you can circumvent by kicking up a little dust, let me be clear: Facebook aren’t messing around here. The system can even detect engagement bait in the audio track of video content.

The message is clear: don’t do it.

That’s not to say Facebook can’t get this wrong, or sanction accounts incorrectly – that happens all the time. I’m just saying that Facebook’s tolerance for this kind of thing is pretty low and it seems to be making a concerted effort to root it out.

I’m sure you still see stuff like this in your feed, but I guarantee you that this content has been demoted – suppressed, essentially – and is visible to far, far less people than it would be without the engagement bait. Keep in mind that you don’t know how much money the advertiser is spending to push that content, or that they are probably torching their money too.

Facebook Engagement Rules

Facebook is being a little like that Supreme Court justice in the 1960s who famously defined p*rn by simply saying “he knows it when he sees it.” (If you want a far better definition of p*rn, by the way, look up what Chilean author Isabel Allende had to say…)

Instead, Facebook is suggesting some guiding principles. It wants authentic engagement, not posts which “goad” users into engagement, to use Facebook’s own terminology.

By the way, while we are on the topic, one thing that will really help your authentic engagement levels is having professional graphics and branding. I have a free Canva tutorial on how to make pro-level Facebook graphics over on my new YouTube channel. I’m publishing lots of guides like this over there, so make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss anything.

Warning: contains extreme quarantine beard.

Back to Facebook and its rules. The bar for what it considers to be authentic might be higher than you think.

Facebook will consider “LIKE this if you LOVE kick-ass heroines!” to be engagement bait and will demote that content. And this applies to both posts from Pages and individuals too, just in case anyone’s lizard-brain was working in that direction.

Somewhat understandably, Facebook doesn’t want to sketch out the exact line, because it knows that those seeking to game the system will tiptoe right up to it… and then look for loopholes.

Facebook is instead urging everyone to only post content which is authentically engaging, not content which tricks people to engage, or seeks to elicit engagement responses which are not directly related to the content itself, or anything which artificially boosts engagement in any way.

To be clear – as I know many of you will ask – I don’t think Facebook’s target is the kind of giveaway hosted off Facebook that can be popular with authors, where you are often asked to Like someone on Facebook and follow them on BookBub and share their tweet for competition entries.

The target here is the kind of pleading posts on Facebook itself begging for Likes and shares and so on.

And despite Facebook’s (understandable) equivocation, I think the line is pretty obvious. “LIKE this post if you think Tom Hardy is hot!” would be a problematic piece of engagement bait. But posting a picture of Tom Hardy and naturally attracting Likes because he is a total dreamboat would be perfectly fine.

Whether doing the latter is still a good idea for your business or not is another matter, and depends on exactly what type of audience you are seeking to build – more on that in a moment.

Personally, I think the above examples (both mine and Facebook’s) are clear enough to know what must be avoided, especially when contrasted with the best practice advice you should be following instead, which I go through below. These approaches are worlds apart – there’s no point trying to map the vast hinterlands inbetween.

Despite everything I have said, some of you might still think this is worth risking. I urge you to reconsider, because Facebook further goes on to say that, “Pages that repeatedly share engagement bait posts will see more significant drops in reach.”

In short, if you keep posting engagement bait, you will get shadowbanned.

How Can We Get Engaged?

Be engaging! I’m not being facetious. Okay, fine; I’m being a little bit facetious. But there’s no “trick” here. You need to put in the effort.

Spend some time thinking about your target audience, and post things that they find engaging.

There are landmines here too, though. As you have heard me say numerous times before, the very sustainability of your promotional efforts is increasingly dependent on developing a sense of your Ideal Reader, and then marketing to them exclusively. Targeting rules.

That’s just as true for building an organic audience on Facebook as it is for targeting your BookBub or Amazon Ads. In other words, you don’t want to post that video of 62 Labrador puppies frolicking in a swimming pool, as cute as it may be, and as many Likes as it might attract. You need to post something that will specifically appeal to your audience. Something that only they will enjoy, not something for a general crowd.

If you need more specific advice on that point, please read my guide to content marketing, and the universal principles behind all great content.

Content Marketing 101 blog header

I keep hammering home this point about targeting because it is absolutely critical and the biggest mistake people make with this stuff.

Constantly posting pictures of puppies will get you engagement – lots and lots of easy engagement – but ask yourself this: are you building an audience of readers or puppy lovers? Let’s term this dog-baiting and skip that too.

Sorry, Mr. Pickles! You’re still a good boy.

One last thing…

I hope you enjoyed this post! It was originally published as a private newsletter to my marketing mailing list several months ago. I send out content like this every Friday to thousands of authors.

For example, this email was part of a TWELVE PART SERIES on Facebook. If you want to learn how to use Facebook Ads for free, instead of paying hundreds of dollars for a course, sign up to my list.

You’ll get access to all the other emails you missed too, covering all sorts of other topics like reader psychology and email marketing and launch strategies and BookBub Ads and algorithms and how to start a new pen name from scratch.

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David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.