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Thrillist CEO Ben Lerer Explains the Power of Facebook's 'Dials' (Video)

The best way to get your content seen on Facebook: Turn it into a video.

Alex Ulreich for Re/code

It’s a good thing Ben Lerer has two businesses, because a few simple changes from Facebook is putting the hurt on one of them.

Lerer, CEO of Thrillist, runs both the commerce site JackThreads and the media property He’s also in a position that many Facebook publishers have been before him: Build a business on the back of Facebook and prepare to be hammered by routine changes to the social network’s secret sauce.

“When they did whatever dial work they did last year, that was really helpful for everybody [in media],” said Lerer at An Evening with Code/Media at the Steelcase WorkLife Center in New York City on Wednesday. “If you can pay, pay. If you can’t pay because you’re a poor media company, okay, it’s free. Like, overnight, the organic reach that you get with your retail business went away, and the organic reach that you get with your media business went through the roof.”

In other words, Facebook’s “dials” — a metaphor for the company’s News Feed algorithm — has the power to make or break businesses, and often with no warning. Publishers can’t do anything about it except adapt.

Facebook is still tweaking that algorithm, Lerer said. Media was last year’s priority, but now there’s a new type of content making it to the top of the pile. If you’ve been on Facebook more than five minutes over the past year, you’ve probably noticed it yourself.

“This year, they made their tweak around video,” he said. “Which is if you create video content — short-form, good-quality video content on Facebook — they’re going to promote you, and you’re going to rise. If you’re not you’re going to get dinged a little bit.”

Lerer says Thrillist isn’t making enough video for his liking just yet. But it turns out he’s not too bummed about the decline in reach he’s getting with his commerce postings.

“It’s a really smart move for them,” Lerer added. “I spend way more time on Facebook today than I did a year ago, because I find really interesting content, and I don’t have tons of e-commerce sites jamming stuff down my throat.”

Lerer isn’t just thinking about Facebook as a place to grow his companies. He’s also got an eye on Snapchat. “We’re playing around, doing stuff, talking about Discover, blah blah blah,” Lerer said. “If it continues on the trajectory it’s on, we’re going to be very, very, very active.”

Lerer’s Thrillist is a bit of a rare breed, and not just because the 10-year-old “startup” is very much a veteran by current tech standards. It’s also a media company that derives some 70 percent of its revenue from JackThreads, and has a 100,000-square-foot warehouse full of actual merchandise. Despite the unique combo and decade of “grinding” under his belt, Lerer said he has no plans to sell or spin off either business.

“We’re not selling the company to Viacom like I told ya,” he joked onstage to Re/code Senior Editor Jason Del Rey. “[But] I’m not just sitting under my desk all day [either].”

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