“Big news outlets stupidly sold their soul to Facebook. Desperate for the referral traffic Facebook dangled, they spent the past few years jumping through its hoops only to be cut out of the equation,” wrote Josh Constine on Tech Crunch last year, in an article entitled ‘How Facebook stole the news business’.
Constine suggested that publishers have relied too much on Facebook and haven’t spent enough time developing their homepage audience and growing the number of newsletter subscribers – a harsh truth, maybe, but an issue not unfamiliar to those of us who’ve spent the last few years at the mercy of the platform’s changing settings and algorithms.
That’s why Facebook’s big algorithm change last year created so much tension between the social media giant and the people who make a living from publishing news. The way the algorithm change affected users’ newsfeeds had a serious impact on publishers and was widely reported to have been a contributing factor in some of them going out of business in 2018.
What we’re talking about is specifically referral traffic and many publishers reported huge declines. Some lost as much as 87% of the traffic Facebook used to send their way.
A year later, the situation is far from good for news publishers, but they still can’t afford to disregard Facebook as a platform to circulate content, and here’s why.
Crunching the numbers
Publishers should still be aware that Facebook gets readers to their websites. Our new reader data study reveals that Facebook brings 13.6% of readership to online media. That’s still not an insignificant percentage.
So, first, some notes on how we did this. We analyzed data coming from 20 different news outlets located across the world. Data was acquired over Q1 2019, in January, February, and March and we looked into reading sessions for 495 million readers. The total number of analyzed sessions was 1.3 billion.
Apart from learning the volume of traffic publishers can expect from Facebook, we were also interested in learning how big Facebook’s referral traffic is, compared to other social media.
Ultimately, we wanted to look at the quality of the audience and answer the question of whether you should fight Facebook’s algorithm at all costs, and try all you can to get the most traffic out of it, or if that’s a dead-end.
Here’s what data has to say.
Facebook brings engaged readership
Are people who find news on Facebook equally engaged with the content as people who discover it elsewhere? Or are they the type of readers who don’t read attentively and don’t interact with the content, as is commonly believed?
Our data shows they are just as engaged as other readers, and that’s exactly why you should care about them. Comparing our reader engagement metrics for visitors who discover news stories in other places and for those who discover content on Facebook, in fact, we notice very little difference.
Average Read Depth for all referrers excluding Facebook was 49.5%, while readers who come to news websites from Facebook on average recorded 50.5%, one percent more for Facebook.
What is Read Depth?
Read Depth is a complex metric that unveils how deeply a visitor has got into reading a piece of content. It takes into consideration true attention time, length of the text, scroll-depth, and the average time it takes for a reader to consume the content. It analyzes only the article content on the page, disregarding all other elements.
The situation is similar when it comes to another engagement metric – Attention Time. People who discovered content on Facebook spent on average 60.7 seconds reading articles, while people who discovered content in other places spent on average 63.5 seconds reading the content. This margin of 1.8 seconds on average stands for only 4.4% difference in favor of other referrers.
What is Attention Time?
Attention Time calculates the time a user spends on the page reading the content. It doesn’t count ‘idle time’ – i.e. those seven minutes you left to make a cup of coffee and left the browser window open.
Facebook scores worse in one important metric
The only engagement metric that has significantly worse values for Facebook users is Page Depth, a metric that shows a reader’s willingness to continue reading articles on a certain website during the same reading session.
Average Page Depth (average number of pages visited within a single session) for visits excluding the ones coming from Facebook was almost 1.93 articles per visit. When people came from Facebook, Page Depth for their visits was on average 1.29. While this might not look like a massive difference, this means that on average, people who come from Facebook consume 33% more articles per reading session.
There’s a reason for this, and it lies within the technology Facebook uses. If a reader comes to a news website from a Facebook newsfeed on a mobile device, clicking the ‘back’ button will take him back to Facebook, denying the possibility to explore the website he was looking at.
When people click on article posts in their newsfeed using a personal computer, the article opens in a new tab, so they can’t go back. The bottom line is, none of these scenarios will take users back to the website’s homepage, which is not good for retaining readers on your website, i.e. increasing the Page Depth score.
Facebook = Social traffic
It’s almost true. There’s no other social network (and we keep track of data for the world’s 17 biggest social networks) that comes near to Facebook when we talk about the number of readers it sends to publishers.
Our study shows that in Q1 2019, 17.6% out of all readers we analyzed discovered news content on social networks. As we said earlier, 13.6% of people come from Facebook. This means 76.9% of readers who discover online content on social media, arrive via what’s still the world’s most popular social network.
When it comes to Article Reads, data favors Facebook even more. Out of the 224.2 million article reads that came from social networks, 208.5 million (92.9%) came from Facebook.
It’s no wonder that publishers have depended on Facebook for circulating their content in the social sphere.
What is Article Reads?
Article Reads is a metric that counts the number of times a real person opened an article, spent at least 10 seconds on it, and started consuming the content.
It’s similar to page-views, but it’s not a basic browser event: it requires tab-in focus and human interaction with the page
When it comes to reader engagement, the differences between people who discover content on Facebook and those who do so on other social media platforms is very small.
Readers’ Attention Time scores are on average longer for Facebook users by only 0.25 seconds or 0.5%.
Read Depth values don’t differentiate much either. On average, readers coming from Facebook read 50.57% of a single article, while people who came from other social networks consumed 50.43% of a single article.
Why should you care?
By reducing the amount of traffic it sends to publishers, Facebook is responsible for – in part – ‘killing’ online news business. Less traffic to news websites has a direct impact on publishers’ revenue, but this has been the case for the past few years.
This study, however, shows us that whatever is Facebook doing to take away advertising money from publishers or make it harder for them to reach their audience without actually paying to Facebook – the social media giant still ‘keeps them on the leash’. Simply put, the traffic publishers get from Facebook is still significant – and particularly so in this climate where multiple ways of distributing content is important.
More importantly, the audience that comes from Facebook is not by any terms bad. It’s just as highly engaged with stories as people who discover content on homepages, newsletters, and via search engines.
The only thing where Facebook readers come short is the number of articles they read in a single session, but that is the case with other social media platforms as well.
One thing’s clear: who would want to lose almost a seventh of their readership by never posting on Facebook, right?
In the attention-deficit era, every reader counts, and that’s why publishers will keep coming up with ways to utilize Facebook as best as they can. Unfortunately, nobody can anticipate just how much Facebook referral traffic will shrink in the next couple of years, and whether they’ll introduce any further changes that will limit publisher’s reach and efficiency. We’ll keep you posted with what we learn in the data bunker by doing quarterly analyses on the size of referral traffic.
If you’re interested to read more about the trends in the publishing industry, check out our other data stories here.