May 30, 2024 , in technology


Is Social Media Traffic Essential to Online News?

Online news publishers are suffering from a sharp fall in referrals from Facebook and other social media. What's behind the drop and what can publishers do about it?

Eidosmedia Social Media and Online News

Social Media and Online News | Eidosmedia

Since our last post on the often troubled relationship between news publishers and social media platforms, things have gotten worse. Social sites have sharply reduced their referrals to online news sites. The loss of traffic has been painful and, in some cases, fatal for publishers. Still, opinions are divided on whether this is a positive development or not — and what publishers can do about it.

Eidosmedia explores both sides of the debate and potential solutions to dwindling referral traffic.

The fall in referrals

Over the past two years, stories about falling referral traffic have been plentiful. From social media sites deprioritizing news content to the impending impacts of generative AI (GenAI) search results, many are predicting an epic cataclysm for referral traffic-dependent digital publishers.

According to a survey of digital news providers carried out by Reuters research, 63% of respondents said they are worried about a sharp decline in referral traffic from social media sites. Their fears are well founded as the report points out: “Data sourced for this report from analytics provider Chartbeat shows that traffic to news sites from Facebook fell 48% in 2023, with traffic from X/Twitter declining by 27%.” But it’s not just social sites that are deserting publishers. Gartner predicts that traditional search engine volume will drop 25% by 2026 as users shift to AI chatbots for answers.

Why the (not so) sudden change in traffic patterns? “At this point, it seems pretty clear from the comments that executives at Facebook and Meta made that they have just decided that news is more trouble than it’s worth and that they will show people a fairly minimal amount of it,” Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein told CNBC.

Meanwhile, Owen Meredith, CEO of the News Media Association (NMA), and Reach CEO and NMA chair Jim Mullen, accuse Meta of “choking trusted news” by deprioritizing authoritative news within Facebook’s newsfeed. Regardless of the reasons for the trouble, publishers who have invested heavily in social media and other referral channels now find themselves in a bind.

Impact on Online News Publishers

The sharp decline in social media referrals has had a profound impact on online news publishers, affecting their traffic, revenue streams, and overall sustainability. CNBC reported that “An analysis of 1,930 news and media websites from over 370 companies… revealed that Facebook accounted for 33% of those publishers’ overall social traffic, measured by page views, as of December, down from 50% a year earlier.”

For many news outlets, revenue is tied directly to traffic. Advertisers often pay per view, or per click, but even if they are paying a flat fee it is almost certainly tied to the number of daily, weekly, or monthly users that typically come to the site. So, for publishers, a large drop in traffic can have dire consequences.

While the changes have certainly caused panic for some, other publishers have had to rethink their editorial strategies, ultimately leading to better content. For instance, some outlets are focusing less on quantity and more on quality. Digiday reported that Bustle Digital Group’s flagship website, Bustle, went from publishing an astonishing 150 articles a day in 2022 to just 30 or 40 stories a day in 2024. This narrower focus has meant they create more in-depth reported pieces, videos, and celebrity profiles that create more buzz for the brand. Stories like this suggest digital publishers may benefit from moving away from a numbers game and refocusing their energy on the nuts and bolts of great content.

There’s another lesson to be learned from Bustle: diversification. When it comes to monetization, Bustle does not just rely on ads; instead, they sell 360 content programs that include everything from talent booking to social content to events.

Publishers Seek Alternative Traffic Sources

Faced with the dwindling traffic from social media platforms, some news publishers are actively exploring alternative channels to reach their audiences through content syndication, newsletters, and even other social channels.

Reuters reports that 77% say they responded to the decline by focusing on direct channels. That is not a surprise, but what is surprising is that some of the channels they report focusing on are social platforms: WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube are among them. “By contrast, publisher sentiment towards Facebook has worsened further this year (-38 net score) along with X/Twitter (-39 net score),” according to Reuters.

Unlike some other channels, LinkedIn referral traffic is slightly up according to Axios. Another social channel may seem like an unlikely ally in the fight against declining referral traffic from social. In fact, LinkedIn is working with more than 400 publishers to optimize their content across the platform through posts, newsletters, podcasts, and videos. “LinkedIn editors communicate daily with publishing partners through Slack channels and email to help inform them of what's trending so that they can better optimize their posts,” reports Axios. The efforts have led to a 150% increase in the amount of newsletters published through LinkedIn.

From numbers to engagement

Others have seen the drop in social traffic as an opportunity to develop a richer relationship with news audiences based more on quality of engagement than numbers: " ... not only focus on scale, but to actually focus on human beings and communities that they need to be serving,” said Amanda Zamora, co-founder of US news site The 19th in an interview with Reuters Institute. “We should stop treating people as passive readers and mere commodities, and really think about audiences with more intention.”

It’s clear that some publishers are not ready to give up social media entirely and are exploring new platforms to replace old partners. Others, however, are realizing the importance of a more direct, owned relationship - one that will not be turned on its head every time an algorithm changes.


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