Exactly four years ago while publishers were figuring out how to increase their web traffic, Facebook offered a helping hand. According to its 2013 post, the tech giant found that on average, referral traffic from Facebook to media sites increased by over 170% throughout the past year.
The same year, data analytics company Parse.ly found that Facebook was driving just over 10% of traffic to publisher sites, while Google was driving 36%. Fast-forward to present day and the duopoly retains its powerful position. As of November 2016, Google and Facebook drove around 80% of all identifiable external traffic to digital publishers.
From a publisher’s perspective, it makes sense to utilise Facebook’s platform – after all, that’s where all the readers are. Data from Pew Research Centre 2016, found that 44% of Americans get their news from Facebook. Furthermore, according to Facebook, its users spend an average of 50 minutes each day on its Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger platforms.
But while Facebook has often presented its offerings to publishers as a win-win for both sides, publishers are increasingly feeling like they are getting the lower end of the deal. Earlier this year, Facebook made changes to its news feed algorithm which means that users will now see more content from their close family and friends, and less from publishers. This reveals how the reliance comes at a price: according to Parse.ly’s data, 41.4% of referral traffic to news sites comes from Facebook.
Speaking to The Drum, Parse.ly’s vice president of marketing, Clare Carr says she is seeing some publishers taking a very antagonistic approach to the duopoly, while others are going “all in” with distributed content.
“Some companies are just producing for Facebook and they don’t even have a website. These tend to be newer companies who are still defining their business models. Apple News tends to be better with its strategy and continues to find ways to convert Facebook visitors into subscribers or people who will give value back to their brands,” she says.
It is here where Carr thinks the tech giants have an advantage over publishers, because they plan and strategise well. But publishers can regain back some control if they shift their focus off what Facebook and Google are doing, and instead use whatever tools they have at their disposal to make their business model a success.
“They should think about how they can use data to understand the types of people coming from Facebook and what they are doing now. How are they different from people who are regular readers or people who turn into regular readers? What are some of the ways to encourage people coming in for a one time visit to participating with your brand in a way that leads to further engagement?
“Subscriptions would be an obvious one to point to, but I don’t think it stops there. There are other opportunities to engage first time readers, especially if they are creating a valuable piece of content,” she adds.
Taking back control
According to eMarketer, Google controls 40.7% of the U.S. digital ad market, followed by Facebook with 19.7%. But it seems that news organisations are now trying to fight back. Leading newspaper industry trade group, the News Media alliance, is attempting to seek special permission from the U.S. congress for the right to negotiate with Google and Facebook on “business model solutions to secure the long-term availability of local journalism produced by America’s newsrooms”.
Carr is not sure whether this effort will be successful, but she admits to being intrigued to see what comes out of it: “Someone has to be the first to try it and see what happens. Ultimately, Facebook relies on content to keep people coming back in. The problem is, there is so much content out there.”
Earlier this year, BuzzFeed founder and chief executive Jonah Peretti, argued that many of the traditional media players are opportunistically attacking Facebook and Google just because they have figured out a better model for delivering information. But the truth behind their success lies in the fact that they have always taken a long-term perspective, versus a quarter-to-quarter perspective taken by the media companies.
This view is shared by Clare who says publishers should stop simply reacting to whatever Facebook or Google are doing and instead take control of their own futures.
“I don't think a lot of publishers are planning their own route in terms of where they will be five years down the road. Tech companies tend to be more forward-thinking in their approach and think about where they will be five years from now. If publishers are more proactive, then they will not continuously be playing catch-up and reacting to things that other companies are doing,” she concludes.
The Drum interviewed Carr earlier this year, where she compared how brands and publishers use data to inform their content strategies. Read what she had to say here.