As Facebook has evolved from a college networking website to an all-encompassing engagement tool with more than a billion daily users, one of the biggest shifts was how news publishers began to see the platform as a place to reach users and audience. From the biggest names in media to startup news outlets, beginning in 2013, Facebook became an essential component to amassing followers, but also, getting referral traffic to the website.
Publishers have watched with interest each adjustment to the Facebook news feed algorithm, as the tinkering can either help or hurt their overall traffic, and ultimately, bottom line. There have been red flags over the past couple years that Facebook may be moving away from the good fortune publishers have enjoyed by virtue of the news feed distribution, and that came to a head at the end of June as Facebook announced its latest update.
The change was pegged as a way to “help make sure you don’t miss stories from your friends,” and explicitly stated that “this update may cause reach and referral traffic to decline for some Pages.”
The reaction from the nervous publishing community was swift. With the sub-headline “Bye!” The Verge described this as the latest move “tilting the feed to posts from people you know in real life.” The Boston Herald had perhaps the most sky-is-falling take on the changes, declaring Facebook “is giving up on the news, cutting publishers off at the knees in what they are casting as a move to focus user timelines on friends and family.”
So the question is – is this Facebook algorithmic change really going to hurt news publishers, and will it have a lasting effect? Share Rocket is a social media ratings system that sorts through massive amounts of social media data as it relates to local news stations and audiences in markets around the country. And by analyzing this data, we can conclude the changes have not had a noticeable effect on local news outlets publishing on their Facebook pages – in fact, many markets are seeing their best engagement numbers of 2016.
We reviewed the brand Facebook pages for all the stations in the top 10 markets in the country. Our data includes at the whole of 2016, starting January 1 and continuing through July. We used Engagement to Audience ratios as the key metric to determine the engagement trends over the year. After compiling the data, we saw typical ebbs and flows in engagement rates. As expected, there are outliers in the top 10 markets, but by and large we see a similar pattern emerge that helps tell the story of how news is the engine by which local news stations are driving tremendous amounts of engagement on the social platform.
The peaks and valleys you see can be tied to news events. For example, on January 24 we saw a spike that could be traced to the giant blizzard hitting the Northeast. On April 24 we saw a bump for the tragic death of Prince. On June 19 the news was the terror attack at the Orlando nightclub. July 10, the largest such spike, coincided with the police shooting in Dallas. Certainly in the markets that were most affected by the news, the spikes were even larger, but the peak was consistent across the markets as these became national stories with strong audience interest.
So, how about the valleys? There was a dip around July 3, shortly after the announcement by Facebook about the changed algorithm. But historical data shows the July 4th weekend is a particularly slow time for audiences consuming news content on social media. Our data suggests this downturn in usage could account for the dip. In that same way, the peak shortly after July 10 doesn’t tell us the full picture, since that was following a major breaking news event.
Since the Dallas shooting though, with less of the types of breaking news that we’ve seen historical peaks for, our data shows the stations engagement has leveled off to numbers at or slightly above the median throughout the entirety of 2016. That’s good news for publishers – the local stations are not seeing a hit that can be attributed to the algorithmic change at the end of June. At least not yet.
Having a diversified social media strategy will help prepare all publishers to stem the tide of future changes and shifts in audience engagement. But for now, despite public declarations that news publishers will see a decline in referral traffic and reach, our data shows local news stations are as strong as ever.
Of course, things could always change – and on August 4, Facebook announced yet another new algorithm change to the newsfeed, in an effort to weed out “clickbait” headlines. Will that have an effect? We’ll know more in a few months.
Still, more importantly, with new tools at the disposal of news outlets on Facebook, there is an even greater incentive to build and maintain a strong and growing Facebook “viewership.” With the introduction of, and emphasis on, Facebook Live earlier this year, live video (and the archived version of it) have become hugely important to an overall Facebook strategy. Likewise, the increasing number of opportunities to produce revenue through Instant Articles is an opportunity many outlets have seen success with.
As 2016 continues, Facebook remains a valuable alternate viewer hub – and likely will well into the future.