News Sites Realizing That Relying On Facebook For Traffic Might Not Have Been Wise

from the build-your-own-base dept

Over the years, we at Techdirt have tended to resist the kinds of “audience growth strategies” that many other news publications have taken — perhaps to our own detriment. I remember when Digg was the new hotness and generating lots of traffic for news sites. Someone approached us about getting our stories highly promoted on Digg and I told them I didn’t want to game the system, and would rather let people find us organically. I know plenty of other news sites did play plenty of games. The same thing happened once everyone (and more) left Digg for Reddit. Reddit did drive a lot of traffic to us for a few years, though it’s tapered off in the past few years. And, obviously, over the last couple of years, all the publications have been talking about Facebook and how it drives so much traffic.

A year or so ago, I was at an event and chatting with a guy from another news site who nonchalantly tossed off the claim that “well, every news site these days now knows how to game Facebook for an extra 10 to 20 million views…” and I thought “huh, actually, I have no idea how to do that.” All of this might make me very bad at running a media site (I certainly know of some other news sites that used gaming social media to leverage themselves into massive acquisition offers from legacy media companies). But, to me, it meant being able to focus on actually creating good content, rather than figuring out how to game the system or who I should be sucking up to for traffic. I’ll admit to struggling with this issue at times — sometimes wondering if we’re missing out on people reading our stuff that would like it. And, every once in a while, we’ll do little things here or there to focus on “optimizing” our site for this or that source of traffic. But it’s never been a huge focus.

As mentioned above, much of this is because focusing on creating good content takes quite a bit of time, and is much more interesting to me than figuring out how to game this or that algorithm. Part of it is because I think this also tends to build a more loyal — if potentially smaller — core audience. People come to Techdirt because they like Techdirt (well, for some of you, because you hate it) not because someone gamed an algorithm to get you here. Some of this is because I’ve always been a bit wary of relying too heavily on any third party who could suddenly rip the rug out from under you.

And that seems to be happening with Facebook and some news sites. Back in June, the company announced a big change to its newsfeed, which suggested it would start downplaying “news” and promoting more stuff about your family and friends. And the latest reports suggest that many media sites took a massive traffic hit in July in response to those changes. This has some in the media pulling out their hair over what to do, but really, it’s kind of what you get for chasing someone else’s algorithm. As some have noted, the only really important lesson here may just be people who use Facebook actually prefer interacting with friends’ baby pictures, rather than cheap clickbait.

Indeed — I certainly don’t go to Facebook for news. And over the last few months, I’ve noticed that I’m gravitating more and more to Snapchat as a preferred social media platform for personal stuff, as it just feels more comfortable there. A great column by Farhad Manjoo at the NY Times does a pretty good job explaining why this is and also explaining why Facebook-owned Instagram recently launched something of a Snapchat clone. The short version is:

But when you open Instagram or Snapchat, Mr. Trump all but disappears. While Facebook and Twitter have lately become relentlessly consumed with news, on these picture-based services Mr. Trump is barely a presence; he (and his Democratic rival) are about as forgotten as, Mr. Trump?s failed travel search engine.

FWIW, if you followed Manjoo on Snapchat (as I do), you would have seen him make this point — that there’s very little Donald Trump on Snapchat — earlier, before this column appeared. But it’s true that something like Snapchat feels more actually social and less “news” based. And part of that is the fleeting nature of Snapchat:

The differences are instructive. On Facebook, my friends will post about their promotions; on Snapchat, they tell you about their anxieties at work. On Facebook, they show off smiling photos of their perfect kids on some perfect vacation. On Snapchat, they show pictures of their kids in the midst of some disastrous tantrum, throwing food all over the floor, peeing in the tub, covered in mud and paint and food, because hey, that?s life, O.K.?

But, of course, nowadays, all I keep hearing about is how media organizations need to “have a Snapchat strategy.” And Snapchat itself is promoting this rhetoric as well. Lots of news organizations have jumped on board Snapchat in a big way, and we’ve heard that some are having great success with it. But as cool as I find Snapchat, I’m probably going to continue to stick with my general strategy of trying to create good content and hope that you continue to find it worthwhile. I’ll leave the “gaming” of social media to everyone else.

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Companies: facebook, reddit

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Comments on “News Sites Realizing That Relying On Facebook For Traffic Might Not Have Been Wise”

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Anonymous Coward says:

I have hidden some of my "friends"

I have hidden some of my friends due to all their political drivel. I don’t care for the ads much either. Also, from what I understand, if a business is running a site, they have to pay to get their content seen by every follower or else it is only displayed to a few. If I am following a site, I would expect to see all of their content, not whatever FB decided I wanted to see or extorted them to pay me to see. So I am finding FB less and less useful these days.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Keep doing what you're doing

Cognitive Bias Disclosure: I like Techdirt, and I read it multiple times daily.

Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re doing it right. The beach of the day site (Digg, Reddit, Facebook, Snapchat, etc.) are all great until everyone goes there. That’s when the pristine clean sand becomes filled with toys and chum, and the waters polluted with vim and vinegar, and the vendors go from selling steak burgers and ceviché to dubious-meat hot dogs and “melty” nachos.

That’s the problem with beaches. Once everybody hears it’s awesome, and the barrier to going there is a click away, it starts to get polluted.

Disclosure#2: I left FB on Christmas 2015 and have looked back but not logged in. I miss some things but I don’t miss it. That having been said, I used to DAILY post references to articles here on Techdirt, on arstechnica, and on Scott Greenfield’s blog. I’d offer my own ‘take’ on it and invite people to read the articles.

As we all know, nobody’s politics are likely to change due to a facebook post.

I was hoping to educate my FB friends. What I did succeed in doing is getting a bunch of them to read TD daily. As you said, the key for TD to be successful is for people to want to read TD, not have a regurgitated version elsewhere.

Keep doing what you’re doing.

The water’s fine, come on in.


schism says:

I can’t say I agree with the push for Snapchat presence. It’s mostly kids taking pictures of who-gives-a-shit. Kik is the same. I hope there is someone smarter than me reading this stuff and realizing we really need a social platform for grownups that respects its users. I had hopes for Ello, but that seems to be going nowhere. *Sigh*

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The problem is that grownups will generally seek out the content that they like. I used iGoogle for years and just set up RSS feeds for the things I like. Now I use Netvibes. If I want to see something specific, I’ve probably got an RSS feed to a news site for it.

I don’t disagree with you though. You just can’t drive as much traffic from people like us as you can from younger folks. They live and die by their devices. My devices are just something I own, not part of who I am. Without that traffic things won’t take off.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Response to: schism on Aug 17th, 2016 @ 11:49am

“I hope there is someone smarter than me reading this stuff and realizing we really need a social platform for grownups that respects its users.”

Then we need a planet with more grownups. At least on TechDirt I can see there are a few remaining adults on Earth but market economics generally optimise to give the masses what they want. The masses want to be distracted, that’s all, and our current crop of platforms seem to do that just fine.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Do it right

It was in the little sidebar on Slashdot for me. I can’t even remember how long ago, but I found this site around the same time I started viewing The Filthy Critic, also linked in that same sidebar. That might help date it.

In response to the article, I imagine that Facebook promoting baby pictures (or vacation pictures, or whatever) is a huge net good for the world. You used to have to sit on people’s couches and look through albums full of that shit. Now you can just click like and move on. A wonderful side benefit for those of us who have never used FB is that it’s just assumed that these pictures are being viewed there, so now you can go to someone’s house secure in the knowledge that you won’t be subjected to their cloying nostalgia.

I.T. Guy says:

I have been coming here for 7-8 years now. Daily. I tell everyone I know about the site. The thing that was appealing to me was that anyone can instantly join the conversation. No signing in with this, or registering for that. I come here for the content and community.

“leverage themselves into massive acquisition offers from legacy media companies”
While it may be nice to get offered a fat check:
” it meant being able to focus on actually creating good content”
You actually care about the issues you bring up here.(as opposed to being a writer tasked with covering things because it’s what your editor told you to do.)
It shows. 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of social media sites (platforms?) like Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Just don’t put all your egss into one basket. If Facebook starts sending you a lot of traffic, you should assume that it could all go away as quickly as it came.

Right now there are lots of stories about small businesses buying Pokemon lures to attract foot traffic. Great idea! Just don’t extrapolate your increase in sales out forty years into the future where your ice cream stand is now a trillion dollar business, thanks to spending $10 on lures every weekend.

Anonymous Coward says:

Keep doing what you’re doing Mike. I refer people here all the time because of the way you do things and I agree with 98% of the viewpoints I find here.

I really hate Facebook and the way it has become so ingrained into all the internet. There are much better social networks on the web and none of them are American. Facebook can die today and I wouldn’t blink an eye.

bob says:

keep doing what you are doing.

Facebook is just doing what is in its best interest. Just like snapchat and all the other companies do. If people leave facebook because it is nothing more than an as wall then facebook loses and will start demoting ads and click bait.

Snapchat might be boon initially for news sites buy just like all the other platforms it will diminish with time. Just as the article has pointed out.

Keep writing good articles and the people will come. The same thing works on there are channels that have a very stable core group of subscribers and those channels stick around. The others just die out after a while.

By the way can you give us some growth over the years numbers?

I think you do a year to year look each January but I don’t think I have seen it displayed over multiple years together.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: the simple elegance

Agreed. Let’s hope that Techdirt continues to buck the trend and resists the temptation to switch to some fancy new page code that’s slow to load, fussy with browsers, and maxes out resources. By far the biggest reason I stop visiting sites is because they decide to “improve” the site by loading it down with a ton of useless and counter-productive code.

Gracey (profile) says:

I completely agree. In fact, on Facebook, I use FB Purity to block everything except my family & friends, and I don’t friend people I don’t really know.

For me, most social sites aren’t the place I go to be “social”. They’re a tool to keep my distant family close.

To get social … I go out my front door and meet people face to face.

I found TechDirt in search results, and I’ve been reading it ever since. Interesting content doesn’t meed social media to have loyal readers.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“To get social … I go out my front door and meet people face to face.”

I always find it fascinating when people say that. My lifestyle must be so different, as not only do many of my closest friends and family not live in the same country, but those who do are active enough that I couldn’t depend on just walking out the front door in the hope that I’d see them. Sure, my situation is unusual in that I spend most of my working day in a different country to where I live and my social circle is spread across multiple local towns, but still. Different work shifts, different lifestyles, different family situations, etc., I generally don’t like just popping round even where that’s physically possible.

In summer especially, I have to use a tool to get people together, certainly if I’m trying to meet up with more than one person. The easiest and most reliable tool for that is generally Facebook, as I’m not going to text/phone everyone or hope that people not on WhatsApp get the invite when virtually everyone I know is on Facebook.

That’s not to criticise others’ experiences, it’s just interesting to me when people literally say they don’t use social media to socialise.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“it’s just interesting to me when people literally say they don’t use social media to socialise.”

There are substantial segments of the population that don’t use social sites at all. I’m one of them. I socialize online, all right, but I do so through email and, to a lesser extent, comment sections like I’m doing now.

Most of my friends and colleagues have Facebook accounts, but none of them do social engagement exclusively through Facebook.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

All those situations are fine and understandable. I’m just intrigued by the people who claim they keep in contact with people on social media but never use it to socialise.

As useful as it is to keep in touch with and share information with friends, I can understand why some people don’t wish to use something like Facebook and prefer other methods, even if those methods are less reliable and more cumbersome to my mind. I certainly understand not using one service exclusively, which to be honest very few people do. Most people will use a combination of different social media, email, text, phone calls and other communication methods even if they use Facebook 99% of the time.

But, using social media then proudly claiming you don’t use it when you want to socialise? That just seems strange.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“But, using social media then proudly claiming you don’t use it when you want to socialise? That just seems strange.”

I see what you’re saying, but I think it’s not so strange. While I used to have a Facebook account, I canceled it precisely because I never used it to socialize.

But I know a lot of people who who do just this. They have a Facebook account just to track announcements from those friends and family who only communicate through Facebook — but they never actually post anything themselves.

I think this is an attempt at a “middle road” by people who really don’t want to be using Facebook at all, but feel forced to by those who use Facebook exclusively.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I think this is an attempt at a “middle road” by people who really don’t want to be using Facebook at all, but feel forced to by those who use Facebook exclusively.

That. I’m kind of one of those. I find it annoying that pople send you multiple messages through multiple online means but can’t drop a goddamn call to warn you something is going on (ie: a get together for a beer or something). I am forced to leave my wireless internet enabled, spending battery, because some people seem to be unable to send you something outside social apps and sites when it’s very important.

Why can’t people CALL you when they have something urgent to say?

Stosh says:

I don’t agree with everything posted on TD, and I don’t disagree with everything posted on TD…but every post intelligently lays out a position that can be considered.

I will frequent other sites (no, never FB or Twits) that show memes or pictures for a quick chuckle, certainly not for news.

Keep up the good work for those of us that are still able to read and communicate in complete words and sentences, using reasonable grammar… 🙂

PaulT (profile) says:

“But when you open Instagram or Snapchat, Mr. Trump all but disappears”

He’s rarely mentioned on my Facebook, however, and I’m sure it’s not all just because I’m not personally in the US (I’m friends with numerous Americans and follow many US news sources on there).

People are welcome to use whatever services they like. I just find it strange when people whine about the content they see on Facebook. I personally use a simple strategy – I don’t “friend” anyone I don’t know in real life, I don’t “like” any pages I’m not genuinely interested in. If I notice any person or page regularly posting things that offend me (rare), becoming annoying (especially wrt politics or religion) or spammy, I hide their posts. I don’t report or unfriend them except under rare circumstances, I just tell Facebook I don’t wish to see what they have to say.

The result? Despite having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, my wall is generally only full of posts from people I actually care about on subjects I actually care about. Sure, something occasionally gets through but they’re noticeable enough that they get the appropriate action where needed. Plus, I do follow numerous news sources there, and there have been many times where I’ve spotted breaking news there before other sources.

As with other companies that are regularly vilified, there’s plenty of reason to dislike Facebook and prefer competitors. But, the state of your personal feed isn’t one of them. If you’re seeing a lot of crap, you either follow a lot of crap people or haven’t worked out how to manage the service correctly.

WDF says:


Driving up viewer/clicker numbers necessitates widening the focus of the site, eventually into a blur.

The magic of the internet forum is its ability to provide a focus. I have no interest in visiting a site for social reasons; my life, neighbors, and job more than fulfill that appetite. I visit TD for knowledge. Some of the writers are very focused, others have a 60/40 mix of opinion/fact.

In all cases, TD is one of the pleasant few sites that is not distracted by its reflection in the mirror.

Quick Brown Fox says:

Thank you

Techdirt has long been my favorite blog for news and information on technology and its uses (and abuses) in daily life. In addition to columns by its owner and editor, Mike Masnick, Techdirt has expanded in recent years to include columns by many other eminent journalists in the field.

Techdirt doesn’t need to manipulate Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or any other social media property to expand its readership. The quality and caliber of its brand of journalism speaks eloquently for itself.

John85851 (profile) says:

Keep doing what you're doing

I’ve been posting here for about 6 years and I agree you should keep doing what you’re doing. 😉

I don’t think it’s a good idea for people to game their site to fit anyone else’s social-site, for the simple reason that you’re always chasing someone else. How many sites “optimized” for MySpace or Webcrawler, but those have died off? How many people optimized their site for LinkedIn, only to see it not quite take off like Facebook. And now Facebook keeps changing their algorithm, which means more website changes.

And how many sites have resorted to click-back headlines just to set themselves apart from the other news sites, only to see everyone else using similar click-bait headlines.

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