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 GoTrump.com, 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.