Is Facebook a friend or foe?

Publishers, agencies and vendors spend a lot of time debating the point. We’re acutely anxious about the long term effects of an all-in Facebook content publishing strategy – walking a fine line between feeding the beast and feeding ourselves.

Is this energy well spent?

In part, yes. In return for traffic, a publisher’s content enriches Facebook; and Facebook hoovers up the available ad spend. That content also enhances the audience journey, on Facebook; and enables more audience data and learning, for Facebook to repackage for its advertisers. Publishers ought to be concerned. If Facebook has already won the battle for audience journeys, attention and engagement, then it may be time to pack up and go home.

But this is a one-eyed view at best.

So much of our strategising concedes that last point. Has Facebook won your audience already?

I don’t think so.

Industry-level data and experience suggest otherwise. I’ll get to that shortly.

Apathy (that sense of already having lost, and the feeling that fleeting traffic and high bounce rates are just the norms) – allied to today’s standard audience monetisation strategies – do a lot to disguise other important things that are in play.

My feeling is that, right now, many publishers are down in their cups because they’re not looking beyond the volumes of traffic that Facebook usually supplies, plus the nailed-down revenue streams that they already have from sources like display, programmatic, and native advertising.

And yet there’s so much more that can be done to help publishers monetise their traffic and become a destination again. I’ll get to this at the end of this post.

First, some reasons to be cheerful

1) The FT gives no damns for Facebook, and it’s still winning…

Here’s the line from the FT’s commercial director Jon Slade. At a recent seminar in London he stated that the Financial Times had stopped all advertising on Facebook both in the US and UK – and that the effect was “negligible.”

2) A Danish publisher goes on a Facebook ‘detox,’ and traffic goes up…

This from Danish publisher TV Midtvest. After Facebook’s latest algorithm change, it decided to abstain from Facebook entirely – from both organic publishing and display ads. Here’s the results:

  • Although 40% of TV Midtvest’s traffic was coming from Facebook before the experiment began, the TV Midtvest website only saw a 10% decline in page views
  • The readers who remained averaged 42% more time within articles and read 12% more pages per session than they did prior to the test

Says TV Midtvest:

“We lost this fly-by traffic, but we found out we had a very stable, significant number of readers that came to us by themselves.”

3) In a world without Facebook, people head straight to publisher sites anyway…

Recent research from Chartbeat looked at what happened when Facebook suffered a brief outage (for 45 mins on August 3rd 2018).

The outcome? Folks went and found publisher content directly.

Here are the charts (via Chartbeat’s aggregation of its publisher client data – a sample of over 4k sites):

During this time, direct traffic to publisher web sites increased by 11%; traffic to publisher apps increased by 22%; search referral traffic increased by 8%; and, overall, publishers enjoyed a total traffic uplift of 2.3%.

4) A timely reminder that Facebook is only part of the overall acquisition mix…

Current data from Parsely (another aggregate view of global clients) illustrates the broader picture of traffic acquisition for publishers. (Check out the full post. It has lots of great referral stats for a variety of channels such as Flipboard and Twitter.)

Some anti-social thinking

Well, that’s all well and good. Facebook isn’t that important for some publishers. What I’m really interested in, however, is what publishers are doing to improve audience experiences on their own properties.

Do they love the ones they’re with?

Let’s say we buy into the data and stories above and forget about Facebook for a moment. And Google. And Apple News, and all the rest. Let’s assume some of your audience will find you anyway. What are you giving them when they get there?

More to the point, what have you done lately to make their experience a better experience?

Here’s a few interesting stats

  • 80% of readers disapprove of ‘from the web’ content recommendations / native ads;
  • 40% feel that this stuff looks spammy;
  • …and 19% feel this type of widget presentation is fake news.

Nearly all publishers monetise their audience via native advertising.

So, here’s a few questions…

  • How thrilled is your audience about the style of ad formats that you present to them? Are they relevant? Helpful? Intrusive?
  • How does your audience feel about the overall content experience that you provide? Happy? Sad? Meh?
  • Do they find your content experience engaging? Innovative? Fun? Annoying? Dull? Poor?
  • Do you feel that Facebook/Google/Apple/etc provides your audiences with a better content experience than your own publication?

My point is this: Facebook (and others) send you a truckload of users every day. Are your page views per session, bounce rates, and time on site wholly bound by what these platforms decide to do or not do?

I think not.

On the other hand, do Facebook/Google/Apple/etc spend a lot of time and effort on improving the user experience of their products? Are they using all that great data solely to develop their advertising strategies?

Like TV Midtvest, let’s try another experiment. Let’s dial down half of the junk on your pages – and turn down half of the accompanying paycheck. Let’s apply some effort to your pages themselves and improve the user experience and content journeys. Let’s see if your traffic metrics improve. Let’s see if people view another article or two. And let’s see what that does for the maths.

Then let’s see if we’re still so concerned about Facebook.

Here’s one of my favourite quotes, from Forrester’s 2018 ‘Predictions Report.’ (OK, they’re talking about what Chief Marketing Officers ought to do, but the same point applies to publishers):

“CMOs can’t defend underperforming media spend focused on customer acquisition as churn rates escalate or stand idly by as digital platforms threaten to disintermediate their relationship with customers. Instead of ploughing money into traditional spending, CMOs will increase spend on revitalizing CX to drive affinity and stem churn.”

Talk to Felix. Honestly, we can help.

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Also published on Medium.

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