Dear publishers, it’s time to diversify your referral traffic

In an article I published last month, I wrote about the increasing marginalization of Facebook pages in the newsfeed and how it’s becoming harder and harder for publishers to get organic reach on the platform. While U.S. publishers aren’t facing the bleak situation experienced by publishers in Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Cambodia — where Facebook has been experimenting in removing pages from the newsfeed entirely — page reach has been on the decline for a few years now.

This normally wouldn’t be a problem except publishers have grown enormously reliant on Facebook as a traffic source, with some claiming upwards of 50 percent of their referral traffic from the social behemoth. This has led to sometimes devastating drops in traffic when Facebook’s engineers decide to tinker with the site’s algorithm. A recent tweet storm from former Upworthy product manager Gabriel Stein detailed how that site saw its traffic cut in half after Facebook changed its newsfeed to punish “clickbait.”

In my article last month, I posted several bullet point observations about what the decline in page reach means for publishers, and in one of those bullet points I gave the advice that publishers should diversify their traffic sources. “Your goal is to have your users subscribe to your content on as many platforms as possible,” I wrote.  

In this article I wanted to dive a little deeper into what I meant by this advice and to lay out where you should put your resources when trying to grow alternate traffic sources:

Homepage traffic

I can’t think of a more valuable reader than one who either bookmarks your homepage or types the URL into their browser. Not only is this kind of reader intensely loyal, but they aren’t subject to the algorithmic whims of the major tech platforms. In other words, nobody can take them away from you.

It’s common within the industry to assume that homepage traffic is on the decline and that news consumers are now much more likely to enter your publication through side doors. While this is certainly true, it is still possible to improve homepage traffic by working to make your homepage more attractive. HuffPost, for instance, saw a 23 percent increase in homepage traffic after it reduced the number of stories on the page by 33 percent. Washingtonian experienced an 18 percent bump in homepage traffic after it vastly simplified the page into a more straightforward newsfeed.

Email subscribers

Other than homepage readers, opted-in email subscribers are probably the best source of traffic you can have.

Why? Well, for one, email inboxes don’t see the same kind of traffic hose of content that you’ll get on social networks. If I send out a tweet, perhaps only 3 percent of my followers will even see it. If I send out an email, close to 100 percent of my subscribers will at least see the subject line in their inbox.

Also, because no one platform owns email, then it makes it harder for the whims of a single tech company to negatively impact your reach. However, that’s not to say that email marketing is completely immune from audience tampering. Gmail’s inbox revamp a few years ago, which relegated newsletters to a “promotions” tab, led to a decline in open rates.

Now, most publishers do have generic email signup forms on their websites, but many aren’t doing enough to entice reader into signing up for them. For instance, try creating exclusive content that the reader can’t get without subscribing to the newsletter (Politico perfected this model with its Playbook and other industry-focused morning newsletters). Also, in the call to action, do more than simply tell your readers to “subscribe.” Explain exactly what they’ll be signing up for, and launch niche-specific newsletters that will appeal to different segments of your audience.

Other social media platforms

I’ve talked to plenty of editors who treat all platforms other than Facebook as an afterthought. When I interviewed the audience director for GOOD Magazine, for example, he was dismissive of non-Facebook platforms. “I don’t have any interest in those other platforms because they have a fraction of the audience and don’t reach as many people,” he explained. “Fifteen minutes spent on any of those other platforms could be spent on Facebook, which is where everyone is.”

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This line of thinking is completely wrong, in my opinion. While Facebook sends the most raw traffic, other social networks can be extremely adept at “seeding” stories with influencers. I’ve spoken to several audience development folks who have said that, prior to a story going viral on Facebook, it’ll see a sharp spike of Twitter traffic. The going theory is that Twitter, while smaller than Facebook, has a high concentration of influencers in any given field, and their tweets can lead to a story migrating onto Facebook.

Some social platforms are also sending impressive amounts of traffic to certain content niches. I recently interviewed the social media editor for travel website Culture Trip, and she told me that its second-biggest traffic driver behind Facebook is Pinterest. Some business-oriented sites have reported strong growth in their LinkedIn referral traffic while others see a lot of readers coming from Reddit.

SEO

10 years ago, nearly every publisher was optimizing for Google, but as Facebook took center stage we saw many websites rein in their efforts on SEO.

Increasingly, however, users are turning to Google in search of breaking news (especially since the search engine introduced its stories widget at the top of search results and also sped up its indexing frequency).

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that search readers are notoriously unloyal. They’re mostly landing on your page in search of a very specific piece of information and then depart without a second thought as to what else you may have to offer. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to convert a search visitor into a subscriber, especially if your site is good at serving up related content that’ll catch that person’s eye and keep them clicking through the site longer.

Mobile apps

On the one hand, a reader who opens up and uses your mobile app on a regular basis is incredibly valuable, perhaps even as valuable as a homepage reader. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to get people to download apps and even harder to get them to regularly open them. I would say that unless you have the significant resources it would take to build, maintain, and market a high-quality mobile app, then you’re better off investing your time elsewhere.

That’s not to say that publishers haven’t seen success with apps. BuzzFeed, for instance, has reported that its app has 2 million monthly active users, which is incredibly impressive. But then again, they have an entire team dedicated to it and are constantly iterating on the app and building out new features.  

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I’m going to end this post by noting a silver lining.

Filip Struhárik, the journalist who first alerted us to Facebook removing pages from the newsfeed in those six test countries, wrote a follow-up post on Medium. In it, he noted that, while page reach did decline, not all publishers saw a subsequent decrease in Facebook referral traffic. “To Slovak publishers it became very clear that their Facebook Pages were not as important as they thought,” he wrote. “Yes, if one dug deep into the statistics, one knew before this that the number of link clicks on a page is just a fraction of the total traffic from Facebook….What’s important are influencers and people who share articles. Facebook Pages help, but their impact is not dramatic.”

So yes, the decimation of Facebook page reach we’ve been seeing for years isn’t as detrimental as we originally thought. If anything, this news should empower publishers to begin thinking beyond Facebook. Your focus now shouldn’t be on where your referral traffic comes from, but rather identifying the places where your biggest influencers congregate. Once you’ve captured them, then the audience will follow.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com