A few years ago, social media was the next big thing for news publishers and media distribution companies.
With social media, publishers could reach their audience on the platforms that many consumers frequented daily – or even by the hour. They could stir up engagement, start a conversation with younger generations, and inspire loyalty and followership.
This buzz prompted hundreds of articles touting the “untapped potential” of social media and brought thousands of publishers – large and small – onto a variety of social sites for the first time. This mass migration marked the start of a symbiotic relationship between news media and social networks.
Social media helped many media organizations build the audience that they were promised. The New York Times, for example, has 15 million followers on Facebook; BBC News has just shy of 47 million. Despite these numbers, the relationship between social networks and media outlets has hit a rough spot – one that has been years in the making, and that has impacted reach and revenue.
So, what happened? And what does that mean for digital publishers and news media? These are our insights.
Content made for social networks undermines trust in media outlets
Social media brought about an irrevocable change in the digital publishing landscape. More media websites have popped up than ever before, some, as Derek Thompson from the Atlantic writes, producing the “equivalent of content confetti—fast, flimsy, and forgettable morsels, blasted from the CMS cannon, which upon inspection were less journalism than Millennial Mad Libs: ‘[Number] Ways That [Google-Trend-Generated Subject] Totally Made Us [Past-Tense Verb].’”
But today’s users are growing tired of low-quality content, fake news, and sensationalist videos that were designed to go viral. As Sean Blanda writes for Medium, “Companies from Medium to The Washington Post to Mashable to Buzzfeed all eventually run into the same unthinkable truth: The methods used to fund modern journalism simultaneously undermine trust in the news outlets.”
“Most outlets chasing reach leverage social media (mostly Facebook) to get content read by as many people as possible. This changes the reward from ‘quality’ and ‘originality’ to getting content to spread virally. This decreases trust. In fact, it’s better to have more content than less, so lots of disposable stuff is written quickly, with little regard for what it adds to discourse. This decreases trust. Virality requires a visceral emotional reaction by the reader, regardless of nuance or truth. This decreases trust. Bonus points if you can shame an ‘other side’ that your audience is galvanized around, and alienate those not included in your chosen tribe. This decreases trust.”
Privacy concerns diminish confidence in social
Media companies aren’t the only ones who have lost user trust at the hands of social platforms: Facebook itself is suffering the consequences of its practices.
Privacy concerns born of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which made its way into mainstream media in March of 2018, lead to nearly 1 in 10 people in the U.S. reportedly deleting their Facebook. Major corporations like Space X, Tesla, and Playboy also deleted their Facebook accounts as a show of solidarity with users. As Playboy said in a statement, “There are more than 25 million fans who engage with Playboy via our various Facebook pages and we do not want to be complicit in exposing them to the reported practices.”
Out of those who did not end up deleting their Facebook accounts, 35% say that they are using Facebook less than they used to.
Changing algorithms upset reach
One of the biggest upsets for digital media organizations is social media’s lack of reliability.
Over the years, changes to algorithms on social platforms like Facebook have resulted in brands reaching less and less of their audience organically. With each update, media companies have had to adjust their social media strategy in the hopes of maintaining their reach, many even attempting to fight back by making a direct plea to audiences.
For many media organizations, these changing variables contributed to a loss in revenue. In 2017, Mashable, a tech blog that gained notoriety as an early example of profitable digital media, sold for a quarter of its former value after running out of funds. The same year, digital superstars Buzzfeed and Vice both missed their target revenues by 20%, amounting to a collective loss of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Digital editor of the New Statesman, Jasper Jackson, suggests that there is a clear explanation for such struggles: “Digital media companies are even more reliant on the big tech platforms of Facebook and Google to reach their audience than their traditional counterparts.” With virtually no control over these tech giants, this dependency comes at a price.
Social networks drive less engagement and referrals
Whether due to volatile social algorithms or social media fatigue, engagement on social networks is shrinking.
A study by Moz found that out of a randomly selected sample of 100,000 social media posts, 50% had 2 or less Facebook interactions (including likes, shares, and comments), 2 or less Twitter shares, 1 or less Google+ shares and zero LinkedIn shares.
Not only are consumers engaging less with content, but social media is becoming a less effective referral point for brands as well. BuzzSumo’s report found that brands have seen a sharp decline in social traffic referrals, with Google now driving twice as many website visits as social media. Less social media referrals mean less digital revenue, which is an especially large blow to an industry which constantly operates at a loss.
Social media for news is falling
The decline in engagement, organic social media reach, and trust has contributed to another problem that specifically affects journalists and news media: After years of growth, social media for news is falling across the world.
Researchers from The Reuters Institute studied this phenomenon in their Digital News Report for 2018, writing: “For the last seven years we have tracked the key sources for news across major countries and have reported a picture of relentless growth in the use of social media for news. Now, in many countries, growth has stopped or gone into reverse.”
According to the report, this trend has to do with changes in Facebook use and social media habits. For example, 39% of people in the United States said they used Facebook as a source of news in 2018, down 9 percentage points from 2017. This is especially true amongst younger generations, and in countries that have been affected by the public debate over misinformation: In the U.S., the use of Facebook for news by young people is down by 20% compared to 2017.
So, what does this mean for media organizations? Two-thirds of web users (65%) still prefer side-door access to news, such as through search and social media, instead of visiting a media company’s native app or website – a number that rises to three-quarters (73%) for users under 35.
Having invested so much time and money building a following on social media, for publishers to abandon the channel would be unthinkable. Instead, after what the Atlantic calls “a uniquely miserable year in the media business,” media companies must build their engagement strategies by adding (or increasing the use of) more direct, controllable, and monetizable channels for connecting with their audience.
For some publishers, this may mean a reprioritization of tried-and-true direct channels such as email. Other media companies have begun to use chatbots to automate content distribution on messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and Telegram. Since messaging app use has surpassed social media, this approach has the potential for even greater reach than social, and more successful monetization.
\Media outlets are facing a predicament that they have faced again and again throughout the industry’s long history: adapt in order to survive. As one dominant channel ceases to deliver as promised, a new one emerges to help pick up the slack. And media companies will always be there to see this transition through.
By re-evaluating their dependence on social media and shifting the distribution of quality content to emerging platforms, publishers can regain control of their narratives, stimulate engagement, and begin to restore user confidence while pushing forward – not backward.
Want to learn more?
For more information on how publishers can use messaging apps to supplement their existing media distribution strategies, check out our blog post, What Is Messaging and How Can Media Companies Use It?
This blog post can be found in our eBook, Streamlining Content Delivery with Messaging Bots. For a free download of this eBook, click here.
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