3 ways to make social sharing work for publishers

Social media has provided digital publishers with new readers, but does this come at the cost of traditional on-site ad revenue?

Facebook Instant Articles
Credit: Facebook

Are social networks becoming the primary platforms by which people discover digital content?

According to Pew Research Center, more than 60 percent of Facebook and Twitter users actually use these platforms to obtain their news -- a number that has been growing since 2012. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and WhatsApp have essentially become content providers.

Facebook’s new Instant Articles feature, for example, allows digital publishers to upload stories directly to Facebook. On one hand, articles load quickly and seamlessly on the Facebook mobile interface to a vast number of readers; on the other hand, publishers lose control of their content distribution and, potentially, they lose ad revenue from that content.

Similarly, Twitter just launched Moments, which allows users to follow stories on Twitter via tweets, videos, articles, and more. This could be a great way for digital publishers to get exposure to Twitter’s enormous global user base (although, right now, only specific publishers have the chance to contribute to Moments), but it could also work to keep users on Twitter, giving them the information and content they want without having to click off their feed.

It’s still early to effectively weigh the pros and cons of these social media partnerships for digital publishers, but what’s certain is that the way that readers access content -- and the way that publishers distribute it -- is evolving rapidly.

What does this shift mean for digital publishers, and how can they make social sharing work for them?

1. Understand the power of social media platforms.

Facebook has surpassed Google as the top source for referral traffic. Nearly 40 percent of all referrals to digital media sites -- a huge piece of the pie -- now come from Facebook. This means that there is a significant portion of people who now depart from Facebook, and not from Google, for all of their daily activities. The first step to using Facebook as a content sharing tool is understanding this shift.

The increasing social referrals don’t mean that we’re headed toward Facebook-only news distribution. In fact, while social referrals have increased, search referrals have not declined; they’ve stayed strong and steady. While Facebook and other social platforms have become an important piece of content strategy, readers are still seeking out high-quality content through more traditional searches, and it’s critical to keep that in mind.

Andrew Montalenti, CTO and co-founder of Parse.ly, explains:

“Google is not a slouch of a referrer. It's still very close to Facebook as a proprietor of traffic and as you can see, the next referrers are miles away from Facebook and Google.”

2. Use social media platforms to build your audience.

Twitter and Facebook have the power to get content in front of countless users the world over, driving new readers to publisher sites. But, if you don’t have a clear picture of who is visiting your site, and how they’re getting there, the referral traffic isn’t going to stick around. Understanding your audience is key.

Knowing how people are getting to your site can help you to focus your efforts on Facebook and the other platforms that are valuable to your readership. Which topics stir up the most traffic from social media? Which authors attract visitors from which platform? Is there a time of day when referral traffic from a specific source spikes or drops?

Consider these questions, and monitor your site analytics closely. The better you understand your data, the easier it is to create the content that your readers are looking for, and the easier it is to turn referral traffic into part of your loyal audience.

3. Experiment and develop.

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, suggests that experimentation and investment in new technologies is one way that digital publishers can stay current and develop models that support their needs in the digital market.

Bell talks about Buzzfeed, a company that has structured itself entirely around social sharing, as an example of a company achieving success through experimentation. Buzzfeed recently launched Pound, a new proprietary platform that tracks how content is shared within and across Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. Buzzfeed uses the insights gleaned from Pound to show advertisers how and where their sponsored content will perform best, which in turn, generates revenue. Getting creative within this new framework of content sharing is paying off.

Perhaps the best piece of advice for publishers looking to utilize social platforms as tools for content distribution is to focus their resources on the technologies and developments that support the content their readers want.

Content sharing through social media has provided digital publishers with a previously unfathomable number of potential readers, but this comes at the cost of traditional on-site ad revenue. By understanding how your readers are getting to their content, and by staying educated on this massive shift in content distribution, digital publishers can use social media platforms to build readership and revenue.

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