According to a new report from Pew Research Center, “Social, Search and Direct: Pathways to Digital News,” a visitor to a news site who was referred through Facebook is much less valuable than a direct visitor. Even visitors who came through search lagged far behind in engagement and time spent on the site compared to direct visitors (those who typed in the URL or had the site bookmarked).
On average, visitors who arrived directly to news sites spent almost three times more time on the site, and viewed five to six times more pages than those who came through Facebook or search.
These trends held true for a variety of news sites. Even BuzzFeed, purveyor of socially-optimized content, saw much more engagement from visitors who visited the site directly compared to social referrals. About 11 percent of direct visitors to BuzzFeed also came in through Facebook. This number was significantly smaller (0.9 to 2.3 percent) for all other news sites in the study.
For publishers that focus on developing highly-shareable content, these findings may not be cause for worry. From the report:
[BuzzFeed's strategy] is not built around building a loyal, returning audience. Instead, it is built around “being a part of the conversation,” says editor-in-chief Ben Smith. The site’s writers and editors develop content that people want to share so that a story reaches all those it “should” reach. It may well be a completely different audience from one story to the next.
In contrast, The New York Times gets 7 percent of its desktop/laptop traffic from Facebook, and 37 percent from direct visitors. Even though BuzzFeed gets 50 percent of its referrals from Facebook, direct visitors are far more engaged with the site, spending more time looking at more pages:
It makes sense for search traffic to lead to less engagement, as visitors are looking for a particular topic or article rather than a news source. Although almost half of all Facebook users get news from the social platform, only 16 percent of users say news is a major reason for using Facebook, according to a 2013 Pew Research study. Only 20 percent of Facebook users who click on news links did so because of the news organization.
Unsurprisingly, visitors that were referred from Facebook were younger than direct visitors and search visitors.
Indeed, in 16 out of the 19 sites where comparisons could be made, Facebook sent a significantly higher percentage of 25- 34- year-old visitors than the direct path. And in 16 of the 17 sites that could be compared, Facebook sent higher percentages of 25- to 34- year-olds than search—often by very large margins.
The demographics of a site’s visitors are determined by the site itself rather than how its visitors arrive there. BuzzFeed had the largest share of 18- to 24-year-olds referred from Facebook: 31 percent. But 28 percent of its overall audience is 18-24 years old.
The study looked at 26 news sites: the top 15 in terms of monthly unique visitors according to comScore, and the top 20 most-frequently shared pages on Facebook according to internal Facebook data. Seventeen were the sites of a legacy news outlet, and nine were digitally-native sites. Fifteen of the 26 sites studied were on both lists: most monthly uniques and most-shared on Facebook. Here’s the full list of the sites that were part of the study: