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News publishers are no longer deciding between traffic and engagement

By Simran Cashyap

Echobox

London, United Kingdom

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There was a time when social media was driving significant traffic for publishers. By 2023, that was no longer necessarily the case as Facebook formally deprioritised news content, sending referral traffic spiralling.

But a decline in referral traffic has not meant traffic is no longer a goal for publishers. On the contrary, Echobox’s Publishing Trends Report 2024 found that, not only did 63% of respondents cite traffic loss as one of their biggest challenges of 2023, but 64% said they would focus on traffic generation in 2024.

Our report also demonstrated just how widespread this traffic loss is. Almost three-quarters of respondents had seen traffic from Facebook decline in 2023.

Such a state of affairs should come as little surprise: Referral traffic has been a central aim of publishers’ content distribution for many years, as well as a key plank in their revenue models, and changing that won’t happen overnight.

Video and owned channels are key to engagement and subscription

What our report does show, however, is a growing awareness amongst publishers of the urgency of diversification and the need to incorporate an increased focus on engagement into their digital strategies.

Following the astonishing success of TikTok, social networks are doing all they can to encourage engagement-focused content, including making significant changes to their algorithms. On social media networks, therefore, there is a lot of upside for publishers in playing the game by their rules.

Around 40% of respondents to our survey indicated they would be focusing on engagement this year. We see this most in two areas:

  • Content formats: Investing in video as well as text- or image-based posts.
  • Content distribution: Developing a presence on traditional social media as well as owned channels like e-mail.

Video posts, for instance, are an incredibly effective way of generating engagement. We recently conducted a study showing video posts produced almost twice the amount of comments as photo posts on Instagram, a platform whose high-profile users were strongly against it prioritising video just a couple of years ago.

When we asked what types of activities would be more important to them this year, 61% of our respondents said they expected video content to be a major area of focus. Last year, this figure stood at 47%.

Unsurprisingly, when we asked which social platforms our publishers believed would be more important to them this year than last, the video-first services like TikTok (52%) and YouTube (47%) proved most popular. Interestingly our report also highlights the surge of interest in WhatsApp (51%).

Indeed, owned channels, especially e-mail newsletters but also platforms such as WhatsApp, are crucial elements in building effective subscription models. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed indicated they will increase the number of newsletters they send. Interestingly, only 7% will start sending them, an indication of the widespread adoption of newsletters by publishers. That 62% of our respondents were intent on growing their newsletter offering, however, shows they still believe there is a way to go in fully realising their potential.

When it comes to engagement or traffic, publishers want both

Taken together, our findings don’t reflect an abandonment of traffic in favour of engagement.

What they clearly show, I think, is that publishers don’t see traffic and engagement, ad revenue and subscription revenue as mutually exclusive goals. Rather they want engagement and traffic, not engagement instead of traffic.

No doubt this is testament to the very fluid situation publishers find themselves in, where no one is entirely sure from one day to the next what decisions will come out of the big social media companies’ C-suites.

But in another sense, the desire to diversify — to spread the net out wide and see what works for them — can only be a healthy one for publishers, making them more resilient to the volatility of modern content distribution.

About Simran Cashyap

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