Facebook Engagement Plunges for Publishers


It’s the “we told you so” moment we were afraid of. Referrals and engagement on brand sites sink dramatically with iOS roll out.

“We’re not trying to go, like, suck in and devour everything.”

Those were the words of Facebook’s Chris Cox when the company announced their Instant Articles news platform back in June. Publishers were rightly skeptical, with many in media warning that traffic to external sites would tank. Seems they were right.

“When Facebook rolled out Instant Articles to all iPhone users last month, the media world raised concerns that the network’s all-powerful News Feed algorithm would prioritize Instant Articles over external links, leading to drops in traffic to external publisher sites. Those concerns now seem warranted,” notes Kieran Dahl in Contently. “As Digiday reported last week, Facebook referral traffic plunged 32 percent from January to October.”

“Over that period, Facebook referral traffic (on desktop, not mobile) to BuzzFeed fell 41 percent. For Fox News, the drop was 48 percent. For the Huffington Post, it was astonishing 60 percent,” Dahl continues.

Facebook counters that it’s all okay because “Over the past two years, we’ve seen referral traffic to publishers from Facebook grow significantly, nearly across the board.” That still doesn’t help when publishers are reporting total engagement on their pages have fallen “precipitously.”

(In separate but related news, publishers are none too happy about their results with Apple’s version of the news either. In addition to traffic figures called “underwhelming,” publishers are reporting that the promised user tools and data reports are inadequate for monetizing their content by selling ads or sponsorships.)

And it’s not simply because Facebook is prioritizing Instant Articles over externally hosted content; publishers that are on Instant Articles are reporting similar plunges in engagement and referral traffic, proving that the Catch-22 scenario predicted is a reality:

“Publishers can either lose engagement and referral traffic from Facebook, or they can embrace Instant Articles and have their content hosted directly on Facebook, thereby relinquishing control over it,” says Dahl.

The strategy that is working well for publishers? Not surprisingly, it’s pay to play.

“Every month, we run small paid Facebook campaigns to boost our best content, and by most meaningful metrics—click-through rates, cost per click, overall referral traffic—last month was our best ever on Facebook by a wide margin,” Dahl explains.

So there it is. Want to meet your engagement goals? Be ready to pony up. No hard feelings; Facebook is allowed to make money in all of this. But just be clear about your presence on social media, as you are in any paid advertising channel. What are you getting in return?

On a personal note, we haven’t regretted our decision to leave Facebook last year after their policies drove us away. Like many companies, we found the time and money spent there was largely wasted.

Seems more brands are learning this the hard way.