What Happened When a TV Station Took a Two Week Facebook Fast

It’s a dilemma. Facebook is becoming increasingly unfriendly to news publishers with their new algorithms, and referral traffic is dropping fast. On the other hand, Facebook is a go-to source of “news” for so many, that news brands often say they “need” to be there.

Or do they?

“Many publishers are uncomfortable with their dependence on Facebook for traffic, particularly in light of recent changes to Facebook’s algorithm that deprioritize news,” writes Laura Hazard Owen in NiemanLab.org. “But that discomfort almost never extends to actually leaving the platform.”

Danish regional TV station TV Midtvest decided to test the idea of leaving the platform, by going on a two-week fast.

“I wanted it to hurt a little bit,” said the station’s digital director Nadia Nikolajeva. “One week is super easy, but if we only made it one week, we would not get enough interesting data.”

They warned their audience it was coming and encouraged them to use their news app to stay in touch. So what happened?

According to Hazard Owen, their traffic was surprisingly stable.

Users did fall by 27 percent, and page views were down 10 percent. And while those numbers look significant, it wasn’t as damaging as they expected, “considering that up to 40 percent of TV Midtvest’s traffic was coming from social media before the experiment began and almost all of that was from Facebook,” Hazard Owen notes.

Nikolajeva agrees, saying, “We lost this fly-by traffic, but we found out we had a very stable, not super-high but significant number of readers that came to us by themselves. That was very exciting to find out.”

They were also pleased to see an uptick in traffic from news apps, including one 19-year-old student who said he plans to continue to use the app even now that the station is back on Facebook.

“That really warmed my heart,” Nikolajeva said. “If [teenagers] use Facebook to get news, and Facebook decides they don’t want to show news there, what will happen?”

During the break, they found they had more time to be creative with articles, to edit more carefully, and come up with new ideas. In other words, they had time to be better publishers. Now that they are back, Nikolajeva says they are participating “more mindfully.”

As for their future plans, she says she’ll no longer be spending a lot of energy on Facebook as a platform.

“I’ll work toward communicating to our readers and viewers that if they want the full TV Midtvest experience, they should use our news app,” she notes. “Find the news you want to see yourself, or get a personalized push in our app. Don’t expect to be informed by platforms that are beyond our control. We are trusting our readers that they will understand that, that we can have a dialogue with them about it.”