Too big to fail - the Facebook outage

A significant proportion of the digital publishing sector is dependent on Facebook – and not just those with a high bounce rate and low dwell time. Many premium media brands are hooked on Facebook to achieve the scale the agencies and clients demand to be considered for advertising dollars.

When Facebook suffered a 5+ hour outage, logic suggests the publishing sector would suffer a crippling drop in traffic, and if not ubiquitous across the sector, there would be some notable mentions. However, for newsbrands the reverse was true, with traffic increasing over this period. Proof that the net effect of Facebook is to suck attention away from newsbrands more than it can return as a distributer of content.

While content, even premium content, is no longer scarce, attention is; So when a large proportion of that attention is suddenly freed, it seeks a new outlet - a trusted, well-known and reliable outlet – the newsbrand. Assuming the bump in traffic wasn’t solely users looking to find out more about the outage itself, newsbrands who saw the biggest increase in traffic also have the biggest opportunity to retain users without suffering diminishing returns from Facebook.  

This effect was more pronounced on newsbrands that are free rather than behind a paywall, even though most paid-for newsbrands have a number of articles that can be read before a credit card is needed. That was true of, the Netherlands’ No1 quality newsbrand, with a paywall not too dissimilar to The Times, but with a hugely loyal user base and average subscriber relationship of over 12 years (a subs churn rate that UK media-brands can only dream of). It is thought that NRC saw no real change because they are less dependent on Facebook having both a well-established newsletter program, and recently acquired Sublime radio to deliver world-class news and opinion lead NRC branded podcasts – all driving brand recognition, traffic and attention. NRC therefore has a higher proportion of users with a direct and usually more profitable relationship.

As with all hypotheses, there are exceptions… – France’s No1 newsbrand, who paywall only a small level of content, also saw no real change during the outage. The reason is in parallel with NRC - Figaro also has a proportionally lower dependence on Facebook. Le Figaro is one of many brands within the Figaro group, who collectively reach over 80% of all French users. Key drivers to the site are other brands within the group like (France’s No 3 newsbrand) and (France’s No1 B2B site).

This reduced dependency is not limited to Facebook traffic; the whole French digital daily newsbrand sector saw their Heroiks 2021 Search Dependency Index fall year-on-year to 36.52. Compare that to sites of leading French linear news broadcasts, and - they all increased their dependency scores year-on-year to 44.53, 49.26 and 67.70 respectively.

And those who saw a fall in traffic? Predictably brands that champion social media such as Konbini, France’s No1 media brand on Instagram, Snapchat, and very significant on TikTok, saw a drop over the outage – which immediately returned thereafter. But those publishers, not purposefully social first and less transparent with their performance and results during the outage appear to be in the main lifestyle brands that trade on their brand heritage but in fact drive huge proportions of traffic via social.   

But why does this all matter?

In a world without Facebook, newsbrands would see a significant growth in traffic... but we are not in a world without Facebook. We must accept that newsbrands need to become increasingly creative and diverse in driving engagement instead of just reach. Attention that can advance the quality, quantity and relevance of first party data, which can inform and drive ad revenue and subscriptions. Last week was less a watershed moment, more a wake-up call showing there are real opportunities for growth within the digital publishing sector, beyond the publicised alliances, mergers and acquisitions of late.

That overwhelming share of attention and revenue doesn’t always have to go to distributor channels of content over the creators/publishers themselves – we as the publishing sector simply need to be more creative, diverse and determined to break (or at least erode) the cycle.

(by Chris Turner-Green)