The Hard, Simple Truth

One Social Network Still Dominates Publisher Site Traffic

September 13, 2015

Even as more readers use multiple social platforms, most still rely on just one for discovering articles.

Social is scary for publishers. Platform popularity and  content reach can drop precipitously in the blink of an eye, taking a website’s traffic with it.

Some shifts are real but greatly overstated, like the sensational reports about the imminent demise of Facebook and Twitter (both remain vibrant sources of engagement for publishers). Other shifts, like content display algorithm changes, go relatively unnoticed but have major repercussions on overall website traffic.

Publishers aim to mitigate the risk of relying on social by publishing  to many platforms, but the bulk of their traffic still comes from a single platform.

We analyzed 65,000 recent articles across a range of top publishers we work with to give you an inside look at the social networks that drive the most shares and traffic. We evaluated our publishers by share volume and social traffic across the top 5 social networks driving engagement for their sites: Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest, and Google+.

This analysis can help you benchmark your site’s performance and fine tune your social strategy.

Social Sharing Is Lopsided, With Some Surprise Winners

Below is a breakdown of share volume for articles by publisher category. Facebook remains the dominant social sharing force for many publishers, but in two publisher categories, Facebook sharing has been handily bested by sharing from other networks.

The overall sharing spread is more diverse than we expected. Despite concerns about Twitter’s underwhelming platform growth, it still drives significant sharing for many publishers. In addition, Pinterest is huge for lifestyle content brands, driving up to 85% of their social sharing. This lopsided Pinterest sharing is a direct result of Lifestyle publications targeting an audience primed to Pin, and they are giving that audience more and better images than most other publishers.

While Google+ gets shoved off to the side in many social discussions, we see a meaningful number of people are using it to share content for tech publications.

Bear a few things in mind with our results. First, this isn’t a comprehensive study for every publisher everywhere. Second, these results do not account for differences you might find if you consider share volume across publisher sizes in each category — we only included articles of top publishers.

Additionally, significant pigeonholing is inevitable in any categorical dataset. Today’s publishers are many things. Our results aren’t meant to map directly onto a complete publication. Rather, they present options that could help you optimize your social focus based on your content category. It might be worth looking into some beautiful, Pin-worthy photography sets for your next fashion feature, for example.

Despite Diverse Sharing, One Network Rules Social Traffic

Shares are not the only valuable social performance metric; your social content needs to drive people to your site too.

Ultimately, you can do a lot of awesome brand and relationship building on social, but it’s difficult to measure the benefit in revenue if you aren’t able to bring those readers onto your own website.

Social traffic is key for a modern publisher to thrive and stay relevant. The glory days of search traffic have passed. Not only is social the fastest growing source of traffic for top publishers, it already drives anywhere from 10% to more than 90% of their total site traffic.

Twitter and Pinterest do outpace Facebook in shares for some publishers. When it comes to traffic, though, Facebook drives the overwhelming majority of social referrals for most publishers. As shown in the graph below, this trend holds true even for even for lifestyle publications; Pinterest may drive their shares, but not their traffic.

This traffic breakdown above is from a typical top lifestyle publisher. This lopsided social referral traffic phenomenon holds true for technology publications too. Together, Twitter and Linkedin represent more shares for technology sites, but Facebook drives the clear majority of social traffic.

The power of Facebook referral traffic is both a boon and a risk for publishers. Tapping into the traffic growth opportunities offered by Facebook can accelerate you past many publishers. At the same time, relying on Facebook too much may cause you to miss opportunities on other platforms, and expose you to large traffic swings with Facebook’s ongoing content display algorithm changes.

Ride the Facebook Wave, but Don’t Forget to Develop Cross-Platform Loyalty

While you can achieve great sharing success on a variety of platforms, Facebook offers the biggest, fastest boost in traffic that social has to offer.

However, reader loyalty is ultimately a key differentiator between publishers that are all targeting overlapping audiences on the same network. Building a great following on Pinterest, for example, can help drive more referral traffic from Facebook; your Pinterest followers are much more likely to share, like, and comment on your articles they see on Facebook.

We see great opportunities for publishers to amplify their visibility on their most valuable network by building loyalty on complementary networks; the most engaged people on social are increasingly multi-platform users.

Whatever your current social engagement strategies may be, we hope this update on the state of sharing and social referral traffic helps your team enhance them.

Postscript: A Little More About the Data Analyzed

All analysis was conducted using Naytev’s platform.

Naytev’s analysis included publicly reported share volume data as well as anonymized publisher site performance data.

To ensure consistency, we excluded Facebook Likes and Comments, forms of engagement that publishers typically bundle when reporting share counts publicly, because unlike shares, they do not drive traffic.

You’ll notice networks like Instagram, Stumbleupon, and Reddit are not included; these platforms don’t directly drive a noticeable level of sharing or traffic to top publishers.

All the publishers considered are “mid-sized” or larger, with 5 to 30+ million monthly unique visitors. All maintain very active accounts on Facebook and Twitter, with multiple posts/tweets per day.

LinkedIn participation was mixed. About a third of our participants actively fill LinkedIn with relevant content along with their career/hiring needs. A third have a profile, but only post non-hiring material occasionally. And the final third were nowhere to be found on the LindkedIn.

Most of the publishers included have an active Pinterest presence, with a dozen boards or more, updated several times per week. A few created, but don’t maintain, an account. We found a number of top publishers also have derelict accounts with Google+.