Industry-wide, publishers’ referral traffic from Facebook has been declining. This has obviously led to some anxiety as to the causes of the situation and how it can be remedied. 

Major publications such as Reach in the UK and Buzzfeed in the US have been affected, to varying degrees, by falling social pageviews.  

Facebook traffic to publishers has seen a decline over the last year

The Social Media Index (SMI) shows the percentage of publishers’ traffic that originates from different social media platforms. This graph from the SMI indicates that the current decline in Facebook traffic began around the middle of last year, after reaching a high of 15%. Since then it has been steadily falling, with Facebook referral traffic hovering around 7% to 8% in early June 2023.

Taking a longer view, though, we can see that historically, referral traffic patterns from Facebook have been cyclical. 

Over the long term, Facebook traffic for publishers is cyclical

This graph shows referral traffic from Facebook since 2014 — the year the SMI began collecting data. Here we can clearly see the series of peaks and troughs that characterize Facebook traffic. Indeed, concerns about falling traffic are certainly not new. In 2016, a change to Facebook’s algorithm to favor user-generated content was widely reported.

Compare this, for example, with referral traffic from Twitter, which drives a smaller amount of pageviews to publishers, but where there is a lot less volatility:

Referral traffic from Twitter is more stable than Facebook, albeit at much lower levels

What does this mean for publishers?

  1. The decline in Facebook traffic, although steep, is not unprecedented. It’s roughly within historical boundaries.
  2. These periods of declining traffic are usually temporary. This could be due to changes to Facebook’s algorithms that are more amenable to publishers’ content or publishers adapting to the situation.
  3. Facebook remains, by some distance, the largest source of social referral traffic for publishers. Even at its current levels it still generates around 7 times more traffic than its closest competitor, Twitter. 

Why is referral traffic from Facebook declining?

It’s always tricky to isolate the exact reasons for declining Facebook traffic, due to the opacity of its algorithms. Given the widespread nature of the phenomenon, though, it’s clear that this is not the fault of individual publishers.

Two interrelated issues could be at play:

1. Facebook’s fight with legislators: For the past few years, Facebook has been engaged in a protracted struggle with politicians around the world on the question of whether Facebook should remunerate publishers for the use of their content. 

In Australia, the News Media Bargaining Code was implemented in March of 2021, though, not before Facebook temporarily blocked news content to the platform’s users in the country.

Recently, Facebook has threatened to use the same tactics in Canada, in an effort to forestall the implementation of the Online News Act, which would similarly require it to pay news publishers. Meanwhile, a recent report produced by Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has made the argument that news publishers need Facebook more than Facebook needs news publishers. 

In this context, the decline in traffic that publishers are experiencing could be the result of a deliberate deprioritization of news content on Facebook, designed to strong-arm governments into abandoning any proposal which would force it to pay publishers for their work.

2. The impact of Reels: Facebook has not only been struggling against legislation; TikTok, too, represents a serious threat to Facebook’s dominant status.

Between 2019 and 2021, the number of teens using Facebook saw a double-digit fall. This was coupled with the explosive growth of TikTok, driven in large part by younger users. Reels was supposed to halt this trend, and it seems to have partially worked. Reels on Instagram boast a stronger watch rate than TikTok, whilst according to a recent report by Morgan Stanley, growth in user engagement with Reels on Facebook has been strong. In March of last year, the number of US users who said they engaged with Reels was 47%; by April of this year, that number stands at 65%.

Short-format video has been the focus of both Facebook and Instagram, who have pushed it aggressively. A change in its algorithms to prioritize video over text-based content could also account for this drop off.

Either of these two factors, separately or combined, will make life harder for publishers trying to generate pageviews from Facebook. We would hope that this situation is temporary and Facebook stops penalizing publishers — likely when there is a definitive outcome to its war with legislators.

How can publishers deal with declining Facebook traffic?

In the short term, there are various ways to mitigate this shortfall and protect against the possibility of similar problems in the future.

1. Use AI to optimize posting: As publishers feel the constraints of Facebook’s algorithm, AI can still optimize post times to increase referrals. Echobox uses data from individual publishers as well as broader historical data to reverse engineer Facebook’s algorithm. This allows it to understand patterns that would be otherwise indiscernible.

In the past few years, some media companies have seen vertiginous drops in traffic of over 50%, with even the New York Times experiencing a 38 percentage point decline in desktop referral traffic from Facebook between April 2020 and March 2023. By contrast, the fall in traffic over this same period for publishers on Echobox was less than 20%.

2. Consolidate resources with automation: Increasingly, we are seeing publishers taking full advantage of social media automation to free up valuable time for editorial teams to focus on content creation and strategic planning. 

With more content formats and methods of distributing them than ever before, dedicating energy to high-level functions and developing a diversification strategy can be a wiser use of time than manual posting. Intelligent automation can not only cover your day-to-day social posting — it can even optimize performance beyond a human editor’s capabilities.

3. Diversify your social posting to different platforms: Social media as a whole remains a key resource for publishers looking to reach new audiences, engage them and eventually monetize them. If you haven’t already begun to invest in rising platforms like Instagram and TikTok, now is the time to explore their potential and consider how you can connect with your audience on these newer platforms. 

According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, “publishers will be prioritizing video platforms like TikTok and YouTube this year amid evidence that these are good ways to engage younger users” and “around half (49%) of top publishers across dozens of countries are now active on TikTok”. 

And even old-guard social platforms like LinkedIn carry benefits for publishers worth exploring when diversifying your social strategy. 

4. Invest in owned channels like email: Subscriptions have become one of the main pillars of revenue generation for publishers over the past few years, and for very good reasons: they offer publishers direct, unmediated access to their audience; there is scope for substantial personalization and loyalty-building; they allow publishers to collect user data to leverage for optimization, advertising and more.

Attracting, cultivating and retaining high-value users is another means of diversification that can pay enormous dividends in the long run. Whether you are looking to drive paid subscriptions or foster relationships with loyal visitors, a solution like Echobox Email allows you to fully develop and benefit from your email channel, without requiring time investment from editorial teams. Echobox’s powerful AI can automatically produce newsletters in seconds, tailored to optimize open and click rates from your particular audience. 

All eyes will be on the outcome of Facebook’s war with legislators. Regardless of the outcome, we hope that Facebook’s adversarial stance towards publishers is short-lived. The truth of the matter is that there is a huge audience for the quality content that publishers post to Facebook, and these measures are a shortsighted and simplistic response to a long-running and complex problem.  

Nevertheless, as outlined above, publishers have several tools at their disposal to help mitigate the effects of this decline in traffic and plan for the future.

In the meantime, if you are an Echobox client and you have any questions about Facebook traffic or any other points raised in this article, please don’t hesitate to contact your Customer Success representative.