How publishers can make social media work for them in the post-Platform Era
Although social media referrals have declined, we highlight the ways that publishers could and should be using platforms to achieve their own goals.
1st December 2023
In the Pugpig weekly media bulletin, Pugpig’s consulting services director Kevin Anderson and digital growth consultant James Kember distill some of the best strategies and tactics that are driving growth in audiences, revenue and innovation at media businesses around the world.
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The changing landscape of social media
Social media platforms are playing a less important role in driving traffic to publishers and, after years of being whipsawed by changing algorithms and policies, editors are wary of their power. The News Media Association found that 90% of UK editors believe that Google and Meta engage in anti-competitive behaviour and “pose an existential threat to journalism”. But that doesn’t mean social media platforms can’t and aren’t playing a strategic role in audience development.
We have written about the end of the Platform Era before. It doesn’t mean that social media platforms have ceased to have a commanding position in the Attention Economy, but that they are no longer a firehose of free traffic for publishers who had focused their audience development efforts on social media referrals.
As everyone knows, the decline in traffic is due to the platforms’ choices to deprioritise posts that link out to news sources, but most of the major social networks have also seen a decline in audience over the last 12 months, according to Comscore UK’s 2023 Year in Review. Of the top 10 social media platforms, only TikTok and Reddit saw year-over-year growth from October 2022. All three of Meta’s major platforms saw declines in audience, but out of the 10 largest social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram showed the biggest losses, with 9% and 14% drops in audience respectively.
Even with those declines, Meta is still dominant. In the UK, Meta’s platforms take three of the four top spots, with eX-Twitter at third in the league table. And Facebook not only had the most users at 42m but also had the most time spent, with TikTok being its only real challenger.
In the competition for attention, publishers know they need to be socially engaged with audiences. The question has always been how publishers can strategically engage with social media platforms to achieve their audience and business goals, and we’ll review how publishers are leveraging engagement on social media at various stages of their conversion funnels.
Publishers continue to see social media as an important channel to build brand awareness. To mark Bloomberg reaching a half million subscribers, the Press Gazette interviewed the business publisher’s Chief Digital Officer Julia Beizer on the strategy behind their success. It includes many of the tactics that publishers are using including optimising their introductory offers, paid marketing and a dynamic paywall, which they build in-house. Their goal is to develop long-term relationships with subscribers. In a measure of loyalty, 88% of subscribers have annual subscriptions.
It raises the question of what role social media now plays in building the long-term relationships that form the foundation of subscription businesses, particularly as Dominic Ponsford with the Press Gazette points out, research from the Reuters Institute at Oxford finds that Gen Z prefers social media platforms to publishers own properties for getting news.
Engaging with audiences “everywhere” and on emerging platforms is part of their responsibility to long-term stewardship of the Bloomberg brand, she said. “I also think that we have to experiment with new types of journalism and storytelling that fits that format. And be very, very specific to platform,” she added. She highlighted the work of Bloomberg Opinion on TikTok, saying it was “riotously funny” and “really, really works within the context of TikTok”.
Short-form vertical video is booming as a content format. Total engagement – measured by compiling the number of reactions, likes, shares, comments and re-posts – with this short-form vertical video increased by 202% on Instagram, 442% on Tiktok and 3,112% on YouTube, according to Comscore.
It was important for Bloomberg to “flex its muscles” in creating content adapted to new content formats in the context of their broader content and commercial strategy. “I’m not advocating the pivot to video and abandoning all businesses in support of that,” she told the Press Gazette.
It highlights one of the mistakes of the Platform Era when publishers staked major strategic shifts, including the reallocation of resources and even major shifts in staffing and capabilities, based on the whims of platforms rather than the needs of audiences. Do you remember the big 360-degree video push by Facebook in the middle of the last decade? It was part of Facebook’s efforts to dethrone YouTube in the video space. It was in their best interest, but it wasn’t in the interest of publishers.
Comscore’s focus on engagement with social media content is important. Engagement is a better way to measure social media success rather than vague statistics about impressions and reach. And leaning into measuring a user’s consistent engagement with your content off-platform means you can start building loyalty and habit with your brand even before they are a known user on one of your owned platforms.
Social media platforms continue to test new ways for brands to engage with users directly. Facebook has rolled out a feature that allows publishers to sell subscriptions, not to their publications, but to special content and features on Facebook. Pulman’s Weekly News, a small publisher in Axminster, Devon, has sold more than 500 subscriptions on the service, out of a total following of 1,700 on Facebook, according to the Press Gazette.
The publishers’ Facebook subscribers get access to “a dedicated subscriber discussion group, exclusive posts, videos including live broadcasts, photos and polls, a subscriber badge next to comments, and five highlighted featured comments a month on live videos”.
The fine print details include that Facebook has committed not to taking a cut of the payments until at least the end of 2024. Of course, when it comes to data, it’s a lot like Vegas: The data in Facebook stays in Facebook.
However, awareness and engagement off of your owned platforms don’t pay the bills. In the News Media Association survey about platform power, Katie French, regional group editor at Newsquest, said, “My titles have more readers than ever before in their history thanks to the global and national audiences our online content is exposed to. However, we receive very little in the way of fair remuneration for the rich and high-quality service our content provides…”
Many publishers have found it difficult, if not impossible, to convert casual audiences directly from social media into paying subscribers, particularly on their first visit. However, subscription is not the only conversion pathway publishers are pursuing. Publishers have used social media ads, complete with their targeting power, to drive subscriptions to newsletters. And you can use social media to promote events as well, either via free or paid methods.
In the past, publishers’ main objective was to leverage social media to drive traffic to their properties to generate ad revenue. Now, it is approaching social media through the light of your own strategic priorities.
Publishers are now exploring other ways to earn money via social media platforms. One of the simplest is via sponsored posts, although you will want to signpost those posts to differentiate them from posts promoting your content. For consumer publications, you can use social media to support your e-commerce sales, and for those publishers with review sites, affiliate marketing can be an option.
Social media strategies need to be clearer than ever about the value exchange and making sure that you are using it in a way that supports your editorial and commercial goals. It has to be in the service of your mission and your business. Keep an eye on your North Star and don’t let the masses on social media distract you.
Here are some of the most important headlines about the business of news and publishing as well as strategies and tactics in product management, analytics and audience engagement.
- Most popular news apps in the UK in October: Strong growth at Money Saving Expert and GB News from the Press Gazette
- Review of RSF’s new guidelines on using AI in journalism: what they achieve and where they fall short from The Fix
- How The Guardian continues to drive print revenues through subscriptions from WAN-IFRA
- What Sports Illustrated’s BotGate really means for journalism from The Washington Post
- (Canadian) Federal government reaches deal with Google on Online News Act from the CBC
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