The news media sector has become heavily dependent on traffic from Facebook and Google. A reliance now dangerously close to addiction. Maybe it’s time to refocus on direct access. 

Digital publishers pride themselves on their ability to funnel traffic from search and social, namely Google and Facebook (we’ll see that Twitter, contrary to its large public image, is in fact a minuscule traffic source.) In ly business, we hunt for the best Search Engine Optimization specialists, social strategists, community managers to expand the reach of our precious journalistic material; we train and retrain newsroom staff; we equip them with the best tools for analytics and A/B testing to see what headlines best fit the web’s volatile mood… And yet, when a competing story gets a better Google News score, the digital marketing staff gets a stern remark from the news floor. We also compare ourselves with the super giants of the internet whose traffic numbers coming from social reach double digit percentages. In short, we do our best to tap into the social and search reservoir of readers.

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Illustration by Rafiq ElMansy DeviantArt

Consequences vary. Many great news brands today see their direct traffic — that is readers accessing deliberately the URL of the site — fall well below 50%. And the younger the media company (pure players, high-performing click machines such as BuzzFeed), the lower the proportion of direct access is – to the benefit of Facebook and Google for the most part. (As I write this, another window on my screen shows the internal report of a pure player news site: In August it only collected 11% in direct access, vs. 19% from Google and 24% from Facebook — and I’m told it wants to beef up it’s Facebook pipeline.)

Fact is, the two internet giants now control most of the news traffic. Even better, they collect on both ends of the system.

Consider BuzzFeed. In this story from Marketing Land, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti claims to get 75% of its traffic from social and to not paying much attention to Google anymore. According to last Summer ComScore data, a typical BuzzFeed viewer reads on average 2.3 articles and spends slightly more than 3 minutes per visit. And when she leaves BuzzFeed, she goes back to the social nest (or to Google-controlled sites) roughly in the same proportion. As for direct access, it amounts to only 6% and Twitter’s traffic is almost no existent (less than 1%). It clearly appears that Twitter’s position as a significant traffic contributor is vastly overstated: In real terms, it’s a tiny dot in the readers’ pool. None of this is accidental. BF has built a tremendous social/traffic machine that is at the core of its business.

Whether it is 75% of traffic coming from social for BuzzFeed or 30% to 40% for Mashable or others of the same kind, the growing reliance to social and search raises several questions.

The first concerns the intrinsic valuation of a media so dependent on a single distribution provider. After all, Google has a proven record of altering its search algorithm without warning. (In due fairness, most modifications are aimed at content farms and others who try to game Google’s search mechanism.) As for Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is unpredictable, he’s also known to do what he wants with his company, thanks to an absolute control on its Board of Directors (read this Quartz story).

None of the above is especially encouraging. Which company in the world wouldn’t be seen as fragile when depending so much on a small set of uncontrollable distributors?

The second question lies in the value of the incoming traffic. Roughly speaking, for a news, value-added type media, the number of page views by source goes like this:
Direct Access : 5 to 6 page views
Google Search: 2 to 3
Emailing: ~2
Google News: ~1
Social: ~1
These figures show how good you have to be in collecting readers from social sources to generate the same advertising ARPU as from a loyal reader coming to your brand because she likes it. Actually, you have to be at least six times better. And the situation is much, much worse if your business model relies a lot on subscriptions (for which social doesn’t bring much transformation when compared, for instance, to highly targeted emails.)

To be sure, I do not advocate we should altogether dump social media or search. Both are essential to attract new readers and expand a news brand’s footprint, to build the personal brand of writers and contributors. But when it comes to the true value of a visit, it’s a completely different story. And if we consider that the value of a single reader must be spread over several types of products and services (see my previous column Diversify or Die) then, the direct reader’s value becomes even more critical.

Taken to the extreme, some medias are doing quite well by relying solely on direct access. Netflix, for instance, entirely built its audience through its unique recommendation engine. Its size and scope are staggering. No less than 300 people are assigned to analyze, understand, and serve the preferences of the network’s 50 million subscribers (read Alex Madrigal’s excellent piece published in January in The Atlantic). Netflix’s data chief Neil Hunt, in this keynote of RecSys conference (go to time code 55:30), sums up his ambition by saying his challenge is “to create 50 million different channels“. In order to do so, he manages a €150m a year data unit. Hunt and his team concentrate their efforts on optimizing the 150 million choices Netflix offers every day to its viewers. He said that if only 10% of those choices end up better than they might have been without its recommendation system, and if just 1% of those choices are good enough to prevent the cancellation of a subscription, such efforts are worth €500m a year for the company (out of a $4.3bn revenue and a $228m operating income in 2013). While Netflix operates in a totally different area from news, such achievement is worth meditating upon.

Maybe it’s time to inject “direct” focus into the obligatory social obsession.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com