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How Facebook’s pivot to private messaging might affect publishers

Given that he’s one of the world’s most powerful and richest people, Mark Zuckerberg’s public statements are closely watched by everyone from investors to politicians, but perhaps no one is more interested in what he has to say than the digital publishers that rely on Facebook for referral traffic. When Zuckerberg announces a new company initiative or area of focus, it almost always signals seismic shifts in how Facebook prioritizes content, and those shifts have the power to lift publishers up or, in some cases, destroy them entirely.

Take his Facebook post published in January 2018 as an example. In it, he announced that Facebook would be tweaking its Newsfeed algorithm so it placed less emphasis on content published on pages and more weight on posts from your friends and family. In a post published a week later, he predicted that news content would fall from 5 percent of posts in the Newsfeed to 4 percent.

This might not seem like much of a drop, but when you scale that across the billions of referrals Facebook was sending to publishers each month, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some saw their traffic virtually decimated. New data from analytics firm Parsley shows that publishers, on average, saw a 28 percent decrease in Facebook traffic between 2017 and 2018.

But that number doesn’t tell the whole story, since not all publishers experienced the algorithm change equally. Those publishing political content saw a relatively small decrease in Facebook traffic, 28 percent, while style and fashion content experienced a 60 percent drop. Arts and entertainment publishers witnessed the largest dip, with 71 percent of their Facebook traffic disappearing in the span of a year.

These trends had real consequences. In February, Ben Cohen, editor of the political opinion site The Daily Banter, announced he was shutting down his site and replacing it with a paid newsletter; he pointed to a 90 percent drop in Facebook traffic as a major factor in his decision. At least his publication managed to survive. Little Things, an advertising-dependent publisher that had thrived back when Facebook sent it gobs of traffic, closed down shortly after Zuckerberg made his announcement.

And just as publishers were starting to adjust to their new reality, Zuckerberg went ahead and announced another shift in Facebook’s strategy. Earlier this month, he published a post declaring private messaging to be his company’s new frontier. “Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication,” he wrote. “In a few years, I expect future versions of Messenger and WhatsApp to become the main ways people communicate on the Facebook network.”

He was light on details for how this future of private messaging would be realized — “a lot of this work is in the early stages” — but we’ve seen recent examples of Facebook tightening its grip on the messaging app world, most notably when it initiated plans to eventually roll out cross functionality for messaging across Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram. Soon, a private message sent through one app will be seen on all three.

While it’s too early to tell how much Facebook user activity will shift from public posts to private messaging, we do have an idea of how one-to-one messaging impacts publisher traffic.

Back in 2012, Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal published a groundbreaking article on the existence of what he coined as “dark social.” For years, publishers would open up their analytics dashboards and see something that was logged by the analytics software as “direct” traffic. Many assumed that this consisted of readers who either bookmarked the site or typed its URL into their browsers, and while a small percentage of this direct traffic went to the homepage, a much larger portion of it came to individual articles. The articles had long URLs, and it was unlikely that users were typing them into their browsers.

It eventually dawned on Madrigal and a few others that this wasn’t “direct” traffic at all, but rather traffic with referrals that couldn’t be tracked by analytics programs. “The main situations in which this happens are email programs, instant messages, some mobile applications, and whenever someone is moving from a secure site (“https://mail.google.com/blahblahblah”) to a non-secure site (http://www.theatlantic.com),” Madrigal explained. In other words, this was traffic that was coming from one-to-one messaging, whether it was through email, text messages, or messaging apps like WhatsApp.

After Madrigal published his article, publishers started to pay more attention to their “dark social” traffic. Some have estimated that as much as 84 percent of sharing of content fits under this category. Others found that dark social visitors are about even with those coming in through traditional social media channels like Facebook.

So what kind of content is typically shared through one-to-one messaging? According to Parsely data, dark social traffic behaves differently than traditional social. For one, it’s more spread out. “Direct traffic sends readers to a much wider set of total articles,” wrote Parsely’s Kelsey Arendt and Clare Carr. “For every article viewed from Facebook referrers, three are seen from Direct traffic.” This means that articles that attract a healthy amount of social traffic are more likely to “go viral,” whereas direct traffic is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Political content seems to do better with traditional social; my guess is that when a user shares a political story, it’s as much about signaling their own beliefs as it is about getting people to read that particular article. Meanwhile, business, sports, and technology content sees a higher percentage of dark social than traditional social.

Another attribute of direct traffic: it’s much harder for publishers to optimize for. “There’s no way to game email or people’s instant messages,” wrote Madrigal. “There’s no power users you can contact. There’s no algorithms to understand. This is pure social, uncut.”

And that’s the scariest thing about a rise in traffic generated by one-to-one messaging: it’s difficult to cultivate. So while Facebook’s shift to private messaging might not result in less traffic overall, publishers that have spent years building up powerful modes of distribution — from email lists to social media followers — could start seeing drastically less ROI from all that investment. The world Zuckerberg is pushing forward isn’t necessarily one where we read less news, but it may be one where publishers have even less influence over what news people consume. It’s a world where your fate as a news outlet is determined entirely by the whims of your readers.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him onTwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio,go here.

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