Can a publisher survive without Facebook?
Danish publisher TV Midtvest decided to find out.
With Facebook changing its algorithm to deprioritize news, the publisher initiated a bold experiment: to go off Facebook completely and find out what happens.
Naturally, the move came with a lot of trepidation. Even after its algo change, Facebook still is a dominant provider of referral traffic to publishers.
They were afraid traffic would crater, and they might lose a lot of users. They were surprised, pleasantly.
“We were proved wrong,” said Nadia Nikolajeva, head of digital at TV Midtvest. “We thought people will never find us without Facebook, but they did.”
For two weeks, TV Midtvest stopped using Facebook completely, leaving followers with a simple announcement inviting them to use the website instead.
Yes, traffic dropped, but slightly. Although 40% of TV Midtvest’s traffic was coming from Facebook before the experiment began, the TV Midtvest website only saw a 10% decline in page views.
But the readers who remained averaged 42% more time within articles and read 12% more pages per session than they did prior to the test, according to the broadcaster.
“We lost this fly-by traffic, but we found out we had a very stable, not super-high but significant number of readers that came to us by themselves,” Nikolajeva said. “That was very exciting to find out.”
With the loss of casual fly-by traffic came another eye-opener. A stability of traffic not seen before.
“This was an eye-opening test,” said Nadia. “I was expecting a far bigger overall drop after stopping publishing to Facebook. We’d become used to traffic being so unstable. But when we took away the Facebook traffic, our traffic became incredibly stable.”
The experience was so great that Nadia compared the two-weeks to going on a rejuvenating break, from the madness of the news cycle: “It felt like a spa vacation.”
“My main takeaway was that I never want to be this dependent on one platform,” Nikolajeva said.
TV Midtvest is back on Facebook now, but being more thoughtful about it.
We’re asking ourselves, okay, why am I sharing this post? What am I getting out of it, am I doing it mindlessly? Do I want meaningful reactions? Do I want people to click on the article? What’s the point? We’ve started to use it more critically, much less mindlessly.
“Journalists are too blind to see how dependent we are of Facebook,” said Nadia. “I have to be very clear: I’m not critical of Facebook, I’m critical of journalists using Facebook mindlessly. That’s what the problem is.”
“It is like relying on a car that doesn’t always start — you would never make a business where you have such an unreliable factor,” she concluded.