Facebook’s Network Effect on the News: Key Takeaways for Any Brand

Gary Lee

As if we needed any more evidence to appreciate Facebook’s growing reach in our world, a recent study has found that the popular social media hangout increasingly influences what news is being read online. 

The study, released on May 9 by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, examined the top 25 news sites in the United States. The researchers focused on key aspects of audience behavior, such as how users get to these news sites, how long they stay and where they go when they leave. Among the results, the report found that Facebook is currently responsible for driving 3% of all traffic to 21 of the top news sites in the U.S., and five of the sites studied received 6-8% of their readers from Facebook.

While this investigation centered around the online news audience and industry, it offers valuable insight and lessons for any brand and brand marketer, whether you’re involved in the news media or not. At the heart of this study is an exploration of how content is discovered and disseminated across the Web. And no doubt that very topic has significant implications for any brand. 

Key takeaways include: 

1. It’s streams, not search:
The Pew report was right on target when it stated, “If searching for the news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing the news may be among the most important of the next.” This is certainly one of the most significant trends impacting how content reaches consumers on the Web today. Increasingly, we’re not seeking out information via search or visiting a destination Web site; rather, content now finds us through the never-ending flows of our social streams. And as such, Facebook is quickly becoming the starting point for many consumers’ online experiences. It’s the epicenter where people discover, organize and share all that interests them. 

2. Friends are the gatekeepers of content:
Word of mouth has always played a role in how consumers learn about products and make their buying decisions. But social media has unleashed this power at an unprecedented scale. Through our social streams, we consciously or subconsciously lean on our friends for information and enlightenment. In the case of this particular study, our friends influence which news articles we read. And the same effect holds true for the fashion industry, consumer product goods, music, etc. 

So what does this mean for the brand marketer? For starters, your company’s marketing materials and messages are much less important today than they once were. It’s a conversation-fueled world now. And reputation matters. But today it’s less about what you say about yourself and more about what others say about you that counts. With this shift, voices on the social Web have unprecedented influence in shaping perceptions, raising awareness and driving actions.  

3. Where are people talking about your business or industry?:
If people are turning more to word of mouth and trusted networks than search or destination URLs, brand managers need to make it priority #1 to find out where people are talking about their particular business or industry. For the news media, this appears to be Facebook. For example, Huffingtonpost.com derived 8% of its traffic from links posted to Facebook, while the New York Times saw 6% of its traffic from Facebook. 

Interestingly, the study found that Twitter played a negligible role as a referring source. For all but one of the 25 sites studies, Twitter referred only 1% of total traffic. The sole exception was the Los Angeles Times, which got 3.5% of its traffic from Twitter (and only 2.5% from Facebook). This discrepancy makes me wonder how the L.A. Times is using Twitter as compared to the other 24 news organizations in the study.

4. Who are casual vs. power users?
: The online landscape is populated by different roles and personalities. The Pew study tracked how often visitors return to news sites over the course of a month, and how much time they tend to spend there. The results showed that across the top 25 Web sites, the majority of visitors were casual ones (defined as those people who visit the news site only once or twice per month). On the other hand, power users (those visiting more than 10 times a month) represented just 7% on average. The report encouraged news sites to develop unique strategies to serve and monetize each audience type. 

5. Who’s influencing your customers?:
It would be interesting to see a breakdown between the number of links and articles shared by these casual and power users. Power users may represent a small fraction of total visits to a news site, but they may be responsible for a larger portion of the shared links and referred traffic.

As consumers are finding an increasing amount of content from referrals, it’s in the marketer’s best interest to understand who’s sharing, liking and interacting with their content the most. The activity of these influential individuals ripples throughout the Web. Marketers need to identify these influencers, learn what makes them click and then develop strategies that encourage them to share even more. And often, true market influencers are ones who never made anyone’s radar initially.

The bottom line is that with roughly 500 million users worldwide, Facebook’s audience is vastly larger than any news organization, brand or most countries, for that matter. It’s quickly evolving into a way for people to share, recommend and find information of all kinds, from brand preferences to buying decisions, news sources, and much, much more. 

As a brand marketer, it’s not just about being on Facebook. This is about understanding the particular behaviors and preferences of the online consumer, and then immersing yourself in that world.

Gary Lee is CEO of mBLAST, Inc. He will be speaking at PR News' Facebook Conference in New York on May 24. That event is sold out—d
on’t miss the opportunity to immerse yourself in the use of Facebook as a PR and marketing platform at PR News’ just-announced Aug. 9 Facebook Conference in San Francisco.