Mobile navigation


Newspapers and social media – the new battleground

Social networks are rapidly turning into a new channel for newspaper publishers to reach their audiences. Horst Joepen, of Searchmetrics, looks at the trends and the opportunities for UK newspapers.

By Horst Joepen

As more people regularly share links to stories they find interesting with their friends and followers on the likes of Twitter and Facebook, news sites need to take note.

Not only does social sharing such as this increase the visibility of news content and consequently traffic, it provides an endorsement of the story that you (as a reader) simply don’t get from a standard web search. Essentially it is someone you respect/follow telling you they rate a story enough to share it with you. The chances are you’re more likely to click on this kind of recommended link.

The trend towards social sharing

A study of US online news reading habits by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism indicates a growing trend toward "sharing news" in this way. The analysis, which was based on audience statistics from the Nielsen Company for 25 top news sites, showed that direct traffic accounts for 60 – 65 per cent of the total, while traffic from links (the referred traffic from sites such as social networks) makes up 35 – 40 per cent. It also revealed that while Google was still the top source of traffic for leading news sites (accounting for 30 per cent), Facebook was growing in importance. For five of the leading US news sites analysed, Facebook was the second or third biggest traffic driver; it accounted for 8 per cent of traffic to the Huffington Post and 6 per cent of traffic to the New York Times web site.

The UK Winners

So how important are social networks in the UK and who is winning the sharing war? Our own research uncovered some data about the scale of sharing – looking at the top 12 UK newspaper web sites, we found over 7.3 million links to their stories are shared every week on six important social networks.

The Daily Mail received the highest average number of links per week at nearly 3 million (2,908,779) followed by the Guardian web site (2.5m weekly links on average). Perhaps the greater ‘social strength’ of the Daily Mail is not a big surprise, bearing in mind it is one of the busiest UK newspaper web sites. And the greater social visibility of the Guardian perhaps serves to support its open, transparent approach to social media, which includes publishing its news list online and its strong use of Twitter for researching and updating stories. By contrast, the Times web site generated significantly fewer links (256 per week), providing further material to fuel the debate about the pros and cons of the paywall model.

The wider benefits of sharing

In addition to generating ‘recommended traffic’, shared links can potentially deliver two further benefits for publishers. Firstly, many search engine optimisation (SEO) experts believe that Google and Bing are analysing social media links to help determine the quality of web pages and how highly they should rank in searches. SEOs say there is a growing link between the volume of ‘shares’ a story attracts and where it appears in a web search – which in turn has an impact on potential organic search traffic. In other words, social links can help improve your search visibility, making it important to analyse and encourage links as part of your SEO efforts if you are a news site or online publisher.

Secondly, examining trends in social sharing enables newspapers to understand what types of content and issues appeal to their readers. For example, we found that the Guardian’s most frequently shared online article over the last six months was not an expose of phone hacking or a high brow economic critique, but a light-hearted quiz discussing quotes from Colonel Gaddafi and Charlie Sheen. While the paper isn’t going to ditch serious journalism for quizzes, this kind of information does provide insights about the style, approach and balance of editorial material required if a news site is to appeal to different audiences on multiple social networks.

The global nature of social sharing

Another point our study underlined was the global nature of social networks and their potential for generating interest and potentially driving traffic from all over the world. This may be why we found that the social bookmarking site, StumbleUpon, which has a big following in the US, generates a large percentage of social shares for many UK newspaper sites. In the case of the Daily Mail, StumbleUpon produced over 50 per cent of shared links - higher than Facebook and Twitter. And for the Guardian web site it generated 31.35 per cent compared with 56.77 per cent from Facebook.

The numbers of weekly links generated for the newspaper sites we looked at, certainly show that social networking is not something that can be simply ignored by publishers. In the digital world, could those sites that embrace and encourage social sharing be the ones who thrive?