Digiday Research: Publishers rely on Facebook for paid content distribution

This research is based on unique data collected from our proprietary audience of publisher, agency, brand and tech insiders. It’s available to Digiday+ members. More from the series →

Publishers might not openly discuss their paid distribution activity across social media platforms such as Facebook, but the majority engage in the practice nonetheless.

In a survey of 91 publishing executives at the Digiday Publishing Summit in September, 86 percent said they paid for content distribution on social platforms, with the average publisher doing so across 2.6 social platforms.

Paying for content distribution can serve multiple purposes for publishers. It can enable them to expose their content to new potential readers, help drive new paid subscriptions or help publishers hit branded content campaign goals and guarantees, for example.

Among the platforms at the publishers’ disposal, Facebook is the most widely used. Seventy-three percent said they buy ads for their content on the platform; more than double any alternative platform. A key reason for that is Facebook performs well for publishers regardless of their type, audience size, or goal, publishers say.

Fatherly Chief Operating Officer Michael Wertheim told Digiday, “We almost exclusively distribute on Facebook, it’s still the most cost efficient and offers the best targeting.” Fatherly and Some Spider, both lifestyle publishers, say Facebook is an important tool to help meet branded content campaign goals. For branded content campaigns where clients are paying for distribution, Wertheim notes, “usually the client wants to be on Facebook. It offers the most views in the most efficient way possible.”

The reluctance of publishers to talk about paid distribution could be changing. Sharon Mussalli, Chief Revenue Officer of Some Spider, a parent-focused lifestyle publisher that operates Scary Mommy, said, “[paid distribution] is just consumer marketing. If we had editorial content that was unique or performing exceptionally well, it’s only natural that we would want to do marketing for it.”

The Economist also “boosts” content on Facebook, “[for] no other reason than that [it] is an efficient driver of subscriptions,” according to Mark Beard, senior vice president of global acquisition at The Economist. Beard adds that for The Economist, which only promotes editorial content and not branded campaigns, paid distribution is part of a wider strategy to grow awareness of The Economist brand and is a good way to get in front of readers.

“If you look at content boosting as a driver of awareness, it’s a relatively efficient way of doing that. It’s something that is new, but a growing part of our marketing strategy. A post will be seen by 5-7 percent of our audience organically. When we see a piece is gaining traction, we use an automated technology that then boosts the post to a larger audience on Facebook.”

It’s important to note that the amount publishers are willing to spend on Facebook can vary wildly. One publisher, Topix, said it spent over a million dollars per month. Meanwhile, Wertheim said Fatherly pays under $50,000 a month to promote its editorial content on Facebook and pays a similar amount for branded content campaigns, but stated that spending on branded content can vary by month and the due to the specifics of the campaign. Both Some Spider and The Economist declined to share how much they were spending.

In response to Facebook’s issue ad policy, several publishers including The New York Times and Financial Times are boycotting buying ads for editorial content on the platform. A spokeswoman for The Economist told Digiday the publisher was impacted by Facebook’s issue ad policy, but said “[The] knock-on effect for us was that we had to adjust our activities in order to be in compliance. This was not ideal but it gave us an opportunity to surface a broader range of Economist content.”

Beyond Facebook, Instagram was the second most-used platform, which makes sense given that it’s run by Facebook. Facebook shares data between Instagram and its main Facebook platform, which makes things like buying and targeting audiences easier for publishers. It also hasn’t been caught up in the issue ad problem that Facebook has. Both Some Spider and Fatherly say they’ve begun buying on ads for their content on Instagram and plan to do more in the coming year.

However, it hasn’t been the slowing growth of Facebook’s news feed or Facebook’s algorithm change that lessened the organic reach of publishers’ content in users’ news feed that is getting publishers to spend on Instagram. Mussalli said, “Facebook’s news feed change didn’t dramatically affect our audience or branded content campaigns. Instead, things have changed more so because of Instagram’s growth than Facebook’s algorithm change. With Instagram, now we have something equally as powerful as Facebook.”

Instagram works well for companies like Some Spider because of it’s widespread adoption by millennials who strongly overlap with Some Spider’s audience. One platform that the company has struggled with is YouTube. “If you don’t have a massive audience, it’s very opaque to figure out how to translate spending into video views,” says Mussalli

Wertheim said that beyond Facebook and Instagram, Fatherly, “trailed Twitter but didn’t expect it to work because we’re lifestyle publisher. We also tested Pinterest because they have a lot of women followers which makes up a significant portion of our audience, but the pricing was too high.” Fatherly also tested with Flipboard but noted, “the efficiencies weren’t there.”

Though the Economist has focused more of its efforts on Facebook, Some Spider and Fatherly’s mixed success with various platforms highlights how future publisher use of paying for content distribution will fluctuate depending on the publisher and platforms. While Facebook works for everyone, lifestyle publishers might find themselves suited to Instagram, and Twitter could continue to woo publishers disenchanted by Facebook by exempting them from the problem of issue ads.


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