Publishers turn to other platforms to address platform referral traffic issues

Long gone are the days when publishers could almost entirely rely on traffic referrals from social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Nine digital publishing execs that spoke with Digiday said they are investing in other social platforms like Instagram and TikTok to grow their reach. But the question remains if alternative platforms can actually make up the social referral deficit. 

As Digiday reported last year, those platforms do more for publishers trying to build up their brands than actually getting people onsite. And while those interviewed said their audience development efforts are more diversified compared to years past — and when they were especially vulnerable to platform algorithm changes — at the end of the day Instagram, Facebook and Threads are all owned by Meta, and TikTok is at risk of being banned in the U.S. 

That still doesn’t seem to be enough to deter publishers, though.

“If TikTok got banned tomorrow in the U.S., we feel that consumer attention would just move to another short-form video platform that we would understand and [know] how to be able to move all that consumer attention over really quickly,” said Chris Anthony, Gallery Media CRO.

Despite the confidence expressed in these efforts, most publishers aren’t prepared for this new ecosystem, especially as they anticipate the decline of search referral traffic — even among some of her own clients, said Melissa Chowning, founder and CEO of audience development and marketing firm Twenty-First Digital.

“Some people are responding with a lot of anxiety about what this means” but are in a “wait-and-see mode,” Chowning said. “This year is going to be a huge shift.”

Is investing in other social platforms doing enough?

The most obvious move is to invest in other social platforms beyond Facebook and X. When Meta announced in February it was shutting down Facebook News, the dedicated tab for news content, publishing execs weren’t too surprised or concerned. Their attention, for the most part, had already moved elsewhere (albeit, in some cases, not all that far from the Meta-owned platform).

Annemarie Dooling, vp of audience growth and experiences at Gannett, said her team now has two video producers dedicated to creating content on TikTok to gear up for the presidential election this year — in addition to the short form video her team creates for YouTube and Instagram Reels, as well as discussions and surveys published on Instagram Threads and Reddit. Dooling said links in Instagram Stories have helped to drive a growing amount of traffic to Gannett’s sites, but she declined to say by how much.

Bustle Digital Group is also focusing its efforts on social channels like Instagram and TikTok. Wes Bonner, svp of marketing and audience development and head of social at BDG, said onstage at the Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colo. last month that he was hoping to convert even a “small portion” of BDG’s 25 million TikTok followers to onsite traffic by testing a new feature on the platform that allows URLs on organic videos.

One publishing exec, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said this year’s focus is to better understand the economics of investment on social platforms.

“We are looking at trying to do things like better understanding the ability for on-platform content to lead to off-platform conversions. If a user sees three, four, five Reels from a publisher, does that make them fundamentally more likely to convert when presented with an offer to convert on site or if they see something come through on their feed as sponsored? That’s something that we’re going to look really closely at this year,” they said.

Is search more stable?

Deborah Brett, Condé Nast’s CBO of digital, admitted to Digiday that platforms like TikTok were walled gardens that can’t be seen as traffic referrers to the publisher’s sites. Instead, TikTok and Instagram are for storytelling and community-building.

For growing traffic, Condé Nast is relying on Google search.

“Search is our number one priority because it is much more stable,” said Sarah Marshall, Condé Nast’s vp of audience strategy. She declined to share how much traffic is coming from search, but said the share has grown year over year.

Google Discover traffic, in particular, is “up for us massively year over year,” Marshall added, declining to say by how much. She attributed this to migrating Condé Nast’s sites off Google AMP over the course of 2023 and optimizing their own sites (by improving site speed and performance), which helped their content get picked up by Google Discover.

However, Google Discover is not necessarily that stable of a traffic source for publishers. During last month’s Digiday Publishing Summit, multiple publishers said they have seen significant spikes in referral traffic from Google Discovery but have struggled to understand the spikes in order to better harness the platform.

When asked about the threat of Google rolling out its generative AI-powered search engine (Google SGE) and negatively affecting publishers’ search traffic, Marshall didn’t seem too concerned.

“Realistically, I think if Google wanted to, they could stop sending [all of this traffic to us],” Marshall said. “But what they can’t do is do what [a publication like] Wired can do and write… trusted reviews. We’ve seen no negative impacts [from Google SGE]. The nature of our journalism and stories will mean people will come to our sites for a long time yet.”

Will any of this work?

The value exchange between platforms and publishers was once upon a time more straightforward, the first publishing exec said. Someone saw a link, they went to your site and either were served advertising or were converted to an email or paying subscribers. 

But now with platforms like Instagram and TikTok pushing less traffic out and creating more “insular” feed experiences. “We need to better understand what the actual business value is of having a team churning out Reels,” they said. “Sure, we get engagement and get views. And that’s great. But what does that mean for a publisher’s business? I don’t think anyone has quantified that in a compelling way,” they added.

Chowning agreed: “There’s not anybody I’m looking at right now that’s got it figured out.”

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