What Did 2016 Bring For Publishers On Social Media?

As 2016 draws to a close, we look at how the relationship between publishers and platforms evolved this year, and what lies ahead for audience development.

At NewsWhip, we’ve keenly observed changing engagement patterns for publishers on their content throughout 2016.

We’ve moved from a scenario where native distribution was a peripheral concern to one where it now drives a significant volume of engagement for sites.

From distributed giants like BuzzFeed right down to local newsrooms experimenting with Snapchat, most publishers have experimented with distributed content in some format this year, and that’s brought significant changes to how people consume media.

What’s changed, and what hasn’t

In many senses though, native content hasn’t completely upended the old order of social distribution.

The fundamental audience relationship between publishers and platforms remains largely the same as it did at the end of 2015. No social network took the decisive step of integrating content creation into their business models this year. Platforms like Facebook still drive enormous volumes of traffic to publishers’ websites, contributing to supporting ad-based revenue models and readership numbers. And while a scalable model of social distribution for publishers still hasn’t fully emerged, the percentage of the wider population that turns to platforms like Facebook for their news and other information continues to grow.

But in another sense, the priorities for publishers have shifted. Colossal reach on occasional viral posts aren’t translating to loyal readers. It’s tougher to make every post stand out in crowded, video-filled news feeds. There’s a feeling that endless growth in referrals, reach and engagement is not only tough to sustain, but also might not be the best way forward for long-term development anyway.

So then, on the publisher’s point of view, social platforms are becoming more of a place to look to engage returning readers, and to attract new audiences that will fold into a schedule of regular readership. Publishers are trying to figure out how they can use social platforms to support their vision of what their audience will consume, rather than just banking on new formats to carry their entire output.

The sites that haven’t managed to identify more niche audiences and speak to their interests probably have seen their engagement levels plateau this year. Conversely, there seemed to be a hunger for reliable sources of reporting in specific areas, such as science and social issues. We’ve also seen that analysis and opinion-based stories are well-placed to perform strongly in news feeds.

Figuring out what’s actually resonating will be a big challenge for publishers and content creators going forward.

At NewsWhip, we think that use of holistic metrics, like social data around events and specific interests, will become a much more useful tool in the armouries of publishers in 2017, as they use them to figure out what people are responding to, so that they can double down and devote resources to working on the stories that resonate. Similarly, benchmarking against competitors on social will allow publishers get a better grasp on what their own numbers mean.

The Impact of Social Video

It’s hard to talk about social distribution in 2016 without mentioning the impact that social video has had this year. At the end of 2015, Facebook Live for all hadn’t materialised, and publishers were still getting to grips with their own pre-made video output.

Since then, we’ve recorded significant growth in engagement with video on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, each of which launched significant video-oriented features this year. On Facebook, some publishers are seeing a significant percentage of their total monthly engagement now coming through video, while we also saw that the expansion of Instagram’s video offerings led to increased visibility for publishers using the platform.

How to scale and sustain that engagement is an ongoing question, but there’s no doubt that many publishers have managed to grow reach and audience through video.

What makes a quality publisher on social media?

But besides the areas of growth and content format changes, a thornier question has loomed over almost all platforms in 2016.

This year brought the question around what makes a ‘quality publisher’ into sharp focus, highlighted by the debates over publishers of deliberately misleading, and sometimes completely fabricated, reports masquerading as fact.

While the issue is a long way from being resolved, there lies an opportunity for media outlets to define what they stand for. Publishers should be looking to define themselves as being credible and authoritative on social media in 2017.

And as I’ve pointed out before, there’s great potential for publishers when it comes to social audiences. According to research from Pew this year, 72% of Americans now get their news on their mobile phone, up from 54% in 2013. Overall, 62% of Americans get news on social media, with 44% of the general population doing so on Facebook.

Use of social media platforms are unlikely to decrease any time soon, so making sure you’re visible to that segment of your audience will remain critical.

In 2017, publishers will need to build trust with their readers, and double down in identifying and properly serving the readers that come back to your page, video, website or even email newsletter, again and again.

Originally published at www.newswhip.com on December 6, 2016.