Good news: Mobile readers want more news, and want be to more loyal too

Behind Local News
Sep 21, 2018 · 5 min read
Josh Schwartz, chief data scientist at Chartbeat

It may not always feel like it, but there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful when it comes to journalism increasing living in a mobile world.

If 2018 is to be remembered for anything in digital journalism, it’ll be for the lesson that publishers should never again rely too heavily on one source for audience — and that the future surely has to involve greater emphasis on direct relationships with readers.

But is such a thing possible in a world dominated by mobile phones, which in turn are dominated by apps, which are in turn dominated by apps owned by Facebook, which in turn showed the seismic impact its policy decisions can have on journalism when it switched focus to ‘meaningful social interactions’ back in January?

According to Josh Schwartz, chief data scientists at Chartbeat, the answer is yes.

A glimpse into a world without Facebook

And for publishers fearful that without Facebook surfacing news, readers won’t find news, Josh delivered good news at the Online News Association conference held in Austin, Texas last week.

Analysing a 45-minute period back in August when Facebook was down, Josh said trends emerged which should give publishers hope.

Josh said: “As we think about the reversal of traffic patterns we are seeing, with Facebook referred traffic to publishers down 40% since January 2107, Google Search referred traffic is up more than 2x along with a new emerging class of referrers, it is fascinating to think about what the world would look like without Facebook.

“We had a glimmer into that on August 3, 2018 when Facebook went down for 45 minutes.The Key data points show that when Facebook went down, total traffic to publishers in total went up 2.3%.

“Direct traffic, when a consumer types in a URL, was up 11%, and this was driven by a 22% increase in traffic on publishers’ mobile apps, and Search traffic to publishers was up 8%.

“It seems that consumers would be likely to seek out the news from publishers directly, particularly on their apps, in a Facebook-absent world.

“However, this is just a micro-moment and it is not that simple. Facebook is so closely linked with habitual mobile usage that it is hard to tell what would really happen if this was sustained.

“But it is interesting to consider the idea of it, particularly as we see their strategy changing and traffic to publishers changing as a result.”

Direct to the point

The traditional wisdom in publishing is that the move to mobile by readers comes at the expense of loyalty and engagement, although Josh says this isn’t necessarily the case, especially for publishers with mobile apps.

Chartbeat clients — numbering thousands of websites from major around the globe- have seen direct traffic to mobile grow by 30%, making direct traffic the second biggest referrer to sites and apps, behind only Google, while Facebook has declined over 40% since last year, something the industry is only too aware of.

Google search meanwhile, has grown from 0.6bn to 1.2bn visits a week to mobile websites, Josh said.

Beyond the big 3 (search, Facebook and direct)

Facebook’s new approach to news has resulted in publishers seeking new sources of traffic, and several new sources have emerged, although Josh stressed these need to be measured in the tens of millions for visits across the Chartbeat network, rather than the hundreds of millions seen for the big three of Google search, Facebook and direct visits.

Google News, relaunched to replace Google Play Newsstand in May, has grown from 20m visits a week to 60m, while Google Chrome Suggestions — the recommendation service built into Google Chrome on mobile devices — has risen from 20m visits a week to over 80m.

Twitter has seen a decline over the same period, but is more prone to seasonal fluctuations and big news events, while Flipboard has gone from 20m visits a weekly to 40m, while Instagram making it (slightly) easier to put links into its stories has seen it rise to around 10m visits a week.

An Appy future

For engagement and loyalty — and a degree of insulation from the challenges posed by relying on third parties for traffic — publishers need to look to apps, according to Josh’s data.

Direct users to apps — those who click to open them — visit 9.2 times a week, while those who go in via push notifications visit 6.6 times a week. They are the digital version of the direct-to-home, six-day-a-week print subscriber who provide the backbone to many newspaper circulation performances.

But even beyond apps, the migration to mobile seems to be good news for publishers. The average mobile direct visitors visits 6.1 times a week, up from 5.4 on desktop. The average Facebook visitor to news sites visits 1.4 times a week on desktop, compared to 1.9 on mobile. Twitter use also rises from 1.4 to 1.6 times a week.

Josh said: “We see some pretty remarkable conclusions. Visitors who choose to open our apps are by far and away the most loyal users — 9.2 times a week is pretty remarkable.

“A sidedoor traffic to the app still shows incredibly loyalty, but dramatically lower than the direct visitor, but still the second highest type of visitor.

“Then, and only then, do we have direct visitors from the web, but these numbers would have felt astronomical if we hadn’t seen the app numbers first. For all other platforms or referrers, it’s up to two visits a week.

“There is a huge gulf between direct traffic and platform-referred traffic, an a gulf between direct traffic and direct traffic to our apps.

“To contrast these with desktop, what we see across the board is that the mobile numbers are higher. This was the only data point which I had to triple check and check again. It fascinates me because our intuition is that mobile visitors are less loyal, and more likely to be distracted.

“But the evidence suggests that once someone lands on a mobile site, they show a greater propensity to become loyal, which is fascinating to see.”

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