How Opinion Stories Drive Social Media Engagement For Top News Sites

January 12, 2017

Written by NewsWhip

We analyse Facebook engagement on the opinion articles for two websites – the New York Times and the Guardian in December 2016, showing the authors and stories driving discussion for both sites. 

It’s no surprise that opinions take up much space in social feeds.
Opinion writing and personal essays have frequently been at the top of our lists of the most shared and commented on stories on social media, particularly Facebook, since we started analysing this content back in 2013.

On a platform like Facebook, the combination of self-identification from users and algorithmic response to stories that start getting shared heavily, means that there’s lots of room for opinion stories to reach wide readerships.

For many large news sites, strong opinion stories on issues of the day, or from recognised names, can result in major engagement boosts from users sharing a story that identifies with their views, or by weighing in on the comments section.

To understand how opinion based stories contribute to Facebook engagement for large sites, we took a close look at the role of Op-Ed content in driving engagement for two major general news publishers.

Using NewsWhip Analytics, we can specify any domain we want to analyse, as well as the category that we’re interested in looking at on the site. In this case, we zoomed in on English-language Opinion articles from the New York Times and the Guardian, to get their numbers for the month of December 2016.
Here’s what we found for the New York Times.

How Opinion Articles Contribute to Facebook Engagement for the New York TimesIn December, the Times had over 21.3 million Facebook engagements on the 5,435 articles that they published that month. These are all people sharing, liking and commenting and reacting to those links (and in some cases, Instant Articles) published in December.

We previously found that 36 of the New York Times’ top 100 most shared stories in 2015 were from the editorial and opinion pages, far more than any other category.

Unsurprisingly, there was a very political theme to most of the biggest opinion articles from both sites at the end of 2016 – particularly the New York Times. 

For the Guardian, the proportion of Facebook engagement on opinion articles was a little lower, but still drove over 2 million Facebook engagements in December.


How Opinion Articles Contribute Facebook Engagement for the Guardian
Another interesting aspect was the average Facebook engagement rate for opinion articles versus all other articles. For the Guardian, stories from their popular ‘Comment is Free’ section had an average of 2,675 Facebook engagements each in December, compared to 1,255 for all other articles on the website. In the New York Times’ case, their opinion articles had an average of 8,595 Facebook engagements, compared to 1,690 for non opinion pieces.

The Times were helped in particular by a number of opinion pieces with extremely high engagement rates, including two articles criticising Donald Trump, both of which saw well over 200,000 engagements each.
For the Guardian and New York Times, here’s the proportion of monthly Facebook engagement that came through the opinion pages.

% of Facebook Engagement on Opinion Articles, December 2016

While neither are overwhelming, consider the output of opinion articles as a percentage of the total for both sites. For the New York Times, their opinion pieces accounted for roughly 13% of all stories published on in December. On, opinion-tagged stories made up an even smaller amount – around 8% of the 9,700 article total.

The performance of individual authors

Finally, it’s interesting to look at the most popular individual authors of opinion stories for individual sites. Again using NewsWhip Analytics, we can drill into the stats for each site’s authors.

Here were the Guardian’s top opinion writers for December, with their total Facebook engagements, and article count.

The Guardian’s Top Opinion Writers on Facebook, December 2016
By far the most engaged opinion article of the month for the Guardian was a piece titled ‘This is the most dangerous time for our planet‘, by Stephen Hawking, with over a quarter of a million Facebook engagements.

While once-off contributors like Stephen Hawking are included, this data is useful for publishers in identifying the staff writers that they might want to promote on social media.

With this information, publishers can make more decisions about their distribution strategy. Which writers are more likely to attract a following on Facebook, and could they be given their own public Facebook pages to help facilitate their engagement growth? Many publishers are thinking about how smaller pages on Facebook can be used to reach audiences that mightn’t be as large as on the main publisher page, but are more engaged with the topic the writer covers.

Learn more about NewsWhip Analytics today


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