Five Ways Social Distribution Has Changed Since 2014

February 16, 2017

Written by NewsWhip

We take a look at five factors that have changed for publishers distributing their content on social media between 2014 and 2017. 

There’s no doubt that there’s been a great deal of change on social media publishing in the last three years.

In 2014, we didn’t have Instant Articles, and live video was still something that no social platform had integrated into their publisher toolset. Most sites still followed a basic formula on Facebook: go viral, to attract as many visitors back to your website as possible. And that formula worked admirably for many sites.

Since then, regular readers of the NewsWhip blog will know that lots has changed. Native content has become a hugely important content form, and more and more social media users are watching video.
And all the while, more and more people turn to social platforms, and Facebook in particular, to find their news and information each day.

In the meantime, we’ve noticed significant change in our monthly Facebook rankings of the sites getting the most engagement on the platform. There has been a change in the order of top sites making progress in growing their monthly engagements. To analyse these changes, we’ll be releasing a white paper soon, with social trends from 2014 to early 2017.

To get early access to that report, sign up for our free webinar on February 23, when we’ll be running through some of the key takeaways from the upcoming report.

For now, here are five things we’ve noticed that have changed in social publishing since 2014.

1) Less Misleading Headlines – More Partisan Politics

So, what’s changed about what people share on social media?

Since 2014, there have been a number of clampdowns on clickbait headlines in Facebook news feeds. This has had the effect of changing the tone of some of the most popular stories in news feeds. 

Some publishers found out the hard way that presenting stories in a disingenuous way was not the best way to build a sustainable audience in the long run. ‘Curiosity gap’ headlines declined in popularity as audiences lost interest, and Facebook wised up to to how they were affecting users’ scrolling experience.

For the final months of 2016, and into early 2017, the most engaged stories on Facebook tend to be a mix of news reports, listicles, opinion pieces and extraordinary stories, ideally with a positive outcome. 
On the other hand however, there are more partisan political publishers than ever. These sites appeal directly to readers on either side of the political divide, using algorithmic bumps provided by fast reactions to their stories.

In the aftermath of the 2016 US election, their stock reached new highs. Social media gives these publishers space to flourish and directly reach audiences that otherwise would have been disparate and harder to reach. The success of some of these sites, such as Breitbart, the Conservative Tribune, Occupy Democrats and others in building engagement may have the effect of forcing more ‘mainstream’ publishers to adapt how they present their content on social media in 2017.

2) There’s a greater variety of sites in the top 25 

Throughout 2014 and 2015, there was a strict hierarchy to the sites that registered as the most shared on Facebook. 

But between February 2014 and December 2016, the names of the sites in the top 25 most engaged monthly rankings changed a lot. The changes culminated in becoming the most engaged site on Facebook for the first time in December. Here’s what the site’s Facebook engagement growth over the course of 2015 looked like:

Now, more than ever, we have a wide variety of sites in the top rankings.

Examples of websites with more niche audiences that have managed to break into the top 25 through 2016 were the Manchester Evening News, a regional publisher in the UK, sports-focussed sites like and ESPN, and political publishers such as Breitbart.

There are various reasons as to why any site may have improved their engagement rates, but a general increase in the importance of social media as a distribution channel is the single biggest reason for many publishers.

Since 2014, many sites have become much more aware of the importance that social media offers to their audience building efforts. Audience development specialists have become de rigueur in many newsrooms, and with more resources devoted directly to social media, many publishers have seen significant increases in their engagement. Smarter distribution strategies coupled with increased social media use has meant that more publishers have the opportunity to reach larger audiences than before. 

In 2017, high levels of monthly engagement on Facebook are no longer restricted to huge social publishers – the challenge lies in making the readers come back a second time. 

3) Engagement rates are more evenly matched amongst publishers

In early 2014, NewsWhip’s monthly Facebook rankings saw BuzzFeed out very far in front with monthly engagements on their web-based content. In second place was the Huffington Post.

Then there was a significant drop back to all other contenders. For much of the next year, the pattern remained, with the two leaders occasionally swapping positions for the top spot. In May 2014, the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed’s total engagements combined equated to almost 80% of the total engagements of the rest of the eight sites in the top ten that month. No other site had over 20 million monthly engagements. 

In 2017, we see a much more even spread of monthly engagements. Our December 2016 rankings showed an even distribution of engagement among the top ten sites, with only seven million engagements separating the first and tenth spots. 

The Top Sites on Facebook, December 2016
In December, our data recorded seven sites record more than 20 million Facebook engagements on their web-based content. But what’s perhaps more interesting is the cohort of publishers just outside that range. Instead of there being a huge chasm, there are good number of sites jostling for gains in the 14 million – 20 million engagement category.

The reason might have something to do with the next point…

4) Native content has increased in importance

Perhaps the single most important change in the composition of top publishers’ engagement rates in recent times has been the rise in importance of native content.

In early 2014, publishers were not actively publishing much social video. The emphasis was very much on ensuring maximum reach for each story, growing page follower counts, and trying to drive as much traffic as possible back to the website.

By early 2017, that has changed dramatically, as publishers look to leverage social video as a means of attracting new audiences and capitalise on Facebook’s increasing preference for the medium.
Here’s how much engagement on native videos grew for some publisher pages throughout 2016 alone.

You can see that the engagement rates with native video from each of these publishers is booming, but what’s even more revealing is how much native video is now contributing to publishers’ overall monthly engagement totals.

Large publishers have started to seek ways to reach and engage their readers that don’t rely simply on the premise that readers will share stories from their websites back to their own news feeds. Larger mobile audiences, changing consumer reading habits and the platforms’ own changes have meant that the performance of web-based content is now just one of a few different access points. Newsletters, podcasts and other content formats will all have their own audience verticals.

But when it comes to social audiences, native video has had the greatest impact.

5) Two models: High output vs reaching more people with less content

Since we started looking at the biggest sites on Facebook each month in 2013, it’s clear that there are two distinct publisher models that consistently achieve high engagement rates on Facebook and other platforms. While these aren’t the only two models for high engagement, they’re now the most dominant in the top 25 publisher rankings we record. 

First, there are the sites that have massive article counts each month. These publishers generally have a large regional or international presence, with different sites customised for various geographic audiences or interest groups, and their own social media teams responsible for reaching relevant readers for each. Examples include network broadcasters, such as NBC and Fox. They manage to reach vast digital audiences by targeting regional as well as national and international audiences. As general news providers with almost unchallenged online presences and resources, they can get a lot of information to a very broad audience, fast. 

Other examples include digital natives that have scaled to large sizes, and have robust online presences in multiple international markets, such as the Huffington Post, and 
In general, we have seen a large increase in the output of the very top sites on Facebook between 2014 and 2016.

The second kind of publisher are those with a much smaller output, but which achieve higher average engagement rates per article. Often these sites rely on certain writers or lines of coverage to draw in readers on social. We’ve noticed that those average engagement rates are increasing for certain sites.

Here’s how the New York Times has increased average engagements on each of its articles from 2014 to late 2016:

These sites often focus on offering highly shareable stories that resonate with readers and get passed on organically. Making less articles go further by targeting to more niche readerships is one way that these publishers are able to make an impact on social media.

Of course, these aren’t the only changes we’ve noticed on Facebook and other social platforms since 2014, but they are key in explaining how certain sites reach large audiences online in 2017.

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