How political news is boosting CNN's Facebook engagement

March 22, 2017

Written by NewsWhip

CNN’s Facebook engagement has grown as a result of engagement with their political news coverage in the last year. We take a closer look at the data, and talk to their Director of Social Publishing to learn more. 

On election night last November, audiences turned to CNN in their droves to find out the latest results and analysis on the race for the White House, just as they had done for many elections previously.

But in 2016, television wasn’t the only place that CNN were reaching viewers in significant numbers. On Facebook, CNN’s coverage was everywhere in news feeds, from Live updates with their reporters, to rolling updates of different states’ counts on their website, reaching an audience of millions.

NewsWhip data now shows that this coverage appears to have had a far more lasting impact in the months since the election, indicating how major news publishers are managing to engage with a social audience intrigued by the dealings of the new White House.

Ashley Codianni, Director of Social Publishing at CNN Worldwide, gave us a little more context about CNN’s recent performance on Facebook.

“We’re a newsroom that knows how to react quickly,” says Ashley. “In the social world, that means quickly editing square and subtitled video of big news moments, finding key angles for our social audiences and optimizing our great original reporting”

As we previously noted on the blog, the last few months has been an exceptional boom in social engagement for news sites. In February 2016, CNN had 13.9 million total Facebook engagements (likes, shares, comments) on their web-based content. The following February, that number had increased to 23.4 million – an increase of over 68%.

Here’s what that rise looked like over the course of 2016, via NewsWhip Analytics:

You can see how the engagement rose significantly from May 2016 onwards. As the political campaign ramped up throughout the summer of 2016, engagement grew in tandem. It’s interesting to look at how the average engagement rate per article changed over the last 12 months, ramping up as time passes. 

CNN published more articles as 2016 went on, with output peaking in October at just over 6,300 articles. While this increase in output meant that there was more coverage to push out in news feeds, the real factor contributing to CNN’s growth seems to be the success of their political coverage. Looking through the list of CNN’s most engaged stories over the past 12 months, the huge numbers of engagements with political news stories and analysis is very obvious.

Here’s what the most engaged headlines on were between March 2016 and February 2017, and all of 2014:

While there is political content in the top ten list for 2014, it is much more pronounced in the right hand column. Here, US political news dominates almost entirely, leaving little room for lighter stories like the blood moon, or Beijing architecture.

The one fear that any news publisher that has seen increases in their engagement since the election has is that those new readers will eventually turn away, as the news cycle moves on and people’s attention shifts to other topics.

However, there are signs that this engagement growth is sticking around. So far in 2017, CNN has racked up millions of Facebook engagements with their political coverage. If anything, it looks as though engagement is continuing to grow. The top three stories on Facebook between March 1 2016 to the end of February 2017, were published in February 2017, not on election night, or after the inauguration.

From January 1 to March 20 2017, CNN’s site had 43 stories with over 100,000 Facebook engagements. Of those, around 20 were directly related to the Trump administration, with a majority of the remainder about related issues, such as the fall-out from the immigration ban, and marches and protests.

That’s encouraging news for CNN, who like other publishers, would be hoping that the new readers that start engaging with and reading their content during the campaign will now stick around for their coverage of the new administration. It’s possible that CNN and other publishers have been helped in this regard by a recent Facebook algorithm change which aims to surface more ‘timely and relevant‘ content in users’ news feeds.

Ashley says that the social media team at CNN is confident that the interest in political news that their social audience has demonstrated can be maintained.

“If the past few months have been any sort of barometer, there will be no shortage of news in 2017. We’ll continue to keep doing what we do best, breaking news. CNN has become the place on Facebook where people come for destination bylines by the likes of Jake Tapper and Carl Bernstein, the latest in politics and up to the minute breaking news.”

“At the end of the day, we’re not an organization that relies on content aggregation and we’re not a social team that relies on clickbait-y low hanging fruit. We’re journalism with a capital J, and we’ve seen our audiences, across social, react positively by delivering substantial news, day in day out, to a global audience.

Facebook native political news

Away from the website itself, another area of huge engagement growth for CNN over the past few months has been their use of Facebook native (live and pre-recorded) video.

Using NewsWhip Analytics, we analysed CNN’s output on their main Facebook page during February 2017. That month, there were 1,422 total posts on their page, including photos, live and pre-recorded videos, and links to their website. Here’s how the format broke down:

So links back to the CNN site make up the bulk of posts on the page. However, video by far gets the highest average engagement of all the post formats. Ashley says that being a video-first organisation in the first instance helps CNN differentiate themselves from competition on Facebook.

“For starters, we go where the news is, and we’re able to show that with our reporters on the ground. In the midst of her live hits for television, Sara Sidner was able to send us this raw, compelling video she shot her iPhone while covering the Standing Rock evacuation. This type of rawness, and the immediacy of covering a big breaking news story as it’s happening really resonates with our audience. 

As a news organization, we’re exploring many different forms of video. Live streaming, VR, aerials and drone video. One example, during the Women’s March in January, we combined aerial footage from around the U.S. into one video, to show the true scale of the march and its participants. Without these resources, a video like this wouldn’t have been possible.

We also have a strong social discovery unit that is mining and clearing social first content. A great example is this drone video showing the impact of flooding in San Jose, California  and a compilation of social-first video of strong winds wreaking havoc on cyclers racing in South Africa.

We also own our television moments on social. When news breaks on our air, in an interview or press conference, we’re very quick to edit that video square for our mobile audience, and subtitle for those consuming our content without sound. Doing this is a key part of our breaking news strategy.”

When it comes to advice for other publishers looking to grow their audience and engagement, Ashley’s advice is simple.

“The most important thing for any publisher is to know your audience, and find opportunities to grow.”

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