Facebook engagement trends in March: the winners and losers

April 12, 2018

Written by NewsWhip
top Facebook publishers

March 2018 saw a boost in engagement with content from mainstream news sites, and a decline for other sites. What’s happening in the news feed?

Last week, our Facebook rankings for March showed major movement for the first time in a while. Despite recent gloomy proclamations of a decline in engagement with news and other content on Facebook, likes, comments, and shares of web-based stories in the news feed far exceeded expectations in March.

There was a significant increase in engagements for the top publishers on Facebook, with total engagements for the top ten sites’ content rising by 27.75 percent from February.

top publishers on Facebook
Three months on from Facebook’s major announcement of changes in the workings of the news feed algorithm, it appears as though the changes may have taken some kind of effect. Except that this wasn’t exactly the expected script. At the time of the algorithm change, it was anticipated that publishers’ posts would suffer in terms of engagement and visibility in the news feed.

To recap, the changes outlined in Facebook’s announcement about what may happen to publisher content in the news feed were as follows:

  • Posts from friends and family would be prioritised over public content,
  • Posts that “spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people” would be prioritised, based on signals measured by the algorithm,
  • Comments gained importance as an engagement metric, while posts from large pages themselves were to be demoted in the news feed.

In the blog post making the announcement, Adam Mosseri, Head of News Feed at Facebook, predicted that:

“Pages making posts that people generally don’t react to or comment on could see the biggest decreases in distribution. Pages whose posts prompt conversations between friends will see less of an effect.”

While fluctuations in the number of total engagements with web content for publishers in the news feed are very common, March’s data was notable in the way that it showed very significant increases in likes, comments, and shares on certain sites’ content, and declines or static for others.

The changes could be divided into two fairly distinct camps: engagement boosts for mainstream news outlets such as CNN and NBC, and declines for smaller, politically-focussed sites and entertainment publishers. 

The winners (for now) 

First off, it’s important to note that the data looks at the top 25 English-language publishers on Facebook, globally. For the most part, it’s a list of major media organisations, many of which have been among the top sites on the platform for years.
Top sites on Facebook, March 2018
A first look at the numbers would indicate that major mainstream news publishers have been benefiting from engagement bumps over the last few weeks. Of the top ten most engaged sites in March, eight were legacy news outlets.

Looking at individual sites, it’s clear that some names, namely CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, BBC News and the Washington Post, all posted dramatic increases in their interaction counts. CNN was up 30.1 percent, and the New York Times, although with less engagements, was up by 48 percent. Increases of this magnitude had not been seen in a long time.

As usual, plenty of these sites saw viral hit stories in March which had the effect of boosting their overall totals for the month. But the effect of a rise in average engagements on stories could also be seen for many sites, including NPR and CNN, which grew its average interaction count from 4,982 in February to 7,010 in March. 

The Losers 

If large mainstream news sites with TV or print arms were the big winners in terms of engagement and attention last month, their most prominent digital rivals of the last few years were the losers. In particular, smaller political news sites and entertainment or viral outlets saw their engagement diminish.

Some have been affected more than others, as a recent report from Nieman Lab, compiled with NewsWhip data, showed. For instance, the provocative conservative politics site Western Journalism, which has managed to rank highly in previous years, took a significant engagement tumble directly after the algorithm change. The site’s total engagements fell from 20.5 million interactions in January (fourth overall) to 9.1 million in March (22nd place).

Meanwhile, the Daily Wire has also seen its engagements fall, but at a much more gradual rate, from 18.6 million in January, to 15 million in March.

Many of these sites use dramatic and provocative headline styles, which seek to maximise reactive engagement from targeted segments of Facebook’s user base. This practice, which borrows heavily from clickbait sensationalism, has been punished in the news feed for quite a while.

The sites also tend to rely heavily on large pages for their content’s visibility, rather than relying on communities built through their own sites. This is a scenario which likely has been impacted by the new algorithm change. 

What to watch for 

March’s Facebook rankings were interesting for the fact that the data defied expectations of the effect of recent highly-publicised changes to the algorithm. It’s not to say that any of this is set in stone, and that the engagement bonanza will continue to grow for mainstream media outlets.

But there could be signs that this is showing something of an insight into the (at least short-term) future of social publishing on the platform. One notable winner in March was the New York Post, a regional news site which had not appeared in the top Facebook publishers rankings previously. The site’s engagement exploded from 3.6 million in January to almost 10 million on March. The Post also saw a large traffic increase – over 100 percent – from Facebook in 2017.

This is the sort of rapid growth that was usually only previously seen from viral publishers, not established media brands. Given the scrutiny that Facebook has been under in recent months over the spread of disinformation and questionable content in the news feed, having a familiar news brand go viral is likely easier to explain than a site of unknown affiliation.

Can the changes be totally put down to the effect of the reasons outlined by Facebook for the platform’s algorithm changes in March? For that to be true, we would have to reasonably assume that all the sites that saw engagement increases in March attract far more comments and organic sharing than the fringe publishers that lost out.

As with everything else in platform and social publishing, it’s likely that there are some other factors at play. More time should tell us whether this is a blip, or part of a bigger trend.

To get full access to this data, and much more, sign up for a demo of NewsWhip Analytics today.

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