How media engagement differs on Instagram, Facebook, and the web

March 22, 2021

Written by Benedict Nicholson

One of the key aspects of social media for media companies is understanding their strengths for engaging with audiences on different platforms. In this article we’re going to look back at 2021 for three different publishers, and see how they fared on the web, Instagram, and Facebook. 

The media outlets we’re going to look at are all traditionally famous print ones, as opposed to cable news which produces native videos on social media with a very different strategy in mind. We will return to look at those in a future blog. 

For now, let’s dive into the three we’re looking at today, which are the New York Times, the Economist, and the Wall Street Journal. 

The New York Times on Facebook, Instagram, and the web

The New York Times is one of the most consistently successful print publishers in its online presence, with engagement coming in to almost all formats. It’s consistently one of the top publishers in the world, as shown by our monthly publisher rankings.

The below are the top web articles in terms of engagements that the New York Times has had so far this year.

The top articles of 2021 so far from the New York Times, ranked by engagement

Two dominant focal areas this year for the Times have been politics and the pandemic. The congressional victory in Georgia, where Democrats won two run-off elections to regain control of the Senate, was of particular note. On the web, they had one article that received more than a million engagements, and that looked at the 10-year project led by Stacey Abrams to flip the state blue. 

Other stories of note included Amanda Gorman’s performance at Joe Biden’s inauguration, the aftermath of the January 6th Capitol insurrection, and a video of the pandemic through a nurse’s eyes.

When we look at the Facebook Page of the New York Times itself, there are a lot of similarities between what was successful on the Page and what was successful more generally on a URL-level. It quickly becomes obvious that the Times’s own Facebook Page is only responsible for a fraction of the total engagement any given piece receives, which indicates that much of the engagement derives from other Facebook Pages or individuals interacting with those articles.

The top Facebook posts of 2021 so far from the New York Times, ranked by engagement

Take the Stacey Abrams and Georgia story, for example. Just over 200,000 of the piece’s engagements came from the Times’s Facebook post sharing it, meaning around 80 percent of it came from it being shared by others. 

Of course, some articles have a different ratio. The top Facebook post for the Times did not feature in the top ten articles at all, falling just outside the grouping with 460k engagements. This piece focused on Sonia Sotomayor swearing in Kamala Harris on inauguration day, and the Times’s Facebook post was responsible for closer to half of the piece’s total engagements. 

Interestingly, almost all of the publisher’s top posts were link posts, with only one photo post amongst the grouping.

All of which makes it interesting to see what happened on the Times’s Instagram. This platform is obviously different than others, with less options to share links within posts themselves, lending itself to a much more visual representation of the news. Below are the captions of the top five Instagram posts of the year so far for the Times.

Top New York Times Instagram posts of 2021, ranked by engagement

The first thing to note is the huge level of engagement these native posts have – much higher than the native posts on Facebook did, and rivaling the performance of some web stories for the publisher. 

The posts were all photos, and all focused on some aspect of America, from politics to the wave of anti-Asian hate that has occurred since the beginning of the pandemic. The stories are, however, quite different to what went viral on the web and Facebook, with the Capitol insurrection dominating the top posts and not a single mention of Georgia among the top five.

Content from The New York Times performs well across a number of different platforms, but there are a number of others that use Instagram successfully to drive high engagement to their reporting. 

The Economist on Facebook, Instagram, and the web

The Economist is another notable publisher, and the below are its top web articles of the year so far. Clearly, it has much lower engagement than the New York Times does, as you might expect, and the stories also have a broader focus. 

The top story was about Donald Trump’s potential legal trouble as he leaves office, but there were also very successful stories about global democracy having a bad year, aging being cured, and the fight between Apple and Facebook.

The top articles from The Economist in 2021, ranked by engagement

On Facebook, all ten of the top posts were once again links, but it is interesting to note that some of The Economist’s top pieces had a much higher proportion of their engagement come from the publication’s own Facebook Page. 

The piece on aging, for example, saw 106k of its 120k engagements come from the Facebook Page, which amounts to around 90% of the total. And the top web piece – on Donald Trump’s legal trouble – saw a little over half its engagement come from The Economist’s own Facebook post.

The top Facebook posts from The Economist in 2021 so far, ranked by engagement

On Instagram, the top narratives were almost completely distinct, but saw similar levels of engagement to the other platforms. The top post on Instagram was about the British monarchy, a narrative which did not appear at all among the top ten stories on the web or Facebook. 

Russia was also a focus, with two stories tangential to the arrest of Vladimir Putin’s rival Alexei Navalny seeing tens of thousands of engagements.

The top Instagram posts from The Economist in 2021, ranked by engagement

The other top two posts were about the Capitol insurrection, and about having daughters being linked to divorce, which significantly outperformed the post on the topic on Facebook.

The Wall Street Journal on the three platforms

On the web, the Wall Street Journal’s engagement levels sometimes rival those set by The New York Times, but its performance on Facebook and Instagram is more similar to that of The Economist than its New York rival. 

There were several opinion pieces among the top ten articles so far this year, with arguments made around girls’ sports, that Trump was innocent of the incitement charge, and that we will have herd immunity by April.

The top articles from The Wall Street Journal on Instagram, ranked by engagement

The more news-style pieces included articles on Biden’s executive orders, the discontinuation of some Dr. Seuss books, and Trump potentially founding a new political party. 

On The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook, the engagement was significantly lower than what the articles themselves received as a whole, showing that once again only a fraction of the engagement came from the publication’s own social channels, much like with The New York Times.

The top Facebook posts from The Wall Street Journal, ranked by engagement

The top posts were all links, and the opinion side saw much less attention among the Facebook posts. The top post was about the new mask mandate, while politics and Covid news took center stage, as did the Democrats winning in Georgia.

The Instagram numbers for the Journal have been relatively low this year, at least in comparison to some of its rivals. The level of engagement is significantly below the Times, and also lower than The Economist, though the latter does somewhat punch above its weight in that arena.

The top Instagram posts for 2021 so far, ranked by engagement

The top posts were a mix of political and completely different stories to what we have seen. The top post was about the Capitol insurrection, but there was also a GameStop post, Andrew Berlin building a cigar lodge, and the demise of influenza amidst Covid restrictions. 

There are a couple of key takeaways for all of this. The first is that it is rare that a publication’s social pages are the only driver for the level of engagement a story receives, with as much as 80% of engagement coming away from the Page, even for the top stories. 

The second is that Instagram often has a very different mix of narratives to the top stories on the web or Facebook. Among the three publishers we looked at, the stories were often quite dissimilar. Even when the news was tangentially linked it was often framed with a different lens. 

This is why it’s crucial to have a cross-platform strategy for story promotion, as the levels of engagement on Instagram remain huge compared to the Facebook Pages of certain publishers.

If you’d like to do this kind of cross-network analysis for yourself, check out NewsWhip Spike.

Benedict Nicholson

In addition to leading the NewsWhip Research Center in New York, Benedict Nicholson manages partnerships with internationally recognized media outlets furthering data journalism, which includes NewsWhip’s Data for Democracy program. Benedict also facilitates consultations with communicators from the top 10 public relations agencies across America and Europe and with Fortune 500 brands to discuss consumer engagement trends and effective media monitoring. Email Benedict via benedict.nicholson@newswhip.com.

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