Viral publishers, seeing fewer Facebook clicks, shift focus to video

The era of the viral Facebook post that generates a flood of traffic is winding down for Facebook-dependent publishers. For many, the question of what’s next often lies in video.

At millennial-focused news site Elite Daily, scooped up by Daily Mail parent company DMG Media a year ago, traffic has taken a dramatic slide in the past year because of fewer Facebook referrals. But all hope is not lost. Elite Daily is pouring resources into video, which unlike viral text content is continuing to grow sharply on Facebook.

In the past year, the site has expanded its video team from seven to 35, producing two pieces a day on average. Elite Daily’s videos got 153 million views on Facebook last year, and 18.9 million in December alone, said TubularLabs.

Elite Daily’s video output is a grab bag of shorter viral stories and longer, more in-depth features. Its scripted series “5Tages” focuses on funny or awkward situations (e.g., “the morning after the one-night stand” and “what happens after the break up”) that women can relate to, and it is inspired by articles written by the site’s contributors. Elite Daily also produces longer documentaries with its “Insights” series, which has recently profiled a polyamorous couple, a real-life Jedi and a lonely male porn star. “Gen Y,” which Elite Daily calls its tentpole series, taps YouTube stars to cover issues facing millennials. The site has also produced video series sponsored by T-Mobile and Strayer University.

“We grew quickly, so we knew there would be fluctuations happening at some point,” said David Arabov, Elite Daily’s CEO. “We’re more focused on our audience than what Facebook is doing.”

That might be the case, but Elite Daily’s audience is a subset of Facebook’s audience. The site got 20.6 million unique visitors last December, down 38 percent from its traffic in January, according to comScore. This was a rebound from November, when it drew 16.3 million visitors,  a 100 percent decline from the beginning of the year. Elite Daily relies on Facebook, where it has nearly 2.6 million likes, for 98 percent of its social traffic, according to SimilarWeb.

In the past year, Elite Daily has dramatically increased the amount of posts on Facebook. In December 2014, Elite Daily posted 14.8 articles per day, which got 2.9 million likes and shares. A year later, Elite Daily is posting three times as many posts to Facebook, but those engagements only increased by 150,000, according to data from Crowdtangle.

The Facebook apocalypse has been uneven. Many publishers that rode the Facebook wave have seen big drops in outlier posts that generated millions of views. Mic CEO Chris Altchek said on a recent Re/code podcast that Mic has seen that happen, too. But Facebook’s newfound emphasis on video has also helped  — or perhaps has spurred — the publisher shift to video production.

“It’s going to be an ongoing dance with Facebook; their relationship with publishers needs to be copacetic because there is an ad ecosystem that needs to be maintained if any good(ish) content is expected to be on the platform,” said Ian Schafer, CEO of DeepFocus.

Elite Daily is not alone. Upworthy recently announced a 15 percent reduction in its staff — and a shifting of resources to video. The site, which has seen its video views increase from 5 million in January to 167 million in December, plans to increase both the size of its 10-person video team and the number of original videos it produces each week. “When we looked at those numbers, we realized we’d be crazy not to double down on that growth,” said Upworthy CEO Eli Pariser.

BuzzFeed is also chasing the Facebook video carrot. The company is reportedly reshuffling its editorial teams, consolidating some divisions and laying off staff. The goal: to shift the focus away from text to video, where the company has put the bulk of its investment over the past few years.

The shift to video is more evidence that publishers dependent on Facebook have little choice but to follow the algorithm. Right now, Facebook’s algorithm wants video, so these sites provide video. This is a leap into the unknown, however, since unlike viral traffic to back to a publisher’s site, Facebook video cannot right now be monetized.