How Hearst learned to play with emotions to drive Facebook traffic

Publishers have seen a rise in traffic from social media — in part due to Facebook favoring so-called high-quality articles. Some publishers have taken the ball and run with it, gaming the system on their own by creating Facebook-friendly stories.

A case in point is Hearst Magazines, home to titles like Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire and Marie Claire. Facebook is now the publisher’s No. 1 referral source, driving 25 percent of traffic, up from 4 percent a year ago, beating out even Google. For Cosmopolitan alone, it’s 44 percent, and for Harper’s Bazaar, it’s 59 percent. Across all publishers, Facebook drove 21 percent of traffic as of March, according to Sharaholic, which measures traffic across 300,000 sites.

How did Hearst go from practically nothing to one-fourth of its traffic coming from the social media giant? Easy: It looked for ways to manipulate people’s emotions, ahem, the same goal of Facebook’s much-criticized news-feed research study.

Brian Madden, Hearst’s executive director of audience and partnerships, said the company has made a concerted effort to look for stories with “emotional heft.”

“It’s: Will people want to share this content with their friends? It works for men’s brands, home brands,” he said. Once such a story bubbles up, Hearst looks for ways to translate its success to other sites. “If something’s doing really well on Cosmo, what’s Elle’s version of that?” Madden said.

A Cosmo post that especially resonated was 18 Signs You’re With the ManYou Should Marry, for example, which got over 450,000 shares and 227 comments. (The story also did well on Pinterest, getting 2,300 pins.) News-driven posts also do well, like this one from Harper’s Bazaar, 16 times the Duchess of Cambridge looked EXACTLY like Diana and this Road & Track one, Saleen knows Ford Mustangs. This is their 2015 S302, which got 870 and 10,000 shares, respectively.

Under digital chief Troy Young, Hearst has been hiring digital natives and pushing for social traffic growth, even setting up a company-wide news desk to specialize in share-worthy stories, which is its own expertise, distinct from magazine writing.

Other publishers have made a similar effort to create content that will do well on Facebook. Vox’s explanatory content works well on the social network, while editor Ezra Klein uses his own page to heavily promote the brand, with the result that 35 percent of its traffic comes from Facebook. The BBC’s not there yet (6.5 percent of its traffic comes from Facebook), but is trying, with social media-friendly clips, like this 17-second time-lapse video.

Social traffic can be a double-edged sword, though. According to Pew Research Center, people who visit news sites from social networks are less engaged than those who come directly to the sites. But Hearst says its repeat visitors have increased in proportion to its social traffic, proof that it’s not just creating stories that score high for viral but low in engagement. “Anyone can write BuzzFeedy-type of headlines,” Madden said. “If you don’t deliver, you don’t sustain that growth we’ve been seeing.”

The strategy seems to be working for Hearst and other publishers and the advertisers who want to reach those audiences. But there’s inherent risk in relying heavily on a single outlet for traffic.

“If Facebook were to change its model dramatically and make publisher content more hidden in feeds,” cautioned Jessica Sanfilippo, group media director at 360i, “the traffic drops would alter the value of the properties.”