‘Not something we think about’: Facebook News still a non-factor in publishers’ plans

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With Facebook News set to launch in the U.K. early next year, many Stateside publishers participating in the product have a simple message for their British counterparts: Enjoy the check, but don’t count on a big traffic boost yet.

On Tuesday, Dec. 1, Facebook formally announced that News, a human-curated product filled with stories from a select list of publishers, will launch in the U.K. in January, with a group of publishers including ESI Media, The Guardian, Hearst and Condé Nast. Facebook first announced earlier this summer that News would expand abroad, with markets including Germany and France among the countries on the roadmap.

Like in the U.S., participating U.K. publishers will receive direct payments from Facebook, sometimes over a period of multiple years, to distribute content they are not currently putting on the platform; the largest deals, according to the Guardian, are worth millions of pounds per year. And like in the U.S., Facebook assured participating publishers that participating in the program would expose them to added Facebook users.

But for now, most participating publishers still have to take Facebook at its word. More than a year since Facebook News launched in the U.S., it remains impossible to distinguish Facebook News traffic from overall Facebook referral traffic for most of the program’s participants. And early tests by Facebook to break News traffic out of the platform’s overall referrals show a narrow impact from the product: Facebook News typically accounts for a low single-digit percentage of the traffic that a story gets, one source familiar with the product said.

“It is not something we think about,” said a source at one publisher which has not yet been able to track News traffic.

All new digital products take time to get traction, and Facebook has been particularly deliberate in rolling out News since CEO Mark Zuckerberg first mentioned the concept in the spring of 2019. After announcing the launch last fall, Facebook spent much of the first few months rolling News out to small subsets of its user base, only making it fully available in April 2020. Six months in, Facebook said “millions” of people were using News, but would not be more specific. A spokesperson said Monday that use of News has expanded this fall, but would not provide specifics.

Since then, Facebook has been selective about what kinds of stats it shares about the product. Over the past few months, the social media giant has cited internal data which it says shows that 95% of the audience Facebook News delivers to publishers is new and incremental.

At an intuitive level, that is unsurprising. A Facebook user is less likely to encounter content from publishers they are not following in their news feeds, so a curated environment should put a wider variety of publisher content in front of News users.

But after years of measurement errors Facebook has made across its platform, many participants are taking Facebook’s assurance with a grain of salt.

“We have no way of verifying if that’s true,” said a source at second publisher whose content is available in Facebook News.

That stat also doesn’t share how big a number that 95% comes from. New user behavior can take time to develop, and the News product can only show small percentages of the content produced by the hundreds of participating U.S. Publishers.

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But currently available data suggests that Facebook News’s audience is still small. The second source noted that the percentage of referral traffic Facebook delivers for their site has remained essentially flat across the year.

A source at a third publisher whose content is on Facebook News noted that referral traffic from Facebook this year has not behaved differently than it has in years past. “There’s nothing there that’s driving any added success,” that source said.

But most of the participants regard those incremental audiences as icing — albeit a thin layer — on the cake. Beyond the value of Facebook formally recognizing and distinguishing factual, well-reported journalism by putting it in a distinct corner of its platform, every source contacted for this story said that the direct compensation for their content remained Facebook News’ biggest value, and they were keen to see it continue.

While the direct payments are not enough to keep a media company afloat, they represent an important shift in the relationship between platforms and publishers that the latter group is keen to press further, particularly with platforms continuing to face antitrust concerns.

“Don’t get me wrong,” the second source said. “We’ll take it.”

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