Facebook is helping to drive younger readers to news sites, but turning them into loyal users remains a challenge, according to a new study that examines how people navigate to 26 popular news outlets online.
The report, by the Pew Research Center in conjunction with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, examined three pathways to digital news: social media referrals, search engine referrals and direct visits.
Direct visitors, on average, spend about three times as much time as those who end up on news sites through a search engine or Facebook. They also view roughly five times as many pages per month and visit three times as often as those coming from Facebook and search.
In addition, people coming directly to news sites represent the highest share of traffic. They accounted for at least 20% of total visitors to more than half (15) of the 26 sites studied. By contrast, search drove at least 20% of the traffic to 11 of the sites, while Facebook sent that same share of visitors to only four sites.
At the same time, the social network helps to provide news sites with some of the younger users they want to attract. Of the total audience to NYTimes.com, for example, 22% is in the 25-34 age group. But among visitors who come to the site from Facebook, 35% fit that demographic. Similarly, 23% of the overall audience for bbc.co.uk is between the ages of 25 and 34, but 41% of those who come to the site from Facebook are in that age range.
But converting visitors from social sites and search is difficult, according to the report, based on an analysis of U.S. desktop/laptop and mobile data from comScore from April through June 2013. Most people arrived at one of the news sites studied through one of the three defined pathways, suggesting that -- at least on desktop and laptop computers -- users tend to come through a single method.
The percentage of direct visitors who also came to the site via Facebook, for instance, was extremely small -- ranging from 0.9% to 2.3%, with the exception of Buzzfeed at 11.3%. Likewise, those who came to a site through a search engine ranged from 1.3% to 4.1%. The exception is examiner.com, at 8.6%.
"For news outlets operating under the traditional model and hoping to build a loyal, paying audience, it is critical for users to think of that outlet as the first place they should turn," said Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research for the Pew Research Center.
Across the overall findings, some sites showed higher levels of engagement than others. The average visitor to Foxnews.com spent almost eight minutes per visit compared to one minute and 30 seconds for CNN.com. The average visitor to Nbcnews.com stayed about four minutes on average.
In addition to Foxnews.com, conservative sites such as wnd.com, mrconservative.com, breitbart.com and theblaze.com tend to have high engagement levels. Those four sites averaged four minutes and 32 seconds per visit. They also were among the most shared pages on Facebook and drew a high percentage of their traffic from other sites.
Breitbart.com, founded by the late political activist Andrew Breitbart, got 42% of its traffic that way. The right-leaning Washingtontimes.com was not far behind at 33%. Mitchell suggested that the abundance of referrals from other news sites reflects the “echo chamber effect” among like-minded news outlets.
The devotion of audiences to ideological outlets is another factor. “The audiences tend to be small, but highly engaged,” said Mitchell, as is the case with the conservative sites examined.
Despite the growth in smartphone and tablet use, the study found that the desktop still dominates traffic to news sites. None of the 26 sites had more traffic from a mobile device than a PC, although some had a closer mix than others. Furthermore, only half of the 26 sites had an iOS or Android app. Among those 13, only five -- ABC News, CNN, Fox News and Yahoo News -- met comScore’s minimum threshold for reporting users.
“Among those five sites, there were still far more visits to the mobile Web browser than to the mobile application,” stated the report. That’s in line with prior Pew research in the fall of 2012, which found that about 60% of smartphone and tablet users got news mostly from their mobile browsers.
ABC News, for example, had an average monthly audience of 15.2 million through the mobile Web compared to 1.2 million via its app. Yahoo had a closer balance, with 7.8 million coming through the mobile browser, and 3.8 million from its app.