Guardian’s ‘seismic’ Facebook shift doesn’t add up

There’s something weird about the “seismic shift” in referrals experienced by the Guardian during the past couple of months.

The shift, as described at the Guardian’s Changing Media summit, was that Facebook overtook Google as a referrer to the Guardian’s website in February.

It’s a big deal. Not because social distribution wasn’t expected to overhaul search one day. It’s just happened so quickly and seemingly as a result of the Guardian’s Facebook app – which keeps people inside Facebook and away from the guardian.co.uk.

Some of the numbers mentioned by Guardian director of digital development Tanya Cordrey were staggering: eight million app downloads in five months and 40,000 new users per day. Below is the graph Cordrey presented as proof of the app’s referral power – five percent to almost 35 percent of total referrals from a “standing start” in October.

Referrals from Google and Facebook to guardian.co.uk

But it’s a strange story. Strangest of all is the assertion that an app that keeps users inside Facebook is somehow responsible for driving the referral surge to the Guardian’s site, guardian.co.uk.

There are only two mechanisms in the app that could push traffic to guardian.co.uk, and they are minor.facebook guardian link

One is a small link in the article page that allows the reader to view the story at guardian.co.uk (right). Yet click-through on this must be minimal. Why would you click to the Guardian site when the story is laid out in front of you in Facebook? If we put that click-through rate at 0.1 percent (twice as high as the average Facebook ad click-through), then it’s delivering roughly 4000 referrals per month* – nowhere near the 2 million monthly visitors arriving from Facebook at the guardian.co.uk.**

The only other source of traffic from the app to the guardian.co.uk is from people who have not downloaded the app and refuse to download it, despite facing two concurrent app intercept messages after clicking on links in their Facebook feeds. The user flow diagram below shows the convoluted route (in red) required to view a story on guardian.co.uk.

The dialogue box (below) that appears after the user has declined the initial app download is an unusual piece of corporate communication. First the user is apologised to, then persuaded of the app’s benefits (“You don’t have to leave Facebook” ) and, if that doesn’t work, they’re lured into clicking on a big green “Add app” button. (On the web, as in real life, green means go.)Guardian app dialogue box

So not only has the Guardian sent away people interested in its stories, it has created a convoluted and cynical user flow to ensure all but the most determined reader stays away. It doesn’t make sense.

All the same, a hell of a lot of people must be making it though this obstacle course and still clicking “No thanks” in small blue script if this app is the engine driving the Guardian’s Facebook bonanza.

The Guardian’s numbers don’t add up either. Cordrey says eight million visitors have come from Facebook during the past five months but if the top chart is right, and the y axis marked correctly, then Facebook should have delivered at least 30m visitors in that time (see table below). I’ve low-balled the maths on this too, using an average of 60m monthly visitors for those months I didn’t have official Guardian traffic (the site attracted a record 69m visitors in February), and a monthly referral average based on the graph presented at the Guardian conference. It’s rough but the ballparks (eight million v 30m) are completely different.

So what’s going on here?

On the overall referral numbers, it seems that the Guardian has made a mistake in presenting its case, or that the chart showing the “seismic shift” was somehow labelled incorrectly. Perhaps it showed just UK users.

On the Guardian Facebook referral explosion, it is plausible the app is driving this change. Using the numbers the Guardian published at its summit, four million people are on the app each month. If each has 100 friends and if you apply a 5 percent click-through rate then assume 5% of users reject the app download requests, you end up with 1 million referrals to the Guardian, which gets us into the right ballpark.

If this is about right, then success has come in spite of strategy.

One of the reasons the Guardian gave for launching the app was that it presented a new global acquisition channel. By this, the Guardian meant either by driving people from Facebook to the Guardian or building the app audience in and of itself. Which of these vastly different paths it was going down was not made clear at the summit. The latter is the Google/Twitter/Facebook model: reach first and then revenue. It’s a risky play for an incumbent.

The Scott Trust, which funds and oversees the Guardian Media Group, states the Guardian is a “profit-seeking enterprise”. Yet by handing over its core asset and differentiator – its journalism – to Facebook, a competitor for advertising dollars, future profit is imperiled. At the time of writing, the app was displaying Guardian house ads (no revenue) and Facebook ads around the edges (Facebook’s revenue).

If, however, the app’s job is to drive traffic to the guardian.co.uk, then its referral power will diminish as more web users download it and bypass guardian.co.uk. (Recent changes to the Facebook user interface appear to have reduced the exposure of users to social reader results and data suggests use of these apps is falling across the board.)

Either way, the net effect is the same: the Guardian is handing over its journalism and audience to another organisation operating a similar model (advertising around content) in the same market. From the outside, the Guardian’s social division appears to be working against its media business.

* Based on Cordrey’s quoted figure that four million people had used the app in the past four weeks.

** Based on Cordrey’s quoted figure that Facebook had delivered 8 million referrals during the past five months.

*** In my calculations, I have used monthly audience figures and Cordrey’s chart shows daily users. Generally, monthly referrals should reflect the average daily trend although it’s possible there’s some static in the comparison.

For more detail on the app, see this post from Martin Belam, the Guardian’s lead user experience and information architect.

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Andrew Hunter

About Andrew Hunter

Andrew Hunter is Editor-in-Chief of Microsoft's MSN. Twitter: @Huntzie

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