When I first heard that a change in the Facebook algorithm had throttled traffic to Upworthy, the popular video curation site with a declared interest in “things that matter,” my first reaction was to look for the nearest Friends of Upworthy petition.
For many months, I’ve found them a great source of smart, shareable online content, as well as the model for the kind of convention-busting headline I’ve used for this post.
But when I dug into the story a bit farther, I realized the sharp decline in Upworthy’s traffic over the last couple of months is a cautionary tale for anyone who relies on a single, dominant social media platform to get their message out.
If you haven’t built up a regular presence on at least two or three social media channels, your campaign is vulnerable whenever the platform you’ve picked adjusts its rules of engagement, whether or not you’re the target of the change.
Facebook Changes the Rules
In November, Upworthy reached 87 million users around the world—a record spike from which its founders expected to see some drop-off.
In December, Facebook changed its news feed algorithm to recognize “that people want to see more relevant news and what their friends have to say about it.” The result was “closer attention to what makes for high quality content,” with less space for meme photos hosted somewhere other than Facebook.
There’s no indication that Facebook was targeting Upworthy, but the site still took a big hit: Carlson reported that its traffic fell to 67 million in December and 48 million in January, for a two-month decline of 45%.
Carlson pointed to several other “meme-y” sites that saw similar drops, then compared them to Buzzfeed, a news service that has seen steady growth over the last two months. The differences? Buzzfeed “employs several respected journalists who publish hard news and smart analysis.” Oh, and it attracts traffic with Facebook ads, though a company official assured Carlson that ad purchases have no impact on news feed rankings.
Upworthy’s Surprising Flaw
On balance, it looks like Upworthy’s December and January numbers may have been collateral damage from a decision that might actually move Facebook in the direction of smarter, more targeted news content. But an analysis late last year by Forbes technology writer Jeff Bercovici suggested a surprising flaw in Upworthy’s content strategy that made the site more vulnerable than it should have been.
Sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy ”have all but perfected the science of producing stories that Facebook users can’t resist sharing with their friends and ‘liking,’” he wrote. “With 1.2 billion users, Facebook offers a platform big enough to build an entire business on,” with Upworthy drawing more than half of its traffic from that one source.
“It would therefore be potentially devastating to these sites,” he added, “if Facebook did anything to make it more difficult for them to disseminate their content through its users’ newsfeeds.”
That’s exactly what happened. What’s surprising is that Upworthy could have and, arguably, should have protected itself with a more balanced social media strategy.
Slow, Steady, and Diversified
When we talk to our clients about their content marketing programs, we ask them to think about the audiences they want to reach and the various social media sites (and other settings) where they already congregate.
We usually recommend strategies that rely on two or three different platforms, mainly because we want to reach people more readily and reinforce messages across multiple channels.
It’s a slower, steadier approach. I doubt it will ever generate 48 million hits in a month. But it allows our clients the time and space to build solid working relationships that help them succeed over the longer term. And after reading the Upworthy story, I realize it doesn’t hurt one bit if we can help our clients protect themselves from algorithm changes that are quite beyond their control.
(Have a look at the Slate post under Related Articles for a very different take on this story.)