UPDATED: Research on content referrals shows less social engagement, more social curation

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Editor's note: Since this post was published, Outbrain has reached out and said they are rerunning the numbers "to ensure they're accurate" and might have an update later. 

We've already heard that social media traffic delivers the least engaged readers, according to findings from content discovery platform Outbrain. Results from Outbrain's Q2 research, released this morning, come to pretty much the same conclusion, but as Outbrain continues to delve deeper into their research, new theories are emerging for why readers are engaging (or not) with the content they consume.

For the second round of the study, Outbrain pulled a sample of 160 million sessions across more than 150 of its premium publisher clients. Some methodology changed from the Q1 report, including the addition of an appendix showing each traffic source's classification: as a content provider, search engine or social media. "Those lines can get really blurry because a lot of these sites are a mix," said Outbrain COO David Sasson.

Even though the social landscape blurs the lines of content, the results provide some insight into how audiences are reacting to what's in front of them.

Measuring engagement

Outbrain uses two sets of data to measure content engagement: average page views per session and bounce rate (or percentage of sessions lasting only one page view) per session.

 engagement 

Naturally, pages that have more views tend to have a lower bounce rate. Outbrain found that content directed from other content sources has a higher number of page views and lower bounce rate than content referred by social media sources.

However, Sasson said this data does not necessarily indicate that the audience coming from social media isn't engaging at all. In theory, social networks allow readers to click on multiple links and pieces of content over a period of time, rather than engaging with a single publisher by jumping from one piece of content to another. So while users may engage very successfully with a page of content found via, say, Twitter, their instinct will probably be to go back to their Twitter feed rather than continue to surf that specific publisher's site.

Twitter as curator

Overall, Twitter is a larger traffic source than Facebook in almost every vertical covered by the Outbrain research except Home & Lifestyle. This, Sasson said, can most likely be attributed to the fact that despite Facebook's relative size, it's still "largely about communication within your circle of friends" (though it is trying to change that).

Twitter vs. Facebook

Twitter, on the other hand, is its own curator, where users can choose who they follow and what content they consume all at once. This is driving brand loyalty away from the publisher and instead creating loyalty to the Twitter stream, Sasson said.

"It's almost like Twitter has become your editor," he said. "Each of the articles that you're reading, you're coming from Twitter into them, rather than relying on your publisher."

Potential solutions for publishers

So how can publishers compete with the pseudo-editors of social media? Well, for one thing, social media still accounts for only 7% of publishers' traffic, according to Outbrain. But publishers should still be concerned with keeping these visitors within the confines of their site, Sasson said.

      External traffic      

Outbrain, which curates additional content within a publisher's site and presents it to readers at the bottom of articles, has begun to use the statistics about what drives traffic to certain stories to determine what will be most enticing — and what will keep an audience on that site.

Slate curation

In the past, Sasson said, publishers would generate more articles about the exact same topic beneath a story. What the growing social landscape has taught us, however, is that people are largely using Twitter to find new and diverse content, rather than reading about just one thing.

"People don't actually want to read about the same subject twice," he said. "Part of what publishers need to try and do is to serve links that are interesting but not necessarily what they just read about, personalized to the extent that you can do that based on surfing behavior."

So content may still reign supreme over social media — but it will take a more social approach to keep publishers in control. 

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