News hit last week that publishers like the New York Times and Buzzfeed were looking to publish articles directly on Facebook. While reaction to this news has been a bit mixed, in my opinion it's not only a bad idea, but will likely do more harm than good.
In my experience, the quality of the audience that I've seen publishers acquire from Facebook has been significantly lower than from other sources such as search, third party sites, and Twitter. Facebook-referred visitors tend to be "one and done" when it comes to page views and video views. They do not go deep into sites. In addition to low engagement in their initial visit, their return rates to a publisher's sites are usually much lower than that for visitors acquired from other sources.
In addition to low quality, I have yet to see a publisher where Facebook has represented more than single digit percentages of the publisher's overall traffic. Despite the massive scale of Facebook, this does not translate directly to traffic for publishers trying to tap into that scale. Additionally, Facebook's growth is slowing down. While it's still massive, new users to their platform are true laggards and coming mainly from older age ranges of the population. The ability to expose and reach new members of Facebook is limited.
Facebook is becoming more and more of a mobile platform. According to a recent eMarketer report, 82 percent of Facebook's U.S. audience and nearly half of all mobile phone users will regularly visit Facebook on a mobile phone. Users are looking for "snack-able" content on their smartphones and generally shy away from longer content. All publishers need to do is look at their own web analytics data and compare time spent between mobile visits vs. desktop or tablet. While in traditional measures such as visits or page views, publishers may see mobile represent a majority of their traffic. A closer look will tell a different story. Based on my experience, they will likely see that average visits to their site via desktop last four times or longer than mobile visits.
Eliciting a click-through on Facebook is hard enough, so how is giving them the full article on Facebook going to solve that problem? Part of the challenge with driving scale in traffic from Facebook is that the platform itself is engaging. Users are more interested in catching up on the latest from friends and celebrities they follow, and anything else seems to be an intrusion or a disruption. I can see that perhaps publishing the article directly on Facebook rather than relying on click-throughs might get publishers more reach -- however, if there is no monetization opportunity on Facebook for the publisher, they are relying on click-through or some indirect attribution of traffic at a later time to Facebook. This is quite a bit of a leap of faith given my previous points regarding the quality and scale of traffic acquired from Facebook.
Finally, publishers are running the real risk of cannibalizing what little traffic they do get from Facebook today and perhaps even some of the direct and other referral traffic. As the saying goes, if you are getting the milk for free, why buy the cow? If users can get the information they are interested on Facebook itself, why seek it elsewhere? In addition to potentially losing revenue due to cannibalizing, there is an opportunity cost here for publishers who are utilizing increasingly scarce resources against Facebook instead of focusing elsewhere that has more promising returns.
To any publishers sitting on the fence about publishing directly to Facebook, I strongly advise that you let the "first movers" have their day and focus your efforts elsewhere. There is just too much risk involved here with no direct line of sight to revenue. The only guaranteed winner here is Facebook, and haven't we all done enough content creation on their behalf already?
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