Here’s What Makes the Guardian So Successful on Facebook

    by Liam Corcoran
    May 13, 2016

    This story was originally published on the NewsWhip blog.

    Our deep dive into the Guardian’s content output during March shows the type of numbers that the biggest publishers are seeing on their content on social media. 

    "The Guardian’s Comment is Free section is easily the most popular single part of their website on Facebook."

    With sites publishing more content to a more fractured audience on social media than ever before, it gets harder to figure out what’s working for publishers.


    Each month in our rankings of the biggest sites on Facebook, we look at the top-line numbers for different sites.

    While this is useful for benchmarking, it generally just shows us the breakout stars in a given month. To get a better understanding of content performance on Facebook, audience development teams need a clearer breakdown to see where exactly the shares come from.

    NewsWhip Analytics allows us to do this with ease, slicing into sites’ sub-sections and verticals to spot where exactly the engagement is coming from on Facebook, Twitter and more.


    For this deep dive, we’re looking at the Guardian, a mass appeal website that’s consistently among the biggest sites on Facebook in our monthly reports. We looked at the Facebook performance of content published on theguardian.com during March. Native content, such as Facebook videos, were not included this time.

    First, we looked at the most popular Guardian content overall.

    The most popular Guardian content on Facebook

    In March, our database recorded 13,569 articles published across theguardian.com. In total, those articles attracted a total of 15,859,000 engagements (Likes + Comments + Shares) during the month. Here’s how the engagements broke down:


    Engagements for theguardian.com, March 2016


    Around two in every three interactions with content from the Guardian on Facebook is a Like, which is a good ratio. Many publishers see like rates of over 70%, and most social media teams hope to see a higher share and comment rate, which are indicators of sustained engagement on Facebook.

    The five most ‘engaged’ sections of the website were as follows:

    1. Comment is Free (2,785,162 Facebook engagements)
    2. World News (2,131,840 Facebook engagements)
    3. US News (1,458,301 Facebook engagements)
    4. Environment (863,164 Facebook engagements)
    5. Music (698,730 Facebook engagements)

    Of the 100 most shared stories of the month overall, here’s how things broke down by category:

    18: Comment is Free, 10: US News, 9: World News, Environment, 6: Politics, Education, 5: Life & Style, 4: Music, Society, 3: Film, Global Development, Science, UK News, 2: Money, Art & Design, Culture, 1: Books, Australia News, Data blog, Football, Law, Media, Sport, Social Care Network, Travel, TV & Radio.

    News is Most Shared, but What Kind? 

    If we add UK, US, Australian and world news together with politics, that comes to 29 of the top 100 stories, making ‘news’ in general the most shared content type from the Guardian in March.

    Of course, many of the stories in the other sections (e.g. Environment, Education) were news stories too, but for the purposes of this, we’ll stick to the on-site categorization used by the Guardian.

    Looking at Facebook engagement around the different sections, here’s what the breakdown looks like for US, UK, Australian and world news, as well as stories filed to the ‘Politics’ section.



    When these numbers are totalled, they equate to 31.7% of total Facebook engagements on Guardian content in March.

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    Comment is Free

    Despite the strong showing of the news stories across the website, the Guardian’s Comment is Free section is easily the most popular single part of their website on Facebook.

    There were 814 articles in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section in March. Those articles had a total of just under 2.8 million engagements for the month on Facebook, making up 17.6% of the total Facebook engagements (likes + comments + shares) on Guardian content published in March.

    As we noted in our analysis of the New York Times’ most shared stories of 2015, opinion is a powerful content format on Facebook, and that seems to be the case for the Guardian too.

    Taking a closer look at the opinion stories that performed strongest during the month, we see that while many of the most popular addressed big news stories like the US presidential campaign and the Brussels attacks, there was a wide spread of subject matter, including duck shooting and  National Grammar Day.

    Education Stories Have the Highest Average Share Rate

    The Analytics platform also allows us to quickly compare average engagement rates for different sites, authors, and site sections. We looked at the sections of the site with the highest average output, and found that the stories with the highest average engagement rates were the following:


    Guardian Average Share Rates


    While News content performs strongly in terms of overall shares, the average shares crown goes to the Guardian’s Education section. Overall, the average Facebook share rate for a story published on theguardian.com in March was 202.

    Success of the Niche Sections

    Looking at the Guardian’s site sections reveals a whole host of options to choose from.


    The Guardian Site Sections


    And many of these sections, while not having complete on-site prominence, achieved impressive engagement rates during the month. Three site sections in particular stood out:


    Guardian Niche Site Sections



    Stories in the Guardian’s Education section had the highest average share rate of any section on the Guardian last month. Although there’s a low output (just 172 articles in March), the engagements that the Education content attracted were higher than that for Science, Business, Sport, Culture and other well-known sections.




    The Guardian’s Books section seems to have attracted a significant audience on Facebook. In March, they broke the half million engagement mark. It’s joy to anyone skeptical about what people are really engaging with on Facebook – there were tens of thousands of interactions on stories about the power of poetry, and rankings of the best non-fiction books ever written.


    Not only did the Guardian’s Environment stories have a very higher average share rate in March (429), they were also one of the biggest sections in terms of overall engagement for the site on Facebook. Nine of the top 100 most shared stories that month came from the Environment section.

    These numbers illustrate the fact that social media breaks down barriers to connect a huge range of readers interested in very different subject matter.

    The real homepage for these readers is on Facebook itself, where readers see just the stories that they’re interested in, and navigate directly to that section, rather than browsing for what they’re interested in on the homepage or app.

    The Guardian’s Most Shared Writers

    Finally, we took a look at the most popular Guardian authors on Facebook in March, based on total number of Facebook shares of their stories that month.

    Excluding news agency bylines (Press Association, AP, Reuters and AFP), the most shared Guardian writer in March was political analyst Thomas Frank. His monthly column, titled ‘Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why’, with almost 32,000 shares that month.

    These were the top ten Guardian writers last month, ranked by Facebook shares on the stories they published in March:


    The most shared Guardian writers, March 2016


    While many of the top-shared authors were opinion writers, there were also plenty of shares for journalists covering specific beats, such as Rowena Mason (politics) and Michael Slezak (the environment).

    Audience development and social media teams at different sites apply this kind of analysis to their output frequently, to get a better understanding of where their resources are best placed. It serves as a reminder that publishers shouldn’t just look at social media as an output – it’s can also be a very intelligent strategic input, if used in the right way.

    Liam Corcoran is Head of Communications at NewsWhip. His analysis and opinions on news, publishing and social media are regularly featured by the likes of AdWeek, BBC, Business Insider, Digiday, Huffington Post, Mashable and Wall St Journal.

    Tagged: analytics audience engagement facebook newswhip readership stories the guardian tracking

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