How Social Media Drove News Traffic in 2015

    by Allie VanNest
    December 18, 2015
    Photo by Valentina Calà used here with Creative Commons.
    Click the image for the full year in review.

    Click here or on the image for the full year in review.

    The following piece is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.

    "... viral stories may be heavily reliant on shares, while more austere news stories are best discovered and distributed through search."

    When you hit “publish,” your story becomes a part of a crowded and demanding online world. To help it to flourish, it is important for you to understand how your audience uses both search and social to find the articles they want to read.


    At Parse.ly, a provider of audience insights for digital publishers, we decided to look at how readers use search and social to discover top news stories. Since the digital publishing industry, especially, has been so focused on the growth of social as a medium for news distribution at the expense of search, we were curious to learn whether this held true for individual stories.

    Here’s how we got to the bottom of it:

    • We identified the top seven news events based on the most-read stories in our network.
    • We only considered stories that had one “event” at their core (sorry Donald Trump and the Kardashian clan!), then we normalized the data based on site size because we didn’t want our biggest sites to dictate the trends.
    • Once we compiled this list of top stories, we looked at how readers landed on each story to see what patterns we could find.

    So, how did readers discover the top news of 2015?

    For the biggest news stories this year, social media traffic dominated search referrals within our network of more than 400 media sites.


    In looking at when/how each of the seven top stories of 2015 became popular, it quickly becomes clear that referral traffic is dependent on the topic of a post, the virality of the topic, the type of site publishing the post, and many other factors. Parse.ly’s data suggests that viral stories may be heavily reliant on shares, while more austere news stories are best discovered and distributed through search.

    However, despite the consistency of the results, digital publishers will do well to remember that the most actionable data that they have access to is that which is found on their own sites. The aggregate trends are helpful in telling a big-picture story of traffic patterns, but where it can really help publishers is by showing them the types of trends that they should be looking for in their own sites to provide insight into their own unique content strategies.

    With that said, let’s take a look at the trends observable in the top seven stories in 2015.


    Parse.ly graphic.

    Charlie Hebdo

    On January 7, 2015, the weekly satire magazine based in France, was the target of a terrorist attack that resulted in the deaths of 12 people, including the newspaper’s editor, and several contributors. The story was one of the most covered news topics of the year: Parse.ly’s network published more than 1,300 posts on the subject at its peak.

    Readers chose to navigate directly to breaking news on publisher websites about the Charlie Hebdo attack more than any other topic we examined, and both searching and sharing increased as the story developed. This suggests that readers still look to traditional publishers for up-to-date information on important breaking news stories.

    Photo by Valentina Calà, and reused here with Creative Commons.

    Photo by Valentina Calà, and reused here with Creative Commons.

    However, as the story developed — specifically after the March 2015 attacks in Denmark — social traffic brought in nearly 53 percent more traffic than search. After initial information is distributed, readers seem more comfortable sharing new information via their social networks.

    Bobbi Kristina Brown

    The daughter of performers Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston was found unresponsive in a bathtub on January 31, 2015. She was kept in a medically induced coma for several months, but died in hospice care on July 26, 2015.

    Posts on this topic were driven by both social media and search engines, and not specifically by publisher sites. Social led the charge, slightly, by driving 54.9 percent of referral traffic. And when Ms. Brown woke up from her coma in April, readers predominantly shared the story via social; however, it did not attract the same level of interest as the original story.

    One hypothesis for the increase in article shares, despite very few additional articles being published, is that readers were only reposting articles in sympathy of Ms. Brown’s death. The articles went largely unread because would-be readers already knew what had transpired.

    Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao

    The anticipated professional boxing match took place on May 2, 2015, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was hyped as “The Fight of the Century,” and unlike other top news stories, the interest about the match built up long before the event — 66.4 percent of readers found articles via search engines versus social media, peaking on fight day.

    Rachel Dolezal

    In June 2015, Rachel Dolezal resigned from her position as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in Spokane, Washington after her white parents announced that their daughter was a white woman passing as black. Readership of this story was largely driven by social media traffic, with 71.1 percent of referral traffic to publisher sites coming in from social sites and only 28.9 percent coming in from search. This was likely due to the controversial nature of the topic.

    Cecil the Lion

    Cecil the Lion in 2010. Creative Commons photo by Daughter#3.

    Cecil the Lion in 2010. Creative Commons photo by Daughter#3.

    In July 2015, a Southwest African lion living in Zimbabwe was killed by an American hunter named Walter Palmer. Although Palmer had a permit, the killing drew international media attention and sparked outrage among animal conservationists. The story attracted readers through social media, and heavy interest lasted around 20 days.

    What was unique about this topic is that it had no connection to any larger national trends or breaking news stories; it was a smaller story that became national news because it elicited an emotional reaction and caused outrage — two reasons why some stories go “viral.” One lesson that publishers can learn from this pattern of discovery is that updates to viral stories do not pay off in pageviews.

    Ashley Madison Hack

    On July 15, 2015, hackers stole the emails, names, home addresses, sexual fantasies, and credit card information of Ashley Madison customers, threatening to post it online if the site was not permanently closed. By August 18, 2015, all of the data was released. While the topic attracted a significant fraction of social referrers, the majority of traffic came from search engines.

    Our hypothesis is that the elicit, and possibly amoral, subject matter was something that people wanted to read about, yet didn’t want to show their social networks publicly. If this is the case, it’s a good example of how psychology plays a role in shaping referral traffic patterns.

    Ahmed Mohamed

    Fourteen-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas for allegedly bringing a bomb to school on September 14, 2015. The “bomb” turned out to be an electronic clock that he had built himself, yet Mohamed was suspended from school for three days.

    The news caused social outrage, triggering this local story to attract national attention and go viral. There was virtually no organic traffic coming from search engines about this topic, and of all the popular story topics in 2015, this one experienced the shortest lifespan: almost all media coverage dropped off by the end of November.

    This is likely because, after the initial story, there was limited additional information to report. Instead, readers were compelled to share articles in the context of their own opinions about the events that transpired — and this took place via Facebook and Twitter, primarily. A lesson for digital publishers that social outrage can trigger social referrals.


    It is incredibly important for digital publishers to monitor how their readers are discovering news on their sites. Search traffic (driven by Google) and social traffic (driven by Facebook) are leading referrers for most publisher sites, but many factors combined play a role in the discoverability of your posts.

    Here are some general takeaways from Parse.ly’s overview of the top seven news topics of 2015:

    • Readers discover event-driven news primarily through search
    • Controversy encourages social sharing
    • Updates to viral stories do not pay off in pageviews
    • Psychology plays a role in shaping referral traffic patterns
    • Social outrage can trigger social referrals

    From the aggregate data we reviewed, Parse.ly concluded that social media is pushing breaking news. Digital publishers who provide their audience with breaking news should be investing heavily in social.

    On the other hand, search traffic is bringing fewer readers to digital publishers; yet, it remains one of the top referrers to evergreen articles. Publishers who invest time and effort in long-form journalism must get to the bottom of who is reading their evergreen content and keep tabs on existing audience’s preferences and past reading trends.

    As we look forward to 2016, digital publishers must put both time and effort into understanding how their audience uses both search and social to find the articles they want to read in order to create a solid content distribution strategy.

    Allie VanNest works with Parse.ly’s marketing team as Head of Communications. She spends her days telling stories about what content draws in website visitors, and why. You can reach her on Twitter @parselyallie.

    Tagged: 2015 year in review ahmed mohamed ashley madison cecil the lion charlie hebdo floyd mayweather jr manny pacquiao parse.ly rachel dolezal social media

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