Media companies have been hitching their wagons to Facebook's star for some time now, seduced by the thought of the social network's audience of 1.8 billion people, and of how much it would be worth to them if just a tiny fraction liked or shared their content.
But how much are those likes and shares worth in terms of actual revenue for a publisher? That's a question that has been somewhat difficult to answer, in part because Facebook keeps changing the way its algorithm works, which makes some news articles appear less frequently.
A group of researchers at Kaleida, a data-analytics company that was co-founded by several former employees of The Guardian newspaper in the UK, took a look at that question recently from the point of view of a single media company that uses its service.
"Facebook, Google, Twitter and all the rest are always selling the idea that they drive a lot of traffic to publishers’ web sites and, therefore, publishers can’t afford not to work with them," Kaleida CEO Matt McAlister wrote in a blog post. "If that’s the starting point then there’s a very important question to ask: How much is that traffic worth?"
To try and answer that question, the company looked at the total number of page views and the amount of traffic that was driven to the site by Facebook for one of its publishing clients, for a single day in April of this year (the client was not identified by name).
McAlister admits in his description of the research that a single publisher's traffic on a single day is not much data, and there is the risk that it isn't broad enough to generate any firm conclusions. But it is still an interesting look at Facebook's value.
First, the researchers tried to determine whether organic sharing of Facebook posts was correlated with the traffic to those posts on the publisher's website, and they found that it was. Although Google also drove a lot of traffic to the site, Facebook was much more of a factor than the search giant, and significantly more so than Twitter.
It's worth pointing out that not everyone has found that Facebook shares correlate to traffic. The online publisher Refinery29, for example, looked at a similar question in 2014 and found that the articles that got the most shares weren't necessarily the ones with the highest traffic.
Chartbeat, meanwhile—which also has a service that is used by publishers to measure their traffic—found after some of its own research in 2014 that "there is no relationship whatsoever between the amount a piece of content is shared and the amount of attention an average reader will give that content." Nor did it find that heavily shared articles correlated to large amounts of traffic.
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In order to refine its results, McAlister says the Kaleida team threw out any articles that got less than 100 shares. They did the same with any articles that got more than 10,000 shares, on the assumption that these were aberrations of some kind, or driven by external factors.
That left a group of articles that got between 80 and 10,000 shares on Facebook. These articles got a total of 240,000 shares in the aggregate, and drove a total of 1.1 million page views. Based on that math, Kaleida says, a single share on Facebook is worth about 4.5 page views.
Most publishers make money from their pages via advertising, which is measured on a "cost per thousand" or CPM basis, so the company used an average CPM of $10 to compute a total dollar value. Using that metric, the publisher in question would have made about $10,000 in ad revenue from the traffic generated by those Facebook share referrals.
So what's the bottom line? According to Kaleida, a single share on Facebook is worth roughly 4 cents to a publisher like its client.
There are all kinds of caveats that can be applied to the company's research, of course, since it is based on a single day and a single client's output, and there is still much debate about whether shares actually correlate to website traffic or monetization.
As McAlister admits, there are also other reasons why publishers want their content to appear on Facebook, including branding and overall awareness, as well as the potential for interaction with readers. Facebook is also paying some publishers to produce video.
But when it comes to actual revenue that publishers can expect to generate from Facebook's social activity, Kaleida says four cents is the average for a single share on the social network—and that's for sites that have $10 CPMs, which many do not. For them, the amount earned will be even smaller.