Although audiences still consume the majority of their online news from familiar and trusted brands, the way they access that content is changing. Our data show very different patterns of access across countries. In countries like the UK, Denmark, and Finland, branded websites are often the starting point for any news journey. By contrast, in Italy, Spain, Germany, or France a search engine is often the key gateway while social media are important in Australia and Urban Brazil.
In Japan, the strength of search is partly down to the dominance of Yahoo as integrated news and discovery platform while popular new mobile apps like Smart News and Gunosy explain the very high scores for other aggregators.
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Starting points for news – all countries
|Direct to news brand||52%||36%||27%||26%||54%||63%||20%||36%||15%||46%||33%||44%|
|Mobile notifications and alerts||10%||13%||14%||9%||9%||7%||7%||8%||7%||11%||9%||9%|
|Other aggregator site, newsreader, or app||4%||5%||6%||5%||9%||12%||6%||11%||27%||17%||8%||7%|
Base: Total sample in each country.
But within the search category there are important nuances. We asked specifically about the different types of query and found that on average more than half (57%) relate to navigation to a particular website rather than a keyword query. The majority of search queries are effectively a direct pass through to the homepage of the brand. By contrast, social media as a gateway is either driving traffic to individual stories or displaying content that is consumed within the social network itself – without any click through to the publisher website. Until recently, the main publisher concerns have focused on search but the rise of social discovery (see the next chart) has turned the spotlight on social platforms like Facebook.
Percentage using social media to find news 2013–2015 – selected countries
These findings are backed up by industry data from NewsWhip, which monitors the numbers of shares of publisher-based content across multiple countries and languages.1 After Facebook changed its algorithms to favour quality news sites at the end of 20132 they reported a significant increase in referrals to major sites.
This has left many publishers delighted at the amount of new traffic but also concerned about over reliance on Facebook and in particular about its algorithms, which are changing all the time and over which they have no control.
Social discovery and the young
A key question for news publishers is the extent to which sites like Facebook and Twitter are friends or enemies. Do they displace the need to visit a website and therefore undermine business models – or can they stimulate interest in distinctive news content and bring new users to the brand? The following charts illustrate the relative importance of brands and social media as ways of starting a news journey. In general, under 35s favour social media but in strong-brand countries like the UK and Denmark they are no less likely to start a journey directly with a brand than over 35s. For them social media are additive, while in the US and Japan they appears to be more substitutional; under 35s there are less likely to go directly to a brand.
Discovery of news by social media and brand – under 35s
Discovery of news by social media and brand – over 35s
The other key point about social news discovery is that it reaches different demographics – and not just the young. Those who visit news sites regularly, sign up for email, or receive mobile notifications are heavily male skewed. Search is more even but social is the only discovery mechanism that appeals more to female users.
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Gender split of those using social media for news discovery
Base: Total sample in each country
We also find that social discovery is a better mechanism for reaching Casual Users and those on lower incomes than going directly to a website or using email. These data suggest that social media distribution is becoming a critical mechanism for brands looking to engage with hard to reach audiences.
Optimising content for social media and search
As social media and search have become more critical to business success, publishers have been keen to understand more about what makes users click on a particular link. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Social Media Optimisation (SMO) have become core skills in many newsrooms but there is an appetite to learn more about the key factors that drive success.
To cast light on these questions, we asked a series of questions in five of our countries about the factors driving clicks in search, social media, and also newsreader apps like Flipboard and Smart News.
Factors that drive clicks within search sites
Factors that drive clicks within social media sites
Factors that drive clicks within aggregator sites
Overall, we find that the key driver in search is the relevance of the headline. The brand tends to be less important, as does the author of a piece or a social recommendation within the search results. By contrast, in social media the headline is less important than a recommendation by trusted brand or someone you know. This may be because in search we tend to be looking for very specific information – whereas default behaviour in a social network is to browse a complex multi-subject news feed. Users will be more receptive to signals around quality and trust to help them make that choice.
The role of the brand is if anything even more important within newsreader apps that aggregate multiple news sources. This is particularly true in strong brand countries like the UK but one exception is in the US where the headline comes through most strongly.
How gateways affect choice
Another question which is of particular interest to academics and regulators is the extent to which these new gateways encourage more or fewer sources of news to be consumed (plurality) and by extension whether might they extend or restrict the range of stories discovered (serendipity).
Here we find that all three mechanisms tend to drive users to click on sources they would not normally use. Three-quarters of social media users (76%), search engine users (73%), and newsreader app users (76%) said they sometimes or frequently accessed different sources compared with their regular brands.
Percentage accessing different sources of news by gateway – five country average
Young people and News Lovers tend to click more on new sources of news from these gateways. A higher proportion of those who say they never click on new sources are over 55.
Email vs Social Media
A key finding this year is the enduring effectiveness of email as a distribution and retention mechanism for news. Around a quarter are using it to access news each week in the US (25%) and Denmark (24%), although it is much less popular in the UK (10%), Finland (9%), and Ireland (9%).
To some extent email news is making a comeback, partly driven by better targeting technologies and improved user experience. Digital-born news site Quartz has built much of its rapid growth on a well targeted and beautifully curated daily email. Many traditional companies launched new emails in 2014 such as First FT and Red Box, a political briefing from The Times.
In looking at email and social media in four countries (US, UK, Ireland, and France) we find that, on average, email is used more by older groups, whereas social media are more heavily used by the young. Email tends to be accessed as part of a daily habit, often at the start of the day, whereas social media are used throughout the day, with more of a peak in the late evening. Social media are used more for breaking news, entertainment, sport, and technology, while email is – relatively – more popular for business and politics.
Email and social media compared by time of day – four country average
Email and social media compared by type – four country average
Email is still mainly accessed from the computer, partly due to the older demographics. Social media usage is increasingly driven by smartphones and tablets – again primarily because younger people are using those devices.
Accessing news by email by device – selected countries
Accessing news by social media by device – selected countries
Notifications and alerts
If email and social media have become primary distribution strategies for media companies, the growth of the smartphone is opening up a new way to attract the attention of consumers. Over the past year, we have seen very significant increases in mobile notifications – for breaking news but also for other updates and messages. France (14%) and the US (13%) are leading this trend, with the UK also showing substantial growth.
Growth in mobile alerts and notifications – all countries
One of the benefits of getting consumers to sign up for mobile apps is that they can drive a range of notifications such as an update signal on the app icon to alerts that appear on the lockscreen of an Apple or Android phone. The arrival of smart watches is likely to further accelerate this trend.