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Survey reveals 2024 referral traffic trends for publishers

Research into the referral traffic trends publishers are seeing, how those trends have impacted their revenue, and the steps they’re taking to either rebuild their traffic and grow audience.

May 28, 2024 | By Dorinne Hoss, Head of Marketing – Arc XP @arcxp

Over the past few years, publishers have seen formerly reliable sources of traffic like Google and Facebook dry up, with no new platforms on the horizon to make up for that loss. Shifts in user behavior and changes in algorithms have left publishers scrambling to respond across both search and referral channels. And with the rise of generative AI-enabled search, the ability to find new sources of referral traffic and build a loyal audience has become even more critical for publishers.

To gain a better understanding of how traffic declines are affecting them and the steps they’re taking to address challenges, Arc XP partnered with Digiday to survey 115 publishers for the report The state of publisher traffic: Framing the evolution and impact of search and referral in 2024. We asked about the referral traffic trends they’re seeing, how those trends have impacted their revenue, and the steps they’re taking to either rebuild their traffic or find other ways to reach and grow their audience.

In this article, we’ll focus specifically on what we heard from publishers about their referral traffic from social media platforms (like Facebook and TikTok), news aggregators (like Apple News), and other third-party platforms (like Reddit).

Referral traffic is an important revenue driver for publishers, with 98% of survey respondents saying that referral traffic has a moderate or very significant impact on their annual revenue. But 2023 proved to be a challenging year for publisher referral traffic, with most survey respondents saying they experienced a 1% to 20% decline.

The publishers in our survey experienced traffic declines across the major social media channels. Respondents named Facebook as a channel where they expect continued declines (82%), followed by YouTube (67%) and TikTok (57%). Given Meta’s announcement that it will de-prioritize news content on its platforms, the decline in referral traffic from Facebook is not surprising. And across all social platforms, opaque changes to algorithms have made it difficult for publisher content to stand out among the vast array of options presented to users.

According to survey respondents, the primary ways referral traffic decline impacts their revenue are decreased advertising ROI (63%) and changes in collaborations with brands, influencers, or other publications (54%). They also cited a change in competitive positioning, change in quality of audience, and a decline in social media engagement (each named by 43% of respondents).

How publishers are responding to referral declines

When asked what challenges they face around responding to the trend of declines in referral traffic, 54% of respondents named building/maintaining strong relationships with external platforms as a challenge. This was followed by adapting to social media trends (52% of respondents). Accurately pinpointing referral sources (49%) and constantly changing algorithms and updates (46%) were also top challenges.

Despite these challenges, the publishers we surveyed are forging ahead with tactics to combat referral traffic decline, including experimenting with new forms of video content and increasing their presence across social channels. 81% of respondents said they are experimenting with live streams and long-form video content, and 70% said they are focusing on short-form original vertical video for TikTok, YouTube Shorts, and Instagram.

Long-form video content will ultimately offer publishers more control over monetization options than short-form videos created specifically for social channels. With long-form videos, publishers can incorporate in-depth reporting that sets them apart from other content sources and encourages deeper reader engagement and return visits.

The “pivot to video” isn’t new for publishers. Unfortunately, they’ve been burned before by making big bets on video content that didn’t pan out. This time around, publishers need to think carefully about what they want to accomplish with their video strategy: is it about getting advertising revenue from the videos? Driving readers from other channels to their website? Or creating longer-term audience relationships?

Surprisingly, only 56% of respondents said they are increasing direct-traffic efforts (newsletters, owned podcasts, etc.). Given the inherent unpredictability of social platforms, all publishers would benefit from thinking about how they can build more direct connections with their readers.

Publisher referral traffic expectations for 2024

When publishers look ahead to 2024, they are optimistic that referral traffic will rebound. Most of the publishers we surveyed expect referral traffic to increase by 1% to 20% this year, a trend that will likely driven by newsworthy events like the summer Olympics and the U.S. presidential election.

Publishers’ cautious optimism about 2024 might also reflect confidence in the tactics they’re implementing to combat referral traffic declines. But with platform changes and user behavior shifts it’s likely that referral traffic will never fully rebound to previous levels. Publishers will need to continue exploring ways to boost traffic across all channels, including owned channels that enable direct connections with readers.

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