All the numbers for Facebook are impressive, from its 750 million users to its $500 million in estimated first half profits this year.
However, as a driver of web traffic for news outlets, the results look disappointing at first glance.
At the 25 biggest news websites in the U.S., the percentage of traffic from Facebook is still only in the single digits, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Google, by comparison, was responsible for an average of 30 percent.
The Huffington Post is the leader in the category, with 8 percent of its visitors coming from Facebook. The New York Times is 6 percent and Washington Post 4 percent.
A few months ago, the digital editors of El País in Spain, a leader in interactivity, told me that they were getting about 4 percent of their Web traffic from Facebook and Twitter combined.
There are exceptions: a Latin American soccer site I have analyzed is getting 21 percent of its traffic via Facebook. Loyalty to the teams translates into lots of interest in the discussion on Facebook.
So why is there so much excitement among newspaper publishers about getting on Facebook and hiring community managers to create a presence in social networks?
It has to do with the prospects for the future. The Pew report notes that Facebook is the second or third most important traffic driver for five of the largest news sites.
In addition, it is a monster of growth. Facebook penetration is at 48 percent of the U.S. population at the moment, and growing fast, according to Internet World Stats.
Compare that with the ever-declining population of newspaper readers. Only 40 percent of Americans report reading a newspaper in any form at least three times a week, according to Pew. Although Facebook is not a news outlet, it is where the people are. News outlets need to be part of that conversation.
Guillermo Culell, general manager of regional media for the Mercurio Group in Chile and an expert on digital media, argues that social media are a more important traffic source for digital media than search engines, even though the latter still generate higher numbers.
He points out that traffic from social networks comes from a more intimate relationship among users. A person is recommending an article and another person is trusting the judgment of that friend or acquaintance.
Traffic from a search engine, after all, results from stimulus and response, from an algorithm and a machine. There is nothing human about it, he says.
In the long term, Culell believes, the social networks will surpass search engines as a traffic source. That day is not here yet, but news media are betting on it with investment in community managers and other marketing efforts aimed at social networks. I think it is a good bet.