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May 25, 2023updated 31 May 2023 9:14am

Twitter’s shrinking role as traffic source for news publishers revealed

Twitter – already a small source of clicks for publishers – has further declined in importance.

By Aisha Majid

Twitter’s role as a traffic referral source to publishers’ sites has been shrinking.

Data from publisher analytics firm Chartbeat shows that Twitter referral traffic, 1.9% of all traffic in April 2018 to 1,350 publisher sites included in the analysis, had fallen to 1.2% five years later in April this year.

Earlier this month, Press Gazette looked at the decline in publisher referrals from Facebook amid Meta’s turn away from news and found a similar trend. The decline in referral traffic from both platforms suggests that social media’s importance as a publisher referral source could be declining. Other Press Gazette analysis has shown that social media has gradually declined as a traffic source for many publishers.

Bonnie Ray, VP of data at Chartbeat said: "Looking at referral traffic from Twitter since 2018, it seems to follow the same general trend as all referral traffic. We see a big spike in spring 2020 due to Covid hitting media in March and it's declined since. Though it appears that Twitter traffic has declined even faster than traffic in general, which could be a leading indicator but it's hard to say."

When broken down by publisher size, the data shows that small publishers in particular now barely get any referral traffic from Twitter. There were just 186,930 page view referrals this April to 486 small publishers (those with less than 10,000 daily page views) in the Chartbeat sample, down 98% from 10.1 million page views in April 2018. The start of the pandemic destroyed traffic to small sites, says Ray.

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Traffic for medium-sized publishers meanwhile, while it declined less, still fell by 40% in the same period with Twitter page views down to 3.7 million in April.

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Twitter referral traffic for publishers in decline before Musk takeover

The data suggests that Twitter’s importance as a referral source for news publishers had been in decline long before Elon Musk’s takeover of the platform in October last year, although the trend has continued under his ownership. Referral traffic to large publishers for example fell a further 4% between September 2022 and April 2023.

Similarweb data, which is available at domain level, shows how individual sites have been faring in the last two years.

Although Similarweb data is for desktop only which represents a minority of traffic, it shows the sharp decline in Twitter traffic to some of the best-known news sites. Across the 25 English-language publishers we looked at, the average two-year decline between April 2021 and April 2023 was 30%. The rate of decline has been similar since Musk completed his acquisition of Twitter. Across the 25 sites, Twitter referrals fell by an average of 29% between September 2022 (the month before the acquisition) and last month. We measured the decline in Twitter referrals as a share of total monthly traffic.

Kyiv Independent has seen biggest Twitter traffic decline post Musk

The Kyiv Independent, an English-language Ukrainian news source formed by former Kyiv Post journalists, saw the biggest drop in our sample. Referrals from Twitter as a share of all pageviews fell by 61% between September 2022 and April this year. Editor-in-chief Olga Rudenko publicly criticised Elon Musk during a lecture in London over his proposed peace plan for Ukraine which many saw as pro-Russian. She said that Kyiv Independent stories now get less traction on Twitter.

Other sites that have seen a large drop in Twitter referrals over the last two years include buzzfeed.com (down 60% since April 2021); independent.co.uk (down 56%), huffpost.com (down 57%) and telegraph.co.uk (down 50%).

A handful of publishers, however, have seen their share of pageviews from Twitter increase since 2018, with the trend continuing since Musk’s takeover. These include The Sun where pageviews as a share of all traffic increased 15% in two years and 23% since the Musk takeover, Fox News (54% since 2021 and 24% since the takeover) and Bloomberg (75% since 2021 and 59% since the Musk acquisition).

While the continued drop in Twitter referrals to news publishers could be reflective of several factors – including decisions by individual publishers to prioritise other social networks or direct channels to engage their audience such as newsletters, Musk’s takeover of the platform has concerned some news publishers.

Several US newsrooms including American non-profit NPR and publicly-funded PBS said they would no longer post to Twitter after Musk’s decision to have them labelled as "government-funded media". Others such as The New York Times said that they would continue to post to Twitter but would not pay to have a gold tick, the new verification symbol for businesses. The move recently rolled out by Twitter charges individuals between $8 and $11 a month for a blue tick and organisations $1000 a year for a gold tick that indicates that the accounts are genuine.

Musk has also increased the pricing of access to Twitter’s API (application programming interface) which developers need to build apps to manage Twitter workflows such as systems that allow publishers to schedule Tweets.

Last month Martina Andretta, head of social at Press Gazette’s sister title New Statesman, told Press Gazette that she felt "news publishers have now actively started to develop other strategies and to be less reliant on Twitter.

"With the new API changes affecting workflows and scheduling platforms, as well as the concerns regarding misinformation and overall reduced reach, many news organisations will make Twitter less of a priority."

In a 2023 survey of publishers by social media automation and analytics service Echobox, 35% said that Twitter now occupies a less important role for their publication compared to last year. Over four-fifths (81%) however, said they had not changed their approach to Twitter.

While the data is yet to show a distinct "Musk effect" separate from the long-term decline in Twitter referrals to news publishers, a recent survey by Pew Research Center found that the most active Twitter users are now posting less frequently than before. Top users posted 25% fewer Tweets per month following Musk’s takeover.

While Twitter has historically mostly been used as a broadcast platform for publishers (reflected in the historically low referral traffic levels compared to other social networks – Chartbeat data shows Facebook generated more than eight times as many page views for publishers than Twitter over the past year), it's an important audience for publishers.

Antoine Amann, CEO of Echobox said: "Historically and today still, Twitter generates just a sliver of the referral traffic that Facebook does for publishers. But there's still a substantial audience to reach on Twitter, so it remains an important platform for publishers to keep sharing content on. One fascinating observation we've made recently is that some publishers who are now sharing less on Twitter are still able to generate the same level of pageviews from Twitter as before.

"While publishers will need to experiment for themselves, it's quite possible that they can maintain Twitter as a source of clicks even if they invest fewer resources in distributing content on the platform."

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