Buffer, a company I've considered one of the leaders in social media with a massive presence (think top 1%, unicorn status) made a shocking announcement this week.
In a post on the their blog, Buffer author Kevan Lee plainly states, "We as a Buffer marketing team - working on a product that helps people succeed on social media - have yet to figure out how to get things working on Facebook (especially), Twitter, Pinterest, and more."
Somehow, some way, Buffer has lost nearly half its social referral traffic over the last year.
The bottom seems to be falling out across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+:
The Buffer team is running some experiments to try to determine the cause of this huge loss in social referral traffic, but I have a few ideas of my own on it:
1. It Could Be an Attribution Error
Facebook Mobile (which is essentially 80% of Facebook's traffic) apparently doesn't add UTM parameters. This means that some of that social traffic could potentially be mischaracterized as direct.
Google Analytics doesn't really have a reason to make Facebook, Twitter or other social networks look great, so they have no big incentive to straighten this out.
2. The 72% Drop in Google+ Traffic Seems Reasonable Without Having Done Anything "Wrong"
The biggest drop Buffer has seen (by far) was in their Google+ traffic, which is down 72% over the last year. Honestly, we all know Google+ has had one foot in the grave so long I wouldn't even include it in a calculation of average traffic losses.
I checked WordStream's own analytics and discovered that our Google+ referral numbers are actually similar to Buffer's, despite the fact that I've maintained an active presence on Google+ both personally and for the company.
I'd be willing to bet that other companies are seeing similar results on Google+. It's just not as active as it once was.
3. We're Drowning in Crap Content
Organic social is so ridiculously competitive now, with an ever-increasing volume of content going after the same finite amount of attention. Even when you're exceptional, the pool of other exceptional content creators is growing.
As Rand Fishkin said, "Buffer's content in 2013/14 was revolutionary and unique. It's stayed good, but competition has figured out some of what made them special".
4. Facebook/Twitter Ads Are Super Important
WordStream's own Facebook traffic grows every month at a really good clip, but yes, we're spending money on Facebook Ads.
Sure, it's a bummer that all of social isn't free, but what the heck - sometimes it's nice be able to fix a problem by throwing money at it (it's a pretty easy solution, actually).
Organic Facebook reach is just really pathetic now. If your only plan for getting people from Facebook to your website is to post things on your Page, you're going to fail. You'll get lucky sometimes, but for the most part, it doesn't matter how awesome your content is... Facebook just doesn't want to show it organically anymore. The News Feed is too busy.
The good news is that if you're posting quality content and focusing on engagement, your Facebook ads can be super cheap.
5. Organic Social Is a Hamster Wheel
With declining organic reach, there's less of a snowball effect, like what you typically see in SEO, where a steady amount of effort produces increasing returns every month.
In truth, you have to work really, really hard on a continuous basis at organic social to move the needle even a little. Since old social posts just fall off the map, you pretty well have to double your efforts to double results, which is pretty hard to do when you're already as big as Buffer.
In short, I definitely don't think Buffer's plummeting organic social traffic is the result of any lack of creativity or effort on their part. I reject Kevan Lee's conclusions to that effect, as they're obviously brilliant people and didn't get where they are by sucking at social.
Personally, I think it has more to do with external factors and their need to adapt to them. In fact, I first thought, "What?! They don't have a social media manager?!!" But then almost immediately afterward said to myself, "Don't hire one now... put that money into your social ads budget instead."
Best of luck to Buffer as they try to figure out their internal numbers, and kudos to them for sharing them in such an honest and forthright way. The whole industry will learn from their experience.
What do you think of Buffer's traffic loss and their potential reasons for it?
This post originally appeared on the Wordstream blog