Does the way news content is reported result in a higher amounts of shares and comments? You'd think it would, right? For example, here's two different approaches to a recent news item - which do you think would generate more social media traction?
At a guess, you'd think the second would get more traffic - the headline has more bite to it, it's more subjective (excluding the fact that Slate's Will Oremus is also a well-known and highly respected writer). But it turns out that may not be the case - or, at least, not according to Facebook's latest research project.
To get a better handle on the way news is spread throughout The Social Network, Facebook has conducted a study which examines how news content spreads from its original source. For a more controlled sample of how news content evolves, Facebook's research team looked at press releases and how the information contained within them is subsequently reported, discussed and shared across the Facebook eco-system.
"The analysis included 85 sources, covered by an average of 184 news articles, which were in turn shared 22K times on average, and garnered an average of 20K comments."
Here's what they found.
First, Facebook found that the majority of shares related to press releases come from news coverage of the information, as opposed to the actual release itself.
As you can see, the percentage of shared tech and finance related press releases is higher than the average, but for the most part, people share news stories about the information - which means they're sharing a journalists interpretation of the original info, as opposed to the information itself.
This makes sense, particularly when you consider the differences in format between press releases and news articles - press releases tend to stick to the basics and offer limited interpretation the implications of the information being shared. Press releases may also be seen as more biased as opposed to a news story which will cover the information more objectively and will look to highlight any questionable elements.
The latter was actually the focus of another part of Facebook's study - when looking at how ideas are amplified, or nullified, in the reporting of a press release info, Facebook found that while the initial press release might focus on certain aspects, subsequent coverage will often highlight other details relative to the public interest.
"For example, when speaking about a drone strike that killed two American hostages - Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Port -, President Obama emphasized families. However, the news articles and subsequent coverage emphasized that people had been killed."
In the case of subjectivity and opinion, Facebook found that, as you might expect, press releases tend to be more positive, on average, while the sentiment of the subsequent media coverage and discussion changes dependent on the source.
News reporting, for example, tends to include fewer subjective words, reflective of the nature of journalistic aims of seeking to provide an unbiased reflection of the facts. Shares and comments, however, were far more opinionated, and included a lot more negative language.
This, too, is largely what you'd expect. Facebook does make note that the nature of their analysis no doubt had some influence in the stronger presence of negativity (darker red), particularly in comments, because they haven't included 'Likes' in their dataset, which is how many people would have shared their approval for the story. If Likes were included, it would dilute the negativity somewhat - but the fact remains that comments are more divisive and opinionated, on average.
So how does all this reflect in shares? What content gets more traction, and what elements relate to increased share counts on news-related content.
The first element Facebook tracked on this front was timeliness - how much of a factor is the timeliness of news reporting in share results. Their data shows that the vast majority of shares and discussion occur on the back of the initial announcement, followed by a secondary surge of follow up posts and comments around half a day later.
As you can see, after 48 hours, news content tends to lose its sheen, which is an important consideration for content creators. While reporting on the latest news can definitely help in getting attention, the value of that content is relatively short lived and you may be better off focusing your content efforts on more 'evergreen' posts.
This is also reflected in Facebook's overall findings on share counts - when looking at the elements that relate to increased shares and discussion overall, Facebook's researchers found few relevant markers.
"Interestingly, we found no correlation between variables such as sentiment or coverage. Being posted early carried a very slight advantage. The only major factor that does matter is the prior number of shares of other articles from the same news site."
So despite some articles taking a more sensationalized view or reporting the details in a more confronting way, the researchers found no real evidence that correlated with a definitive increase in shares on news content. Posting more timely content helped slightly, but outside of that, it was more relative to the prior number of shares of articles from the same news site had seen. This element may also have been influenced by Facebook's algorithm - if you regularly interact with content from certain Pages, you're going to see more of their posts in your News Feed, and most people have a groups of sources they know and trust already established, making it harder for newer news providers to break in and get significant traction.
The study doesn't break a heap of new ground, but it does provide some interesting considerations for those looking to cover the latest industry news, and how they can build audience by doing so. The key consideration for content creators, in reporting on news items, is to also think about what you're able to add to each story, what unique insight can you provide that will provide additional context for your unique audience. Anyone can parrot the latest news story, but the data shows that it's the publishers that have been able to establish a relationship with their readers (as reflected in past share levels) that are generating the best response.
And while attention-grabbing headlines aren't necessarily a bad thing, Facebook's data suggests they're not enough to outweigh the benefits of established reputation.
The full report "Understanding How News Cycles Unfold from the Original Source" is available here.