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U.S. news readers less engaged when referred by Facebook: study

A portrait of the Facebook logo in Ventura, California December 21, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
A portrait of the Facebook logo in Ventura, California December 21, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

By Jennifer Saba

(Reuters) - Readers of some of the top U.S. news sites are more engaged when they go directly to the website rather than through Facebook, according to a study from the Pew Research Center released on Monday.

The research found that users who come directly to a news site spend about three times as long per visit, or almost five minutes on average. Those who find the news by searching or through Facebook spend about two minutes.

Direct visitors also view about five times as many pages per month as those coming through Facebook referrals or through search engines such as Google Inc.

The study is revealing because increasingly news organizations are relying on social media platforms to distribute content especially to reach younger readers.

And yet the research shows that those readers who come to an article or video through Facebook are younger and more fickle in their loyalties.

The Pew study, conducted in collaboration with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, analyzed Internet traffic from online measurement firm comScore Inc to 26 of the most popular news sites during April, May and June of 2013. They included sites owned by Yahoo Inc, AOL Inc's Huffington Post, Twenty-First Century Fox Inc's Fox News, the New York Times Co, BuzzFeed and the BBC.

The report looked at three ways people come to news articles: directly, through Facebook and through searching.

The study analyzed the online reading behavior of 1 million people who use desktop or laptop computers. Data from a smaller group of readers on smartphones and mobile devices suggested a similar pattern, the authors said.

"Converting social media or search eyeballs to dedicated readers is difficult to do," the authors of the report wrote.

"Even sites such as digital native BuzzFeed and National Public Radio's npr.org, which have an unusually high level of Facebook traffic, saw much greater engagement from those who came in directly."

Some of the sites that exhibited high levels of engagement included Foxnews.com, where the average visitor spent almost eight minutes per visit. By comparison, the average visitor to CNN spent about a minute and a half.

The range of sites getting referral traffic from Facebook varied. The New York Times for instance gets 37 percent of its traffic from direct visitors and only 7 percent from Facebook.

BuzzFeed receives 32 percent of its referrals directly while 50 percent are from Facebook.

"Facebook and search are critical for bringing added eyeballs to individual stories, and they do so in droves," the authors wrote.

"But the connection a news organization has with any individual coming to their website via search or Facebook is quite limited."

(Reporting by Jennifer Saba in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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