Why Buffer Lost Half Its Social Media Traffic This Year

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Buffer, a company considered one of the leaders in social media with a massive presence (think top 1 percent, unicorn status) made a shocking announcement recently.

In an update 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 social media traffic has dropped to nearly half its social referral traffic over the last year.

The bottom seems to be falling out across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+:

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Now, the figures are shocking, but Buffer’s openness about them is par for the course. They’ve long been trailblazers in corporate transparency, even publishing all of their salaries to the Web.

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 percent 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 Percent Drop in Google+ Traffic Seems Reasonable Without Having Done Anything “Wrong”

The biggest drop Buffer social media traffic has seen (by far) was in their Google+ traffic, which is down 72 percent 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.

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I checked our 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.

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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.”

It’s actually a bit humbling that even companies like Buffer, whom so many of us look to for strategy on creating and promoting remarkable content, are also struggling with this.

4. Facebook/Twitter Ads Are Super Important

WordStream Facebook traffic grows every month at a really good clip — but yes, we’re spending money on Facebook Ads.

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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 Newsfeed is too busy.

The good news is that if you’re posting quality content and focusing on engagement, 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 the Buffer social media traffic loss?

Images: Buffer, Wordstream

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Larry Kim Larry Kim founded WordStream in 2007. He serves as company CTO and is the author of 4 Award-Winning Books on Software Development. Larry also blogs at the WordStream Blog and practices photography in his spare time.

2 Reactions
  1. I think this points out the danger of relying on organic traffic from any source because “organic” is almost entirely out of your control. Any platform, whether it’s Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. can change the algorithm at any time. Unless you’re a paying customer (which backs up your point about paid social) they have no reason to care how it affects you.

  2. I agree. Unless you advertise in the platform itself, it is hard to qualify what real organic traffic is.