The Huffington Post has seen a major decline in its monthly traffic coming from within the U.S. over the past year, while competitors such as BuzzFeed and Vice Media continue to grow, according to data provided by comScore to International Business Times. In September of last year, HuffPost pulled in around 113 million unique visitors and hit 126 million last November, but then steadily bled visitors into 2015 and throughout the year. Last month, it was down to 86 million.
Meanwhile, its biggest rivals in digital media, from BuzzFeed to Vice to Business Insider, have all seen growth over the same period. According to comScore, Business Insider rose from around 30 million to 41 million, while Vice Media blew up from around 10 million to 23 million.
BuzzFeed fluctuated from month to month but has continued to grow steadily, hitting 68 million in August 2014 and 85 million a year later, while Vox Media has enjoyed a slow but steady gain from the high 40s to the low 50s.
Gawker Media is the only other shop that, like HuffPost, is losing traction; comScore says last month’s traffic of 51 million is below last September’s showing of 53 million. As a leaked memo from executive editor John Cook admitted last week: “Traffic is flat.”
The Huffington Post provided a statement to IBT: “These are U.S. numbers, and our focus over the last year and into the future is global, video and distributed content. In pursuit of this strategy, we have been in the process of decoupling our traffic from AOL.com. We are very committed to our new strategy so we can continue leading in this new era of digital, global media, and go where the audiences are shifting to while developing new metrics to capture those audiences.”
A representative also told IBT that more than 50 percent of Huffington Post’s traffic comes outside the United States.
‘What’s Working’ Isn’t
The past two years taken together show that HuffPost’s domestic numbers initially surged from September 2013, which saw 73 million uniques, up until around January of this year, when traffic began to fall from the triple digits back down to 85 million to 90 million.
A mixture of factors could have led to both the boom and the dip, from HuffPost’s internal editorial and distribution strategy to the challenges in measuring audience numbers from mobile devices, which account for a growing share of traffic across the Internet. The site has traffic-boosting syndication deals with sites like Yahoo and its parent company, AOL (now owned by Verizon). But HuffPost told IBT that since January 2014, the company has voluntarily weaned itself off of AOL's front page in order to focus on cultivating a self-sufficient audience through social media and new distributive deals with services like Facebook, Apple News, Google and Twitter.
In February, the first month that traffic began to slide, Huffington rolled out a strategy called “What’s Working,” an editorial campaign to publish and promote positive stories. The initiative promised both a cheery contribution to society and a traffic boost for the site, based on a study that showed New York Times readers are more likely to share uplifting stories than daily doom and gloom.
“It turns out that, contrary to the thinking behind ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ people want more constructive and optimistic stories,” Huffington wrote. “As the No. 1 social publisher on Facebook, we've learned these are the stories our readers are most interested in reading and sharing.”
If the downward traffic data is any indication, “What’s Working” is not living up to its name. Either people are sharing the feel-good stories without actually clicking through to the site, or HuffPost’s general theory of traffic-through-positivity did not pan out.
“Breaking news is usually negative, and it drives the most traffic, more than any other form,” said Margarita Noriega, currently an editor at Vox and formerly editor in charge of live news at Reuters.
Still, HuffPost’s feel-good vertical, literally titled “Good News,” has around 1.2 million “Likes” on Facebook, putting it in the same ballpark as other popular verticals such as Politics, Business and Women.
Noriega suggested looking at Buzzsumo.com for HuffPost’s most-shared posts over social media services like Facebook: In most cases, it’s tough to categorize a story as either “constructive and optimistic” or otherwise. Over the six months, the most-shared stories are a mixed bag: “ Hawaii Just Became The First State To Ban Plastic Bags At Grocery Checkouts,” “21 Books From The Last 5 Years That Every Woman Should Read,” “Bernie Sanders Has Overtaken Hillary Clinton In the Hearts and Minds of Democrats,” and “10 Signs You're Being Raised By A Nurse.”