Online publishers are looking for ways to leverage viral content distribution and to encourage their readers to share the articles they read with their friends. In doing so, publishers enjoy the free marketing and advertisement for their content and increase their circulation and readership. Faced with the dominance of Facebook in social marketing and the availability of the social platform’s built-in tools, publishers may consider abandoning their own distribution channels, such as their own website and mobile app, and rely solely on Facebook. Tempting as this option may be, there is no empirical evidence for the consequences of abandoning these off-Facebook channels.
In order to empirically measure the impact of on- and off-Facebook channels on the effectiveness of content distribution, we performed an online randomized field experiment using content published by Playbuzz.com, the largest content distribution platform on Facebook on 2016. Our experiment analyzes the views, shares, and life span of 549 articles, for ten weeks and encompasses more than 4.5 million users and more than 9 million page views.
We found that although the total number of views of an article is dominantly driven by social shares on the Facebook platform, promoting the content outside of the Facebook platform has significant effects, and specifically, in our case, by utilizing the homepage of the publisher. We also show that using publisher's website increases the life span of an online article compared to promoting the article solely on Facebook. We find evidence for a (positive) cross-channel spillover effect suggesting a synergetic effect in using both on- and off-Facebook distribution channels. We conclude by discussing the strategic managerial implications of our results on online publishers and discuss publisher-Facebook relations via the broader perspective of platform envelopment.