The number of Americans getting their news from social media continues to rise, according to a recent report from Pew Research. 63% of Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) users report getting their news from the app or website. The same percentage of Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) users say the same.
While both social networks have seen an increase in the percentage of users receiving news from their platforms, growth at Facebook has outpaced Twitter. That's somewhat surprising considering that Twitter positions itself as the real-time information network (aka, the news network).
The biggest complaint about Twitter, however, is that its best content is often difficult to find. By contrast, Facebook organizes content for its users based on what it thinks they'll be most interested in seeing, putting the best stuff at the top of its News Feed. Has this key difference made Facebook a better source for news than Twitter?
Not quite, but it's close
There are some key differences Pew found between how users consume news on Twitter compared to Facebook. Social news readers are much more likely to go to Twitter for breaking news than Facebook. 59% of Twitter news readers get breaking news compared to 31% of Facebook news readers.
Considering that Twitter organizes content in reverse chronological order, this distinction makes sense. Twitter also has a robust search engine that allows users to explore content outside of what their networks are talking about, and it prominently features trending topics on the homepage or Search tab in the app. Facebook added trending topics to the desktop version of its site last year, but they don't appear in the app.
Twitter users are also exposed to a wider range of topics and see significantly more news about sports, business, international affairs, and national government and politics. Facebook users are more likely to engage with content, particularly content about government and politics. That engagement helps expose more users to news.
Beyond the data
Facebook is aggressively pursuing news content for its platform with Instant Articles. Publications like The Atlantic and NBC News are publishing 20 or more articles a day in the new format, according to The Wall Street Journal. Facebook has also added features to its trending sidebar, allowing users to sort trending topics by category -- e.g. "politics."
Twitter has been slow to react to Facebook's offensive, but 2015 has seen an accelerated rollout of new products and features. The company purchased live-streaming app Periscope, which builds on its strength in breaking news. More importantly, it has experimented with curation with its "While You Were Away..." feature.
Later this year, Twitter will introduce Project Lightning, which will curate content around live events. The project will use human curators with newsroom experience to provide a high-quality feed of photos, videos, and comments around several live events per day. This move toward a feed similar to Facebook's will make it much easier to consume the best news content Twitter has to offer. It will be available to logged-out visitors as well as active users.
Why investors should care
The parity between Facebook and Twitter when it comes to providing news to users shows a failure of execution on Twitter's part. About 100% of Twitter users should be getting news from the platform; it's by far its most useful application.
A focus on news content going forward could lead Twitter to higher engagement rates and renewed user growth. It could also help differentiate the company from Facebook as a news source before Facebook takes complete control of how we use the Internet.
The Pew survey found that 9% of Twitter news users consider it their most important source (versus just 4% for Facebook). Increasing that percentage is key to increasing engagement on the platform. That will lead to better ad revenue growth, better margins, and better earnings.