By: Steve Outing
You can only envy Facebook’s traffic, unless you’re Google or Facebook rival MySpace. A sophisticated and slick “social utility,” the website has grown to 42 million members. It’s no wonder. Facebook is a truly useful and fun social networking tool — and it’s addictive.
Within the last year, it dropped its college-only membership policy and started allowing anyone to join, which has fueled its growth. And a significant move that’s also responsible for Facebook’s meteoric rise was opening up an API to allow any developer to add applications that Facebook members can use on their accounts.
That means that other companies can leverage and take advantage of the Facebook masses. Newspapers should be paying attention and developing their own Facebook application strategies.
Flash In The Pan?
Some news people are skeptical, of course. Facebook is popular now, but won’t it just get usurped by something else soon? Is it really worth the effort to build applications for it?
While I can’t accurately predict the future, I think it’s safe to say that Facebook isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. You only have to examine the behavior of your nearest teenager or college student to understand how integral Facebook is to their lives.
With both Facebook and MySpace, it’s how much of the online communication between high school and college students (and folks in their 20s) transpires. E-mail? That’s my (baby boomer) generation’s digital communication format.
And that’s the issue that news executives need to understand. Facebook represents where the coveted younger demographic is hanging out. They’re not spending tons of time on newspaper websites. (And most of them definitely are not reading the dead-tree edition.)
Ergo, news organizations need to get their content and services to where the young people are. That Facebook allows you to do this (while MySpace, as yet, does not) should be viewed as a huge favor bestowed on you.
A Social News Experience
To get a sense of why Facebook is so important to news publishers, I called up Facebook guru Fred Stutzman, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina whose specialties include the social networking world. He points out that Facebook is simply where much of the younger generation spends time online, and if news executives expect to interact with them, their companies have to figure out how to be there in an appropriate way.
Facebook users are experiencing social interactions on the site, and “you don’t have to jump too far” to go from a Facebook user interacting with his/her friends to the user interacting with content from an organization that he/she trusts, Stutzman says. The key is to understand that the Facebook experience (and of course this extends to other social networks) is about connections. And this can apply nicely to news.
Think of it this way: You’re already used to search engines (Google), news search engines (Google News, Yahoo! News), and blogs sending people to your content in large numbers — as opposed to them just coming to your website and discovering it. With a social network like Facebook, the social interactions also send you traffic.
For example, a Facebook user adds an application that includes headlines from a news organization that’s supplying a headline feed. The user’s friends see this when visiting the user’s Facebook profile. The user reads an interesting article and highlights it — perhaps in a Facebook group. This shows up in the “newsfeed” that Facebook users see which alerts them to activities by their friends, and within groups that they belong to. That is, if you add an article pointer to a group, your friends will all see this in their newsfeeds.
This is not trivial. You’re talking about this news going out to maybe a few dozen or a few hundred of the one user’s friends (which seems to be typical friend quantity of Facebook users). That’s powerful because if a friend is recommending something (like a news article), you’re more likely to check it out than if you discovered it in the more normal, non-personal ways.
The way Facebook works, these recommendations have the potential to expand outward exponentially. A piece of content that’s particularly good or unusual has the potential to spread virally through friend networks just within Facebook.
That remedial Facebook explanation leads up to Stutzman’s recommendation that news organizations should consider the obvious Facebook application: the headline news feed.
When news organizations initially started thinking about how to leverage Facebook by creating applications for it, everyone first thought about headline feeds. Trouble was, Facebook was restricted to college students. Would that demographic really find something as mundane as news headlines worthy of inclusion in their precious Facebook profiles?
Stutzman, who’s 29 and much closer to the college crowd that I am, insists that headline applications for Facebook made sense even when the Web site was closed to non-collegians. “Young people are interested in news,” they just don’t read it on paper, and they expect it to be delivered to them in online venues that fit their preferences, he says. “It’s a social experience of news. That’s what’s different.”
That demographic limitation is now history, and with Facebook users now encompassing a wide range (but still primarily skewing young), applications like headline feeds do make sense. With a membership of 42 million, there are plenty of Facebook users who will utilize news feed applications.
An example is the Mail & Guardian’s (South Africa) SA News Headlines application for Facebook. General manager Matthew Buckland explains why he commissioned the application: “Facebook users are diversifying. There are a range of age groups on the site. Some Facebook users use the site purely for leisure, some for business. So our news app would hit the spot for some users, and miss the mark for others.” The app currently has about 2,100 users.
If you’re going to develop a headline feed app for Facebook, do some serious thinking about the content. Perusing the list of third-party applications that are headline feeds, many of them sport seriously underwhelming user numbers. The ones that seem to do best are sports feeds.
I’d recommend picking fairly narrow — but interesting or unusual or useful — content to become headline feeds. Just as an example of something that might work with the Facebook crowd: If you’ve got a pro football team in your town, develop a headline feed application for that. How about a celebrity headline feed, where the user selects the celebrity to track?
I have a feeling that a generic Top News headline feed isn’t going to do all that well within the Facebook environment.
Get Out of That Box
That’s the obvious point of interaction between Facebook users and a news organization. But please don’t stop there, and please think more creatively — and more socially.
WashingtonPost.com did that, and developed a Facebook app called “The Compass.” Users answer a series of questions to determine their political leanings, which is put on a graphical scale between Liberal and Conservative. (Don’t take this too seriously.) The cool thing about the application is that your friends who also use The Compass can be included on a chart, to show the political bent of all your friends at a glance.
While that’s not the greatest application in the world, it is fun. Most of all, it leverages what Facebook is good at — social connections. And while I’m not so brilliant as to be able to give you a bunch of killer ideas for Facebook apps that benefit your news organization off the top of my head, I can urge you to keep the social aspect in mind and figure out how your application can leverage that.
The headline feeds I discussed earlier don’t typically play off Facebook’s social character; they merely pump news into a new online venue. While that can be useful, to truly leverage Facebook, think about developing applications that go further to utilize the site’s core social networking features.
The New York Times’ News Quiz Facebook app is an example of this. Frankly, I don’t find it to be that compelling of an application, but what it does that’s good is allow you to compare your performance in taking a daily news quiz with how your friends do taking the same quiz.
The main point here is: Remember what Facebook is about when developing applications for it. It’s a social utility. Think one-to-one social interaction as you develop Facebook apps.
Have fun — But Not Too Much?
If you look through the list of applications that various companies have developed for Facebook, you’ll see many trivial ones — a lot of fluff. Among the most popular third-party apps are those that allow you to “super-poke” your friends, draw graffiti on friends’ profiles, compare yourself to friends or celebrities, and send “virtual drinks” to friends.
The temptation by newspaper executives may be to try to mimic those Facebook app success stories and create some trivial but fun apps themselves, in an effort to appear to be more “hip.” But Stutzman warns against that.
“News organizations cheapen themselves by trying to appear to be young,” he says. Especially for newspapers, it’s sort of like the 50-year-old showing up at a party of 20-year-olds and trying to blend in by acting younger than his age. It’s not going to work.
I think he’s got a point, but don’t let that limit your creativity. Stay true to your corporate mission, but also expand the limits of what your organization will try. Don’t try to act like your organization is run by college students (unless you’re creating a newly branded spin-off that really is run by 20-somethings), but do experiment with providing new features that may capture the interest of the younger crowd. It’s a balancing act.
The Compass actually is a good example of that; since the Washington Post is at its core about strong political coverage, a “frivolous” social tool that compares people’s political views fits with the spirit of the company, yet expands on what’s typical of the Post’s online offerings.
There’s much more to Facebook
In this column I’ve focused on creating third-party applications for Facebook in order to leverage its massive membership for your own benefit. But there’s much more to Facebook and the news industry.
Reporters and editors are starting to figure out how to use it as a reporting tool, to find sources, and to utilize it as a “crowd sourcing” tool.
This could be the topic of a follow-up column to this one, but I’ll refrain from that since Pat Walters recently wrote an excellent exploration of this for Poynter Online. If you have been convinced that Facebook has some value to the news industry, also read his article, “Facebook: What’s In It For Journalists?” for more ideas on leveraging it.
Views From the Newsroom
Let me leave you with a few thoughts about Facebook from news professionals. As part of the reporting for this column, I posted a brief online survey about news organizations and Facebook, and invited some news folks to participate. What I saw was curiosity about it from most respondents, but they hadn’t developed solid strategies yet.
Below are a few comments from news pros who have formed an opinion about whether or not to devote some resources to Facebook applications:
Jacob Kaplan-Moss — Lead Developer, Lawrence Journal-World:
“In a nutshell, our attitude towards Facebook is ‘this too shall pass.’ We see no reason to buy into Facebook’s walled-garden approach; our time is better spent serving OUR audience instead of trying to feed on Facebook’s detritus like a Ramora.”
Robert Niles – Editor, Online Journalism Review
“It’s a great way to market at very low cost. Why not put a Facebook-using staffer in charge of this, providing them a leadership opportunity and exposing yourself to a growing, young audience at minimal cost?”
Karen R. Ryder – Marketing Manager, Cape Cod Media Group
“We need to make sure that the social space is relevant to our news organization — or make certain that we are relevant to it. … I believe it’s vital to develop strategies to leverage the power of the social networking space, if the news industry wants a future. This audience no longer or seldom goes to the print medium for their news and information. I believe that Facebook’s initial value is as a marketing tool to connect to the online audience and make it smart for them to come to us for reliable, local information. Whether it’s in the form of widgets that they can load and share, or just being part of that space so we can understand it enough to be able to connect with them and let them know that we’re not necessarily just their father’s news anymore.”
Kathy Schwartz – Director of Marketing Operations, Pocono Mountains Media Group
“We use radio and television to try and get new print subscribers. We should use online to try and get new audience to our websites. This is a no-brainer. I just wish I had resources to develop applications to use on Facebook.”