A little over a year ago, a big topic of discussion in the newspaper business — apart from the ongoing cataclysmic decline in print advertising revenue, of course — was how to leverage Facebook as a platform for content, and specifically the rise of what were called “social reading” apps, which were like mini-newspapers housed within a Facebook page. The Washington Post and The Guardian were among those who launched these applications, and for a time they drove a substantial amount of traffic, until Facebook changed the way they worked. Now the Guardian has said it is effectively shutting down its app and will be pushing readers from the social network to its website instead, so that it can retain more control over what happens to its content.
The Guardian‘s app now has a large banner ad that says “The Guardian app is changing” and links to a blog post on the newspaper’s website by product manager Anthony Sullivan. In that post, Sullivan notes that the paper launched the social-reading app in November of last year as an experiment in how to use social platforms like Facebook to increase the readership of the Guardian’s content and allow people to share it more easily. Those goals have been achieved, he said, with millions of people — more than six million a month, at the peak usage of the app — engaging with the paper’s stories, many of them outside the Guardian‘s typical demographic:
“The Facebook app has given us access to a hard to reach audience and has helped us learn much more about our new and existing readership which, as a digital first organisation, is crucial [but] we have decided to switch our focus to creating more social participation for our users on our own core properties.”
With a Facebook app, only Facebook is in control
Although Sullivan’s post doesn’t go into specifics about why the paper decided to make this shift, there have been a couple of major changes in the way that Facebook handles social-reading apps over the past year, and they almost certainly played a role in changing the Guardian‘s mind about the benefits of allowing the giant social network to have so much control over its content. The biggest change was to alter how frequently links to stories from the Guardian and other social-reading apps showed up in the Facebook stream of real-time updates from users, which are all based on what the network calls “frictionless sharing” from apps.
When the Guardian social reader first launched, the impact was dramatic: millions of users installed the app within a matter of weeks (a total of 12 million have installed it so far, according to the Guardian post) and by April of this year, 6 million unique visitors were reading content within the app every month. According to former Guardian developer Martin Belam, Facebook referrers at one point even eclipsed traffic coming from Google. After the changes in May, however, the number of readers dropped just as dramatically — falling from about 600,000 average users a day to below the 200,000 level. Facebook now reports the app as having 2.5 million monthly users.
While that’s still a large number, it seems clear that the Guardian has decided the benefits of controlling the way that readers come into contact with its content — and how they interact with it once they have done so — outweigh the benefits of the social reader app. In particular, the paper no longer has to worry about whether Facebook is going to hide more of its links from users because they are not “liking” or sharing them enough. Says Sullivan:
“In the future, for example, users on our site may be able to ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ with comment pieces, take part in polls or express their view on the likelihood of a football rumour coming true. The key thing is that the user will be in control and if they’re not interested in sharing it will not impact on their experience of accessing our content on guardian.co.uk.”
Platforms are a double-edged sword
When the Guardian and the Washington Post first launched their social-reading apps, there was some criticism from industry watchers — including me — about the move, because it seemed to be relinquishing too much control over their content to Facebook, an approach that I and others compared to the old days of America Online and its walled-garden approach to content. The response from WaPo CEO Don Graham was that it was necessary for newspapers to “go where the readers are,” and he definitely had a point: newspapers have also been criticized for trying to own too much of the experience around their content, and not being open enough to other platforms.
The Guardian has been at the forefront of opening up its content in a variety of ways, as part of its mandate towards “digital first” and “open journalism,” including the use of an open API that effectively turned the newspaper into a content platform. In a sense, the Facebook app seemed like an extension of this approach, one that sees the benefit of allowing content to live in different places. But any such effort comes as a tradeoff, since the platform that is hosting the content — in this case, Facebook — arguably gets the lion’s share of the benefits, and the content provider becomes a secondary player.
Facebook’s behavior continually reinforces the fact that it is in the driver’s seat when it comes to how the content is seen (or not seen), and under what conditions users can interact with it. The Guardian‘s latest move means that it can still get most of the positive impact from a relationship with Facebook — since it allows users to login to its site with their Facebook ID and can use that to customize content or make it easily shareable — without giving up as much control. Whether that makes the process more lucrative for the paper as well remains to be seen.