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Summary:

After a year-long experiment that saw its Facebook “social reading” app gain more than six million monthly users — and then lose more than half of those after the network changed the way those apps work — the Guardian has decided to take back control of its content.

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.

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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.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Faramarz Hashemi and Jeremy Mates

  1. Sorry for my poor English but I’ve always tought that a true journal should be a independant one using to the extremes the freedom of the press and the right of speech without any constaints…

    For all the traditional medias to converge on facebook, twitter and others have always appear to me a mistake, a big error motivated by financial possibilities that never truely existed if not for that fact that they could publish that they had so many millions readers and or listeners gaining more points in this planetary and somewhat savage war of the medias,,,

    True journalism should adress first a foremost the little people not to confort the financial elite of our American society… A true Journal should be more close to people and never forget that behind the closed doors of fortunated sons and daughters, human life is a reality that you dont learn with money and get trought by submitting to others…

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      1. Why “no” — how does that link contradict Peter VonLieb’s comment? They just show different facets of the idea that the Web should focus on serving the broad community of users over a handful of rich moguls/companies, as far as I can tell.

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  2. Social reading apps seemed like a good idea until your entire newsfeed became “X just read article Y” and similar noise. It was so bad I’m not surprised Facebook toned it down, but that doesn’t help companies like the Guardian who invested heavily in the platform, and it doesn’t help me discover the quality journalism of the Guardian.

    Still, I’ll take a more boring newsfeed over the cacophony that it had become.

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  3. I’m with the Grauniad on this one. Good for them for trying app early but also good for reviewing metrics and withdrawing it when it was no longer useful. Twitter stream allows you to see all your friends’ updates. Facebook does not. This significantly lowers its utility for brands by comparison.

    The Guardian innovates and I pay money to get its iPhone app each 6 months. Well worth it. If they enabled commenting inside the app it’d be near-perfect

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  4. Hi Matthew, As usual great analysis and insights from you.
    A question for you, if you know the answer: What were the revenue sharing agreements like between facebook and the reader apps? From the outside it looks like all the facebook users who used the reader apps read content within the facebook app and never really clicked through to the content provider. The only way a content provider really makes money is ads based on the content on their own site. They don’t have any control over ads that get associated with their content within the reader app. And if they aren’t getting a revenue share from facebook what is really to be gained out of the relationship for them, other than maybe branding?

    Facebook on the other hand gets more eyeballs and time spent on the site for all its users without the overheads of creating original content and the other associated costs that come with it..
    Thoughts?

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    1. Hi bhanuk, I designed the Guardian Facebook app. It was served in an iFrame in a Canvas app. All the advertising on the Guardian bit earned revenue for the Guardian. It launched with a sponsor in the UK for three months taking up all the ad inventory within the app. Facebook also served ads alongside the pages.

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  5. Reblogged this on why not have one?.

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  6. “Frictionless sharing” was a total misnomer.

    What would happen was: I’d see someone had shared a story, click the link, find it went to some dumb app, curse, copy the story text into google search, click one of the results, copy the story URL back into Facebook with a comment such as, “here’s a link that actually works”, and finally read the story. So much harder than just clicking a link and reading!

    Fortunately most people seems to have stopped using these apps. Hope defections such as that by the Guardian kill the system.

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  7. Henrique Alves Friday, December 14, 2012

    Besides the numbers cited above I can’t see why the user would read such content inside of Facebook or whatever is the platform.

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  8. Social media is a tool not a fix. Too much mis-placed hype gt people to think that Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus can solve the problem. In traditional media the problem lies in the business model, metrics and assumptions. These are only made worse when a new shiny tool is overlaid and causes more confusion.

    On the other hand, it is actually a good thing that they tested, were not afraid to do something probably not normal for them and to take the learnings.

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  9. Finally! I know myself and others (there have been plenty of memes about it) have gotten tired of copy and pasting the headline from Facebook into Google to get to the article – the app was so annoying.

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  10. Scott Ferguson Friday, December 14, 2012

    Good, the app thing always annoyed me.

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  11. Behavior and culture — not an app — drives people to take actions.

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  12. You know, when you say the Guardian was “opening up” by funnelling its stories into Facebook, it’s actually the opposite of what you mean. Facebook is the ultimate walled garden. It’s links only reference within itself, there are no unique HTML or anchors you can link to from the *open* web. Going into Facebook is the opposite of opening up… it’s closing down and closing out and basically handing over your keys to Zuckerberg. Pulling away from that is the real opening up.

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  13. Kudos to the Guardian!

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