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Oct. 6, 2011, noon

The Newsonomics of f8

Why are publishers playing Facebook’s game? What’s in it for them?

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

Is it declaration of war, or of peace, or is Mark Zuckerberg saying he just really Likes us all very, very much?

“No activity is too big or too small to share,” the 27-year-old proclaimed at the recent f8 announcement. “All your stories, all your life…. This is going to make it easy to share orders of magnitude more things than before.” (f8 sounds, oddly, like FATE, but I think my paranoia is kicking in.)

“Excuse me, have we met?” is one response.

Another response to Facebook’s Ticker, Timeline, and News Feed initiatives is to go dating. Some quite influential publishers are road-testing the new features, while others ponder a light commitment.

In 2011, U.S. dailies’ digital ad take will be about $3 billion and Facebook’s $2 billion.

They should be aware that Facebook is bent on world domination — having targeted businesses now run by Amazon, Apple, Google, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, Flipboard, Pulse, Pandora, Last.fm, and Flickr, as well as legacy news and information providers — in the latest move. (Forget debating Google’s “do no evil” mantra; Google’s sin may have been that it thought too small.) That’s audience, though not business, domination, as Facebook’s EMEA platform partnerships director, Christian Hernandez, told PaidContent. “[f8] is not a commercial decision.” Got it. And Google just wants to help us better organize our info.

Facebook’s f8 signals a next round of digital disruption. Remember Microsoft’s decade-old bid to become the hub of our entertainment lives, as evidenced by its futuristic Consumer Electronics Show displays? Facebook has taken that metaphor — and updated and socialized it.

This unabashed push to remake the digital world in its own image would seem like laughable megalomania coming from many other sources in the world. But it’s not megalomania if others act like you’re not crazy. In fact, our story takes strange turns as this megalomania, so far, seems quite magnanimous to publishers, as Facebook looks to some like the best available date, compared to the other ascendant audience resellers (Apple, Amazon, and Google).

As leading-edge publishers move away from destination-only strategies, they seek to colonize other habitable web environments; Facebook now looks like the friendliest clime, allowing publishers to keep all the revenue from ads they are selling within their Facebook apps. In addition, Facebook is providing aggregated data on user engagement — active users, likes, comments, post views, and post feedback.

Buy-in from such brands as the Washington Post, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Yahoo helps to place Facebook’s push into the “normal” scale of corporate behavior.

Why are news players playing along? What do they think is in it for them?

Let’s look at the newsonomics of f8 and of the new social whirl.

“Rather than incorporate Facebook features into our site, we’ve looked at incorporating our content into Facebook.”

Let’s start with the stark, Willie Sutton reason: You work with Facebook because that’s where the audience is. In the U.S., Facebook claims more as much as seven hours of average monthly usage; globally, that number is four hours plus. It’s where would-be readers hang out.

Worldwide, it claims an audience of 800 million.

If Facebook is the hang-out mall, newspaper and magazine sites are grocery stores. People go there when they need something — to find out what’s new — and then leave. The comparative average monthly usage of news sites runs five to 20 minutes per month.

So exposure to audience is the no-brainer here. The question is: to what end?

Step back from the flurry of news company announcements, or from the behind-the-scenes 2012 strategies-in-the-making, and publishers cite three top goals:

  • Lower-cost development of audience, especially audience that may become core customers.
  • Digital advertising revenue growth.
  • Establishing a robust, growing stream of digital reader revenue.

So how might f8 innovations help those?

Let’s start with brand awareness. It’s a digital din out there, a survival-of-the-feistiest time. Consumers will come to rely on a handful or two of news brands, goes the theory. So best to be high in their consciousness, and Facebook omnipresence in people’s lives offers that possibility.

Adam Freeman, executive director of Commercial for Guardian News and Media, explains Guardian’s digital-first strategy here this way:

Our digital audience has grown to a phenomenal 50m+, but, with the best will in the world, chances are we are never going to outpace and outstrip Facebook’s audience size. So we see an opportunity in that — rather than incorporate Facebook features into our site, we’ve looked at incorporating our content into Facebook. There is an untapped audience within Facebook who may not be regularly encountering Guardian and Observer content, and we think our app increases the the visibility of our content in that space.

Of course that brand consciousness needs to be acted on, which leads us to…

Lower-cost traffic acquisition. Online, publishers have invested in search engine optimization and search engine marketing. SEO makes them more findable in organic search; SEM pays for high-level brand placement. In addition, they’ve done deals with portals over the years; the current Yahoo deals of swapping news stories for links is a major one for many.

Against, though, Facebook is simply social media optimization (“The newsonomics of social media optimization”).

It’s another route to pouring newer customers into the top end of news publishers’ audience funnel, hoping a few tumble out the bottom as paying, regular readers. And any readers can be monetized with advertising.

SMO’s relative economics are better than SEO or SEM. Not only is SMO cheaper than SEM, some publishers say it “performs” better. That performance is best measured by conversions (registrations, more pages read, digital sub buying), while for others the jury is still out. And, at best, audience development multiplies off these new relationships.

“These new Facebook users aren’t necessarily finding the brand in traditional ways, nor do they necessarily hold longstanding brand affinity,” says Jed Williams, analyst at BIA/Kelsey.

Their social graphs, curators/editors, recommendations, etc. are doing the pointing for them. So they do arrive at the very top of the proverbial funnel. And, as they interact with the publisher, with them in turn comes their social network. Potentially, the exponential network effects take off, and new audience continues to breed even more new audience. Original audience targets emerge, and the funnel continually expands. At least in the best case scenario, it does.

Sale of paid products: If you are now selling digital subscriptions, you’re doubly interested in customer acquisition. Now publishers can discover the percentage of new audience they can convert to paying customers, though that’s not an easy proposition to figure out. That percentage will be tiny, but it may be meaningful.

Out of the chute, digital circulation efforts have focused strongly on longstanding customers. Publishers have wanted to keep their print customers paying. They want to reduce print churn by taking away customers’ ability to get the news they get in the paper for free online. They want to change the psychology of long-term readers, giving them a new understanding: You pay for news, in print or digitally.

Facebook looks like it may become a top media-selling marketplace, along with Amazon and Apple.

That’s round one, 2011-2012, of the digital circulation wars. Round two necessitates bringing in new customers, especially younger ones who don’t have print habits and may not have much news brand loyalty.

That’s a key place Facebook fits in. It’s a potential hothouse of new, younger customers.

“It isn’t obvious that we can be successful with premium content on social,” notes Alisa Bowen, general manager of WSJ Digital Network. The Journal, while not participating in the f8 launch, already has a significant trial in place. The same holds true of the spate of other recent WSJ innovations, like WSJ Live and its iPad apps. “WSJ Everywhere,” Bowen says, “tests what we’re doing for people who never come to the website.”

As publishers create more one-off tablet and smartphone products (“The newsonomics of Kindle Singles”), Facebook looks like it may become a top media-selling marketplace, along with Amazon and Apple.

Advertising revenue: Facebook is still so bent on building audience that it is providing publishers their best ad deals. Publishers can sell ads for display within their Facebook apps — and keep all the revenue. No revenue share, thank you. (At least for now.)

Data: “In addition to serving adverts from our own partners in the app, we have highly detailed but anonymized data from Facebook covering demographics and usage,” says Freeman. “We also have our own analytics embedded in the pages on the app, which will help us understand how our content is used and shared within the Facebook Open Graph.”

Learning about social curation. Social filtering will be a standard feature of all news (unless we opt out) by 2015. It’s not hard to see why. It’s old village world-of-mouth, jet-propelled by technology. How social curation will work is a huge question; how can it best co-exist with editorial curation, for instance? That kind of learning is one other benefit f8 partners tell me they hope to gain.

The Facebook dance is a cautious one. News publishers’ experiences with web wunderkinds have not, in general, been great ones. Witness the ongoing battles over revenue share percentages, customer relationships, and customer data access that have characterized the soap-opera-like Apple/publisher public spats. Amazon’s new Kindle tablet re-lights the question of publisher/Amazon rev share and data sharing.

POSTED     Oct. 6, 2011, noon
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