Can Facebook’s news app bring something new to the table?
January 31, 2014
Facebook has just released a mobile news application called Paper, and while news apps have typically struggled to catch on with consumers, the social media giant might have the power and sway to take over the mobile news world.
Through the Paper app, consumers can follow their interests and view content from a variety of different publications as well as share their own stories. A number of other companies have taken a stab at the mobile news app, but Facebook just may have what it takes to establish itself as a leader in the space if it can tackle how to curate content for mobile.
“As of their third-quarter earnings call in 2013, Facebook had 1.19 billion monthly active users; no matter how you look at it, that’s an incredibly large user base to introduce a news-focused app to,” said Jay Hawkinson, senior vice president of emerging products at SIM Partners, Evanston, IL.
“But perhaps more important, these users are very active, often logging in multiple times per day — if not staying logged in all day — making Facebook a natural source for news consumption,” he said. “Most users already check Facebook every morning when they wake up and then multiple times throughout the day anyway; feeding the top news stories to these folks at the same time could create a win-win situation for both Facebook and its users.
“Add in Facebook’s potential to leverage user data to better serve applicable content while giving users the ability to 'Like' featured news and Facebook can zero in on the most relevant news stories to serve individuals. That potential alone could be a powerful draw for users.”
Paper is the first product from Facebook Creative Labs. It will be available for the iPhone on Feb. 3 in the United States.
The first thing users see in Paper is their Facebook News Feed, where they can share stories as well as like and comment on things. They can also create posts in the app that will be published on Facebook as well.
“We want to connect people with the content that's most interesting to them,” said Jillian Stefanki, spokeswoman at Facebook, Menlo Park, CA. “That means if you read a lot of news, for example, you should see more news higher up in News Feed.
“We're getting better at showing people the stuff they want to see, and you can discover content that you didn't already know was on Facebook,” she said. “We also want to connect people directly with the people involved in content.
“News reader apps tend to be one directional. Paper, however, is a network that connects people who share interesting content – from news stories to photo essays to recipes – with people interested in those stories.”
In theory, Facebook will be able to leverage its enormous user base and wealth of data to bring personalization to mobile news, but that does not necessarily mean that Paper will automatically be a huge success.
Users can add sections based on themes and interests
While Facebook has a lot of backing going into Paper, there are still a lot of challenges when it comes to creating a mobile news app.
The first issue is how will the app personalize the content for users. Algorithms based on likes and shares may not be enough.
“Facebook will need to crack how news is curated,” said Mark Brennan, head of mobile at Manning Gottlieb OMD, London. “Content that is just sourced algorithmically doesn’t always work, and generating news interests from people’s likes won’t make sense.
“But if they can start gathering data from publishers who push news into Facebook, start mapping out interests that way, but add a level of humanistic journalism that reflects local cultural needs and perspectives,” he said.
Another interesting challenge is that consumers tend to read the news on mobile Web as opposed to in native apps. According to Flurry, news app usage has only grown 31 percent year-over-year.
“People’s news consumption mirrors their browsing behavior online, but more frequently, and at more convenient times,” Mr. Brennan said. “The Mail Online mobile site for example has five times as many monthly users as the app, but their app is one of the biggest in the UK.
“People like getting information from various news sources, so in an age where people are more wary about the volume of apps they allow on their homescreen, unless your loyal to one news source, you’re more likely to browse the Web,” he said.
Another question is whether or not Facebook will apply data from users’ profiles to Paper or whether it will be separate from the social media site.
“Does each user start with a clean slate, or will Facebook rely on existing user engagement data to attempt matching content to user preference right off the bat?” SIM Partners’ Mr. Hawkinson said. “Either route could be problematic to some extent: With a blank slate, users could be overwhelmed by the initial wave of news until they manually narrow it down; using existing user engagement data could return irrelevant news stories as users may engage differently with friends and brand pages than they do with news.”
Users can also access news stories from around the world
On the other hand, Facebook obviously has a lot of advantages going into the mobile news space.
“Facebook’s mega reach, coupled with the amount of time users spend in the Facebook app will lead to many folks getting their ‘snackable’ news from Facebook,” said Rob Hoxie, vice president of business development and partnerships at Atimi, Vancouver, Canada. “Since Facebook users are trained to 'Like,' share or comment on posts, the feed will likely cater to individual preferences and opinions better than most sites.”
The fact that Facebook is starting out by personalizing the news may also give the company the upper hand.
Publishers such as BuzzFeed and Forbes have started to bring some form of personalization or social to their apps, but these features are at the forefront of Paper before it even launches.
“Current news apps tend to still have a broadcast mentality where all the news goes to everyone,” Mr. Hoxie said. “Your preferences are limited. In the more time sensitive mobile setting, users have even less patience for impertinent info than normal.
“Given Facebook users create content, which Facebook search engines have access to, Facebook has the opportunity to more intelligently display news that is more relevant to individuals over time,” he said.
While Facebook certainly has some challenges to consider, if it is able to leverage its current user base and collection of consumer data, it may be able to make Paper the standard news aggregator for mobile consumers.
“The richness of Facebook’s user data is unparalleled in the industry,” said Mike Scotto, director of Resolution Media, Los Angeles. “As a result, Facebook’s ability to serve relevant content – in the form of posts, ads, and now trends – has improved significantly in 2013.
“Therefore, serving news based on one’s connections, location, and overall/recent activity throughout its network would be a natural extension of its services,” he said. “It will allow them to capture additional eyeballs, spending more time on its platform and thus attract incremental advertising dollars.”
Rebecca Borison is editorial assistant on Mobile Marketer, New York
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