7 Ways to Use Facebook to Merge News with the Social Web

Although many news organizations know they should incorporate Facebook into their social media strategies, so far they’ve had to rely on independent consultants to tell them what works. This week, however, Facebook outlined best practices on how news organizations can connect with the site’s enormous and highly engaged user base.

The findings are the result of a several-month long study by an internal team that examined Facebook usage at major news organizations such as CNN, The New York Times, and Univision.

Because Facebook boasts 500 million active monthly users and an average monthly time-on-site of around seven hours, integrating Facebook into your site could translate into substantial additional traffic. Tools such as Like buttons, Activity Streams and LiveStream can keep users clicking through stories on a site. And the Insights analytics tool provides valuable demographic information.

After implementing various combinations of Facebook tools on their sites, ABC News saw a 190 percent increase in referral traffic, Life magazine’s referrals increased by 130 percent, Scribd’s user registrations went up by 50 percent, and Dailymotion saw as many as 250,000 users engaged with a single video.

Facebook Developer Network engineers Justin Osofsky and Matt Kelly provided an in-depth look at their findings at a Hacks/Hackers meetup this week. Journalists can learn more about the techniques and discuss how to improve upon them at facebook.com/media.

Optimize the Like button

There’s a lot of power in those little Like buttons, both on the Facebook site and off. When a user clicks Like, that gesture is broadcast to all of his friends — on average, 130 people. Depending on how a site implements the button, clicking the like button may add a link to the user’s profile page and make the liked page discoverable in Facebook’s search system.

Anything on the Web is potentially Likable: a news story, an organization, or even a reporter, Osofsky explained.

Crucially, once a user Likes a Facebook Page, the administrator of that Page gains the ability to push new content to that user’s Activity Stream. In essence, that single click is all that’s needed for users to opt-in to future messages — and if they don’t like your content, to opt back out.

Like buttons are easy to make and come in a variety of features and sizes, from tiny rectangles to full-featured iframes that include profile pictures and comment boxes. Facebook has found that “Like” buttons do best when they’re close to content that is both visually engaging and emotionally resonant, such as video.

In addition, full-featured Like buttons tend to do better than smaller ones. Adding faces of other Likers to the button and including Facebook comments increased the clickthrough rate from as low as zero up to 0.2 percent — comparable to the click-through rate of a banner ad.

Because Facebook delivers this content to publishers’ sites through an iframe, only a small amount of code is necessary to implement the “deluxe model” Like buttons.

Tailor content specifically for Facebook users

Content matters on Facebook. Touching, emotional stories earned 2 to 3 times as many Likes as other stories, as did provocative debates. Sports stories tend to perform particularly well, with 1.5 to 2 times more engagement than the average.

With that knowledge, news organizations can identify stories likely to perform well on Facebook and push those stories through social channels such as Facebook Pages and Twitter.

Publishers can even strategize around when they push this content. There’s a spike in Likes at 9 a.m. and 8 p.m., so having fresh content at those times is crucial.

Deploy activity plugins on every page

Increasingly, news site home pages will be customized to users’ tastes and networks. On CNN’s home page, for example, an Activity Feed plugin shows users what their friends have Liked on the site.

Osofsky recommends that publishers set aside real estate on every page on their site for the Activity Feed and Recommendations plugins, which suggest relevant content to users. “Sites that placed the Activity Feed on both the front and content pages received 2-10x more clicks per user than sites with the plugins on the front page alone,” he wrote on the Facebook Developer Blog.

He also advises that sites use Facebook’s LiveStream plugin, a real-time chat box that gathers users in a conversation about live, breaking news. The plugin could be seen as a competitor to live-tweeting and live-blogging tools like CoverItLive.

Create separate pages for major events

For major stories that break over several days, some organizations increased engagement by creating a dedicated Facebook Page for that event. “Stories published from a World Cup-focused Page of one major media company had 5x the engagement rate per user than stories from the company’s main Page,” Osofsky wrote.

Of course, that technique isn’t without some degree of risk. Publishers might worry about fragmenting their audience and losing viewers when an event is over.

For example, after a flurry of wall posts, ESPN’s World Cup Page abruptly stopped posting on July 15. The 636,000 or so fans have continued to post to the wall, but with no response from ESPN, they are likely to lose interest.

Manage your many pages

Depending on the type of item that a user Likes (a person, a show, an article, and so forth), almost every Like button generates a new Page on Facebook. As more people click “Like,” publishers will need to organize and manage an ever-growing volume of Pages — some of which aren’t even visible to most users.

Facebook Engineer Matt Kelly described how Facebook uses what he informally called “Dark Pages” to connect publishers to users. Invisible to everyone but administrators, Dark Pages represent pages on the Web that have been Liked but do not have a publicly visible Page on Facebook — for example, a single news article.

Publishers must place the Open Graph and Facebook tags such as <og:type> and <fb:admins> on each page of their site to identify the content. Then, once a publisher has claimed its page (dark or otherwise), it can publish new content to the Activity Streams of their Likers and examine Insights to learn more about their users’ demographics.

Publishers could wind up with thousands of Pages to monitor. There’s not a perfect method to manage that onslaught of Likable content, Kelly said, but he expected that solutions would emerge from Facebook’s outreach to publishers.

Attendees at the Hacks/Hackers event expressed some dissatisfaction with Facebook’s Insights tool. Although visually similar to real-time traffic reporting tools like Google Analytics, Facebook’s Insights can lag up to four days behind. That may change in the future; Osofsky said the goal is for Insights to lag no more than a day behind.

Turn status updates into infographics with the streamlined API

Just as newspapers invested in printing presses, online news divisions must now invest in software development. Facebook recognized that developing social tools can be confusing and resource-intensive, so the company recently streamlined its API.

“It’s simple and modern,” Kelly said, demonstrating the clean, comprehensible data that developers can access from simple URLs such as http://graph.facebook.com/markzuckerberg.

Facebook’s new API is structured around objects and connections, just like the user experience on the site itself. It can be used to generate innovative visualizations like the New York Times’ visualization of soccer players’ popularity.

In addition, Facebook has developed a more robust search tool, which can be used to find content from public status updates, not just people. Journalists could use the tool to gauge community interest in a story or to find new sources.

Facebook has also streamlined its authorization process, implementing OAUTH 2.0, which offers improved scalability and ease-of-use. For users, authorizing applications is now a single-click process, rather than having to click through one dialogue after another. For publishers, that translates into smoother engagement with users.

Participate in development of Facebook products

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Social networks — particularly Facebook — are quickly becoming a key way to learn about breaking news, a phenomenon that Facebook is only too happy to embrace. The recently released research is just a foundation for what Osofsky hopes will be a long-term collaboration with media partners.

He encouraged anyone involved with news — journalists, editors, software developers — to visit facebook.com/media to learn about Facebook’s engagement with the news industry, to share ideas, and to contribute to the emerging practice of integrating social tools with journalism.

“We have plenty of work to do,” Osofsky said. “And the dialogue is very important.”

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