Why News Organizations Need a Facebook Strategy

As Facebook ramps up its offerings and takes on both Twitter and Google, you may need a hefty presence there to capture an audience you might not easily reach other ways. The hugely popular and still growing social networking site this week made three big advances, interpreted as steps in its strategy to own as much of the social Web as possible.

  • By acquiring FriendFeed, they obtained not just another million or so users (a pittance compared to Facebook’s 250 million or so), but also a technology that integrates and imports information from dozens of other social networks and applications.
  • In beefing up its real-time search capabilities, Facebook empowered users as never before to find information in corners of Facebook that may previously have been hidden — as well as to more powerfully search the Web without leaving the Facebook platform.
  • And with the invite-only test of Facebook Lite, they appear to be giving users a way to get what they need, quickly, with few bells and whistles, in a clean interface that should work well over lower-speed networks.

Unlike Google, Open Social and the movement toward a completely open and accessible Web, Facebook is more of a closed space. To communicate in Facebook, or see what folks are doing there, you primarily act from within the platform, with some exceptions like Facebook Connect — which allows comments to spread to and from the platform via other sites — or applications that allow postings through applications like Twitter to also run through a users’ stream of information.

The basic idea, though, is that once you’re in Facebook, you’ll stay there — to communicate with people, get information, post photos and videos, play games, maybe even consume music and videos, or shop. With a newly powerful search and other tools, users may not want or need to open a new browser to search in Google or Yahoo or go to a Web site for whatever news and information they seek.

So, if you, as an editor or publisher, want to reach the audience that’s in Facebook (and we’ll use Facebook here as a proxy for any and all places to which you may distribute content), you may have to make sure your content is there, as well.

You can do this via Newsfeeds on your Facebook profile page, automated RSS feeds that pass through, or an open fan page so those who like what you do can view it easily and sign up if they want the info on their feeds.

Those are all fine options for folks who want to spread their content as far and wide as possible. Most journalists are happy to have their work spread to as many eyes and ears as possible. And the more real-time information that goes into and through Facebook, the more likely you’ll attract consumers and fans there.

For publishers, though, there’s a concern: If your business is based on advertising and other goodies you offer users when they come to your site, how can you justify sharing your content on Facebook with no assurance that you’ll get any sizable clickthrough from there to your site itself? True, many sites are seeing more and more referrals from Facebook. But even the highest clickthrough rates are less than 10 percent, so what can you do to generate revenue from that other 90-plus percent viewing your content there, and only there?

Lisa Marino, who heads sales for the burgeoning viral marketing, widget and applications company RockYou, believes there is an answer to “monetizing” users right in Facebook.

Perhaps you can have ads that will appear on your fan page, and add those to a campaign you offer an advertiser, creating more exposure for the advertisers to a new and highly attractive audience. Ads in Facebook get a higher clickthrough rate than on Web sites, Marino says.

Perhaps you can sell them stuff in Facebook that you sell on your site; within the next 6-12 months, Marino says, Facebook is planning an e-commerce application to rival PayPal, allowing users to make purchases without ever leaving a Facebook page.

And, she notes that via a fan page “you have direct access to people, and a relationship in a one-to-one capacity,” meaning that you can learn more about your most avid users,and figure out more ways to interact with, and sell to, them. It’s a powerful mix.

News organizations with fan pages range from The New York Times and CNN, with hundreds of thousands of fans, to smaller operations like a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo blog and southern California’s Daily Breeze, with dozens.

“Facebook today is where Google was seven years ago,” Marino said in an interview this week at the Digiday: Apps conference in New York, where she was a speaker. “People who underestimate where Facebook is taking the user experience and the search functionality will potentially miss the boat of this being a viable channel for users.” She may be right, even though it’s not completely clear yet all the ways to serve and learn about users on Facebook and other quasi-closed platforms, nor how to make money from them.

Facebook could become a Google-like powerhouse, a place where if you don’t have a presence, you are missing a huge chunk of exposure and potential audience. And even if she’s overstating the case, Facebook is worth a shot. Certainly, anyone who isn’t at least looking into the opportunities there is sure to miss them.

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