How news orgs are reaching millions through Facebook’s new apps

It has been over two months since Facebook announced a new class of social news applications — ones that automatically share links to everything a person reads. Now we are learning more about the readership, strategies and effects of these “open graph” or “frictionless sharing” apps.

Here are the six big lessons so far.

Big names are drawing big audiences. Facebook just released some early statistics: Yahoo News has 10 million open graph users, and its website referrals from Facebook increased 600 percent since launching the app. The Washington Post has 3.5 million “monthly active users” of its Social Reader app. The Guardian has nearly 4 million monthly users, creating almost a million extra pageviews a day. The Independent has more than a million monthly users. The Huffington Post is the latest to launch an open graph app, which they did Tuesday.

News is breaking through to young readers. Shortly after the release of the Social Reader app, Washington Post Co. Chairman Don Graham said it would help solve “the great mystery” of how to reach younger readers. That looks to be right, so far. Facebook reports that 83 percent of Social Reader users are under 35, and more than half the Guardian’s Facebook app users are 24 and under.

Not all news orgs are choosing to live within Facebook’s walls. There are two ways to use the Facebook open graph for news: Through a special app embedded in Facebook.com, or by sharing the stories a person reads on the news organization’s own website.

I urged news organizations to be cautious about giving up sovereignty by embedding their content in Facebook, when they instead can simply have Facebook link to their news sites. I’m encouraged now to see that Yahoo News and The Independent are having success building the open graph sharing into their own websites. Those outlets seem to be doing just as well as the Guardian and the Washington Post, whose apps live in Facebook.

Old news stories are getting new lives. One of the more surprising effects has been lots of sharing of old stories, particularly on the Independent website. Amazing stories can go viral with new audiences years after they were first published.

Facebook is promoting open graph apps heavily in the News Feed. Anyone who uses Facebook regularly probably has noticed the box that says “John Doe and 3 other friends recently read articles,” including links to a handful of stories from open graph apps. The box seems to be there every day for most people. The persistence surely is helping to drive millions of users to try these apps.

Privacy and control remain tricky issues. This new thing called “frictionless sharing” carries some risks. CNet’s Molly Wood says it is ruining sharing. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick says the Facebook-embedded apps are “a violation of the relationship between the Web and its users. Facebook is acting like malware.” I have noted that privacy invasions and news feed noise are real concerns, especially in these early days when users don’t know what they’re doing yet.

News organizations using these apps should ask themselves: What is our goal? What is the benefit? I think the answers are clear for publishers (more links and referrals), and for Facebook (more time on site, more personal data for targeting ads). The benefits for readers, however, are less clear. Is a huge volume of indiscriminate sharing really better for the reader than the more select sharing we had before?

The fair answer is: We simply don’t know yet. In the meantime, even Facebook advises that social news apps should be sure to “keep users in control” and build in extra privacy controls and disclosures.

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