How The Independent uses Facebook “Likes” to push specialized content to readers

Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent in the United Kingdom, is surging in popularity on Facebook, with more than 13,000 "Likes" since mid-January. In comparison, the publication's primary account has garnered about 39,000 "Likes" in about a year.

What's behind Fisk's recent rise? Two things: lots of news in the Middle East and an effort by The Independent to use the Facebook "Like" button to push specialized content to users.

According to The Independent’s Digital Media Editor Jack Riley, Fisk's popularity shows that consumers' loyalty to publications may be waning, but their desire to find specific types of news is strong, if not growing.

Riley argues that readers do associate types of coverage with brand names. He turns to The Guardian for stories on WikiLeaks, much as he looks to Fisk for Middle East coverage. But he believes it is the individual story or topic, rather than the publication, that is most important to the consumer.

The Independent is not the only publication to use the Facebook "Like" button to create news feeds based on topics and writers. ESPNCricinfo, the music site, and The Huffington Post do something similar. But such targeted use has yet to catch on broadly among media sites.

Facebook calls its tool for integrating news into social media the "Open Graph" protocol. The thinking behind The Independent's use of that tool, which Riley calls "Open Graph news distribution," is that digital readers prefer news to be disaggregated from the publication and to be made available almost as a stand-alone product.

In a recent lecture Riley described it this way: “Imagining your digital audience thinks in terms of publications is a physical media hangover; real units of human affection are not aggregated by staples.”

So clicking the “Like” button on the front of the Independent's website reveals an affinity, but not something the paper can use to serve targeted content.

However, when someone "likes" Manchester United on The Independent's site, that enables the website to send Manchester United or Premier League soccer stories to that person's Facebook wall. The more targeted the content, the more likely the reader is to find it relevant and to share it with friends.

Riley said the Independent experienced a significant growth in Facebook referrals in 2010, before switching to topic-based "Likes" in January. The new program has increased  engagement on Facebook and is pushing more traffic to the website. Besides Fisk, other popular writers include Johann Hari with about 3,800 "Likes" and Mark Steel with about 1,000.

Riley explained how the process works:

  • Similar to a regular "Like," Facebook button code is placed on a page and associated with an author or topic.
  • The “Like” button is connected to a hidden Facebook page, visible only to an administrator. When a user clicks the "Like" button for a writer or a topic on the Independent website, that creates a “Like” for the hidden Facebook page.
  • Using an external service, All in 1 Social, the Independent pulls a custom RSS feed containing related news and publishes it to the hidden page.
  • Facebook users who have liked the page then receive those updates on their own walls.

It is also important to understand some additional magic that occurs after a story is pushed to Facebook. The site uses a mechanism called “EdgeRank” to determine what content will appear on users' news feeds. The calculation considers the type of content, the reader’s engagement with other content from the same creator, and how fresh the content is.

According to Riley, the Facebook ranking rewards content that readers engage with by liking, commenting or sharing it. The higher the engagement, the more news feeds the story will appear in, creating a virtuous cycle. "The better the content, the better the reaction," he said, and the more people will see it.

Riley pointed out that the initial setup of topic-based "Likes" can be a bit time consuming, one reason The Independent only has them for sports teams and writers at the moment. But, once it is running, the process is low-maintenance.

And, Riley said, as opposed to monolithic, publication-wide social media channels, a topic-based approach provides readers with information on subjects that interest them. "We have given them the ability to hone in on what they like," he said, "and they are responding."


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