The Guardian’s Facebook app now has nearly 4 million monthly users. Martin Belam, information architect at the Guardian, explains the story behind a groundbreaking app
Facebook’s campus at Menlo Park, California,is about as far away as you can imagine from working in a traditional newsroom. The walls are splashed with colourful graffiti, you can borrow skateboards to travel between blocks, and there is as much free candy as you want. It may not feel like a newsroom, but developers in the building work on a system that, for many people, is how they consume the news that is important to them. Keeping in touch with friends, photos of holidays and nights out, and links to interesting things on the rest of the internet make up a “news feed” that is more central to many people’s internet experience than any news site.
The numbers involved are staggering. Facebook claims to have 800m users, and 300m of them are using the site on mobile devices. As Ken Doctor put it in “The Newsonomics of f8”: “In the US, Facebook claims as much as seven hours of average monthly usage; globally, that number is four hours plus… The comparative average monthly usage of news sites runs from five to 20 minutes per month.”
The challenge for news organisations has been how to tap into this audience. In September 2011 The Guardian was one of the launch partners for Facebook’s new “frictionless sharing” feature. Using the Open Graph, apps and websites are able to now tell Facebook about the actions users are performing without them having to manually share content – provided, that is, the user has authorised them to do so.
The Guardian’s Facebook app is an opt-in alternative way to read our content. When a user clicks on a link to The Guardian in Facebook, we offer them the chance to try the app. This is in much the same way as when we detect the user has come from a mobile device and we redirect them to our mobile site. If the user declines the app, we take them through to Guardian.co.uk as normal. If they say yes, they read the article in the app environment, and that action is shared with their friends.
It has brought a very young audience into contact with The Guardian brand. Over half of app usage is by people between 13 and 25, an age group notoriously difficult for newspaper organisations to reach. It has been installed by over 7m people. For the launch of the app The Guardian had a sponsor in place, bringing in additional revenue. The increased distribution of The Guardian’s headlines has also driven an increase in the overall level of traffic referred to our main desktop site and mobile services from Facebook.
The app has not been without its critics. Some people find the idea of broadcasting what you read to be “spooky”, while others do not like feeling they have been forced to opt-in to an increasing number of apps on Facebook as more partners come on board. Another perceived problem is that sometimes older stories begin to get shared, and in the Facebook news feed they lack the context to convey to users that this is an old story.
We don’t specifically edit it or choose which articles appear in The Guardian Facebook app. It is entirely driven by user actions. Any article, video, photo gallery, podcast or audio clip published on The Guardian site since 1999 can potentially appear in the app. On the app homepage and in the sidebar of articles we list the most popular articles and videos on Facebook out of the last 48 hours. This keeps the list fresh, and usually showcases a different selection of content from the editorially curated front page of our main site. We have had viral success with funny football videos, quirky science stories, and a whole slew of articles about students and college life. Serious articles have also garnered a large audience too – content about 9/11, euthanasia, contemporary slavery and the fashion industry’s attitude to the female body has been read and viewed hundreds of thousands of times in the app, sparking new conversations in Facebook comments.
As well as “frictionless sharing”, other developments from Facebook, such as the ability to subscribe to journalists or to interest lists make it an increasingly important distribution channel for news organisations, and one that aspiring journalists need to keep careful tabs on.
Martin Belam is lead user experience and information architect at Guardian News & Media. As well as working in the Facebook app, he has worked on the Guardian website and its iPhone and iPad apps.
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