"Social Exchange" is a column focused on the evolving roles of social media in online advertising.
Why wasn’t I happier last week when The New York Times (NYT) rolled out Facebook Connect, allowing readers to “connect” through their Facebook accounts? After all, I’m a big believer in the power of social graphs to help publishers drive engagement, attract new readers and build revenue.
With the new Facebook option, NYT readers can see what their "friends" are reading. They can also recommend articles, which are posted to their Facebook profiles. But so far, it’s been a disappointing experience. As much as I want NYT to succeed (full disclosure: I am a former NYT employee), the strategy, at least in its current iteration, is fundamentally flawed.
The underlying problem is that my Facebook “friends” are a pretty diverse – and rather large – group. Once I linked my Facebook account to NYT, for example, I was connected to a woman who is my “friend” because we went to the same high school and saw each other at our 25th reunion. She is an avid reader of NYT and she recommends a lot of articles. The problem is that almost none of the articles she recommends are interesting to me.
What I care about – and what resonates with me – are the interests I share with my true friends and close connections. The bottom line is that, like many people, I have “friended” hundreds of people, many of whom are only casual acquaintances at best. Now people I have nothing in common with are populating my NYT home page. And the only real way for this new initiative to have any real relevance would be for me to “de-friend” a lot of them.
In this case, Facebook appears to benefit from this arrangement to a much greater degree than NYT. NYT is relinquishing a lot of valuable data about their audience. NYT readers are a coveted group which advertisers pay top dollar to reach. Through Facebook Connect, Facebook is getting access to these individuals without having to provide much in return. Facebook also gains significant brand credibility and visibility from having its logo displayed prominently on every NYT page.
In addition to data, NYT is giving up valuable, above-the-fold real estate on what appears to be every page of the site. What value are they truly getting in return? Unless the NYT sees a huge monetization opportunity by leveraging the Facebook data they obtain (examples include name, profile, picture, gender, networks, user ID, list of friends and other detailed data), I don’t see why they would do this.
There is an opportunity, however, for NYT and other organizations to utilize social graphs in a meaningful way. They can curate close connections using Social Targeting, identifying the most important connections within a person’s social graph and using those connections to serve up content most relevant to that reader.
I give NYT credit for embracing new forms of social media. But they – and most other organizations – need to adopt a more evolved and effective strategy. My recommendations would include:
- Utilize Social Targeting to show recommended articles from closest connections, not random “friends”.
- Be cognizant of the valuable real estate they are devoting to these initiatives and thoroughly analyze the costs and benefits.
- Strongly restrict the ability of Facebook (or any other partner) to utilize data that they glean from your audience for commercial use.
As NYT prepares to adopt a subscription model, Social Targeting becomes even more important. Their overall audience will shrink when the wall goes up. The social graph can be a fantastic resource to enhance the user experience as well as the conversation that goes on behind the pay wall.
We are in the early days of the social web, and I love the idea of a social bent to The New York Times. My hope is that its future enhancements will evolve into a more elegant solution that showcases the true power of the social web.