The Story Behind The Guardian’s World-beating Facebook App

The Guardian Reader

In this guest post, Martin Belam, the man behind The Guardian Facebook App, explains the thinking behind the app and where he sees it leading both media companies and brands.

Last September, Facebook promised to forever change the face of sharing on the web, with the launch of new features of the Open Graph allowing apps to automatically share a users actions. Reception, it would be fair to say, was mixed. For publishers it presented an opportunity to vastly increase traffic and reach, whilst for some people it “ruined” sharing. Nine months on, what does the picture look like?

There can be no doubt that Facebook has turned down the dial on automatically shared actions within the news feed. Whereas at one point you couldn’t move for seeing what your friends had read on the Washington Post or The Guardian, now that information is harder to find. At one point the Guardian was reporting that referrals from Facebook had overtaken search referrals from Google. That early rush of traffic seems to have subsided for good, and Facebook have even subsequently tweaked their algorithm to only make automatic reads automatic if the user has dwelled on the page for a minimum of ten seconds.

I was part of the team that built the Guardian’s Facebook app, and enjoyed a roller-coaster ride of graphs peaking and falling and spiking as the app evolved. It was a fantastic example of an old legacy company actually being quite nimble. Facebook adhere to the famous mantra “move fast and break things” which forces you to work along at their pace. At one point a small team of two developers, one QA and myself redesigned and rebuilt virtually the whole app in the space of a couple of days to incorporate some new features and learnings from looking at the metrics. The Guardian’s Open Platform API means it was a quick and lightweight experiment to build.

The motivation was the potential for reaching a new audience. In any given month the Guardian reaches around 60 million unique users, which means there are always about another 800 million users on Facebook who haven’t viewed Guardian content. The app was an opportunity to put that journalism into a space where they could be exposed to it. Particularly heartening for an old media company was the demographic of users attracted into the app – over half of the people who signed up were between 13 and 25, an audience that newspapers find notoriously hard to reach.

I viewed the Guardian’s app as an acquisition channel, not a means to an end in itself. The stories and videos that went super-viral with the Facebook ecosystem tended towards the frivolous – funny football videos were particularly popular. However, when serious news came along, like a recording of a young man being racially abused by the London police, that young demographic was primed and ready to spread that important piece of journalism. On the weekend that story broke, about a third of the plays of the audio recording were on Facebook, not guardian.co.uk.

Working with Facebook definitely changed my mindset about the way in which editorial content needs to be transmitted in a social environment. Traditional publishers are still beholden to a model where you publish web pages, people come along to them and read every word, and then tell their friends how great it was. The Open Graph is something quite different. The act of interacting becomes the means of transmission. I now like to think of content as the water being passed along a chain of people to try and put out a fire. It is important that the person filling the bucket knows that there is water in it, and that the last person in the chain uses the water – but as for everybody else, they have no need to even look into the bucket to see if it actually contains water. The Likes, comments and shares that you can generate on actions triggered by your comment are just as good a means of transmission as if the user had actually read the content – even if they haven’t. One story from 2009 about model Lizzie Miller (image below) generated over 1,000 new comments in the Facebook app, and some of those comments individually attracted over 1,500 Likes.

Too Fat to be a Model?
Too Fat to be a Model?

I think that Facebook and publishers have really only so far tapped a fraction of the potential of Open Graph custom actions. I think it is potentially a brilliant semantic extension of the crude one-size-fits-all Like button. The key is to find the services and actions that truly add value to a user’s timeline, and that they feel they want to automatically share and display to their friends.

Martin is speaking at Facebook Marketing 2012 in London on 18th July. Tickets are available on the event website now. The Facebook Marketing 2012 series will also be in New York and Singapore later in the year.

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