Publishers Wary of Facebook Editions

Facebook’s new media motto is “Read, Watch, Listen.” So far, there’s not a whole lot of reading or watching going on on Facebook.

Over the summer, during the months leading up to the f8 conference, word broke that Facebook was making overtures to publishers to launch Facebook Editions, a new platform for publishers to exploit the site’s social power better than ever before. Word was that media companies such as CNN, The Huffington Post, Slate and SB Nation were clamoring to build products for the new platform.
Facebook’s pitch was essentially, “Hey, look at what we did for Zynga and the gaming industry. We can do the same thing for your business!” And Web publishers’ collective response has been, “Thanks, but we’ve seen this movie before. And it ends up with, well, whatever exactly AOL has become.”
Top publishers, even those crazy for social media, are taking a pass. CNN hasn’t launched a Facebook Editions app. The Huffington Post, Slate, The New York Times and ESPN aren’t either. It’s hard to find many Facebook reading apps at all, aside from the suddenly ubiquitious Washington Post and News Corp.’s fledgling iPad newspaper, The Daily.
This is curious. Every publisher on the planet wants to be a social publisher. Facebook’s like buttons are all over the Web. But it turns out publishers draw the line when being a social publisher means porting their sites over to another walled garden, as cool and massive and powerful as Facebook is these days.
Think that’s just old-media dinosaur talk? Think again. Take the two fast-growing, deeply social sports properties SB Nation and Bleacher Report. Each considered joining the Editions initiative but passed. Instead, SB Nation features a Facebook Like button on most of its pages.
Meanwhile, Bleacher Report is said to be one of many publishers considering opting instead for the Yahoo News treatment, which Facebook refers to as “integrating with the Open Graph.” Instead of building the equivalent of a Facebook reader, Yahoo News elected to dial up the sharing on its site. Yahoo News readers now automatically alert their Facebook friends when they read stories on the site — without having to do anything. Users have the option to turn this feature on and off.
Or take Demand Media, which comfortably publishes thousands of videos on YouTube’s platform. The company has yet to launch an eHow or Livestrong edition on Facebook. Even Cracked, the company’s humor site, which has a major Facebook following, appears to want to limit how much consumption happens off its site.
Or consider BuzzFeed, as social a publisher as there is. Even they haven’t gone the full-fledged Editions route. Instead the company has launched a “canvas” app, according to president Jon Steinberg, which features a portion of BuzzFeed’s content. “We get so much sharing of BuzzFeed content using the main Facebook News Feed that that’s where our focus is,” said Steinberg. “Facebook continues to be and grow as one of our largest sources of traffic. News Feed seems to be what works best for us.”
To be fair, several major publishers are said to be mulling working with Facebook, including a major news organization. Two U.K.-based newspapers have already integrated their sites with the Open Graph; The Independent and The Guardian. But there has hardly been a flood of interest in dumping all of one’s content onto Facebook. Among the reasons sites might now want to go that route is the danger such a strategy might present to thier own traffic. Not to mention the fact that editors like to maintain control of the look, feel and layout of their content — something a Facebook App may hinder.
“It’s not a consumption engine just yet,” said one publisher of Facebook. “We’ve tried apps before and no one used them.” Another premium publisher said, “We’re looking at them like anything else. But there is nothing imminent.”
And then there’s the Zynga example. The company built an enormous business on Facebook’s back, as everybody’s mom or aunt began playing FarmVille and asking all of their friends for help gathering crops. Zynga exploded. Facebook noticed and suddenly levied a 30 percent tax on the company’s revenue. That’s tolerable when a company is suddenly bringing in $500 million a year. Not so much if you are a Web publisher already under pressure on several fronts.
One might argue that Web publishers, struggling to monetize an abundance of inventory, might want to glom onto Facebook’s ad sales machine, which is seeing every brand under the sun planning a Facebook strategy. Facebook could theoretically help publishers employ more powerful, precise targeting. But so far that argument doesn’t seem to be swaying most top ComScore sites.
We’ve already seen this play out to a degree on the TV/video side of things, where Facebook resistance is strong. When Hulu launched its full-experience Facebook app a few month ago, one of its parents, ABC, elected not to participate. Now, when somebody watches “Modern Family” via the Hulu app, they are sent to ABC.com.
Even as Facebook affords publishers less restrictive options like passive reading alerts, publiishers remain cautious. While Spotify ensures that you know every poor musical choice your friends make, not everyone is sure that the average Web user wants to automatically tell his 300-plus buddies that he’s just read an article about Ashton and Demi’s breakup on People.com (Time Inc. is not actually part of the Facebook Editions initiative. Nor is Conde Nast or Hearst). It’s telling that even as Yahoo News is testing auto-sharing, Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Finance and OMG are not.
Instead, some publishers are opting to give users more control. For example, the newly launched Wall Street Journal social app encourages sharing, just not the passive variety. Similarly, Time Inc.’s Golf app requires users to actively choose to let friends know what they’ve just read.
Overall, it seems that publishers are wary of letting any one Web property have too much control and aren’t convinced 2011 Web-savvy consumers need a central hub to read, watch or listen to their favorite content. Pathfinder anyone?