The Guardian Thrives in Facebook’s Walled Garden

In September, British newspaper The Guardian was one of the first publishers to build an app designed specifically for its content to be consumed (and shared) within Facebook. The upside: The prospect of added visibility to 850 million users. The downside: Publishers need to port their content over to Facebook, where there’s no guarantee users will visit the publisher’s site.

There have been grumbles from some that the “frictionless sharing” of these apps are annoying or even invasive. There are other concerns that such editions will eat into traffic to publishers’ sites. But for now, the Guardian isn’t seeing that.

Nearly 6 million people have signed up and installed the app as of Feb. 3., according to Martin Belam, The Guardian’s lead user experience and information architect. Perhaps most important: over half are under 25. That’s an audience that a 191-year-old newspaper isn’t exactly known for.

Belam subscribes to the “fish where the fish are” theory when it comes to building within the Facebook environs rather than attempting only to lure Facebookers to The Guardian’s site.

“In the U.S. people spend about 25 minutes a month on news sites, and eight hours a month on Facebook,” he said. “As a news organization, why wouldn’t you want to publish where the audience is?”

The case for publishers to build on Facebook is its status as a sprawling social utility. Look at what Facebook distribution has done for Zynga or Spotify. The social gaming and music companies are hedging that with more users on Facebook than anywhere on the Web, that’s where they can build distribution. And it’s worked for them.

Content publishers are in a different situation, if only because they can more easily monetize users on their site than on Facebook. The only ads in the Guardian’s app are in-house ads, sandwiching nine content categories. The outlet only monetizes the ads served within its app. Facebook gets paid on the ads placed around the edges of the page.

The high user numbers for The Guardian point to how quickly Facebook can favor apps. There’s little doubt it is giving more weight to the stories shared by users of apps built by The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo News and others. Chances are you regularly see what your friends are reading via one of these apps. Clicking on the headline for a story will usually take a user to a page asking them to install the app. That feeds even more distribution. Any story read triggers a notification that vies for attention in the news feed. This “frictionless sharing” by the news apps is so prevalent that one writer complained it’s “ruined sharing.”

It also brings up a sensible question: Isn’t The Guardian training users to consume its content on Facebook, where it’s a renter and not an owner? In the words of venture capitalist Fred Wilson, “Don’t be Facebook’s bitch. Be your own bitch.” (Wilson was warning against app developers betting on one platform, but it could also apply to publishers.) Belam, however, said the app truly is a virtuous circle. While it keeps users on Facebook, it’s also ended up feeding traffic back to The Guardian’s website, where it fully monetizes them.

“What we see is that apart from the traffic within the app, we also see additional traffic because stories are being advertised in people’s Facebook feed,” said Belam. “Even if you don’t install the app and opt to always go through to the website, you see your friends’ activity. There has been a net gain in audience and referrers from Facebook to the site.”