Where Social Reader Apps Went Wrong

Last week, one of the publishing experiments of the social age came to a grinding halt. Both the Washington Post and The Guardian pulled their social readers, the in-Facebook news apps that shared what stories people are reading.

Instead of laying down chips on Facebook’s walled-garden roulette table, The Washington Post is now pushing people to a standalone site, SocialReader.com, while The Guardian is driving traffic to its own site just 10 short months after it crowed that 6 million people downloaded the reader.

This is an ignominious, quiet end for what was once thought of as an important step toward adapting news to the social age. Mark Zuckerberg preached for years that entire industries should look to the example of Zynga as a roadmap for socializing its businesses. Uh, he’s not talking about the Zynga option so much these days. Here’s where social readers went horribly awry.

User Experience:
When you’re in Facebook, you want your news feed to be seamless and unobtrusive. With social readers, that wasn’t the case, as you were bombarded by stories at the top of your news feed. Inside the apps themselves, stories weren’t the easiest to find.

“The whole situation was clunky for a first-time user,” said Ron Schott, senior strategist at social media agency Spring Creek Group.

Martin Belam, who was part of the team that built The Guardian’s social reader, also points to the lackluster user experience as a major hurdle. “The user experience of signing up to the app was always problematic,” he wrote in a recent post about the successes and failures of the app.

Frictionless Sharing:
Beyond the clunky interface, let’s remember that social readers were spammy. Facebook users weren’t given the option to ignore the notice when a friend read something in one of them. It felt a bit like we were being marketed to, which would be fine if we had the ability to opt out and not see all the stories our friends were reading. There’s a fine line between spam and viral marketing, and social readers, willingly or not, crossed it.

Percolate’s Noah Brier believes social readers failed because, it turns out, people didn’t like knowing what their friends read all the time. Additionally, people weren’t “curating,” to use the parlance of our times. Schott argued that since you’re automatically sharing what you read, no matter the quality, “you’re not putting your social capital behind those things.”

The result of frictionless is that users are now skeptical of Facebook integrations with in-service apps. Basically, Facebook users don’t know what will happen, who will see it, what information is being exchanged. It goes from being a seemingly worthwhile utility to a spam generator. And no one wants that.

Monetization:
This is pretty simple: publications with social readers weren’t able to sell ads. Sure, they had launch sponsors that carried a box ad inside the reader, but more often than not, it was just a house ad. And any ad that sat outside the reader, in the more valuable Facebook ad well, didn’t go to the publication but instead, yep, to Facebook.

“Businesses stop doing things when it doesn’t make them money,” said Clay McDaniel, managing director of Spring Creek Group, a social media agency. And when it came to social readers, publishers weren’t seeing any dough. Facebook specifically, social media generally, is great for CRM goals and objectives “but is very difficult to use for cold-blooded instant-transaction ROI stuff,” McDaniel said. “(Publishers) are finding it difficult to justify to open the spigot of publishing without a scalable business model.”

None of these problems suggest that the overall thrust of social readers — sharing content via a publisher’s app — will go away. Some issues, like Facebook tinkering with the news feed algorithm, aren’t show-stoppers. It’s simply that the first attempt was misguided.

“The third rail was touched in social reader world,” said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus. “We thought people would tolerate frictionless. We learned friction is OK, and probably makes it better. It was an experiment, an interesting way to exploit social plumbing. At the end of the day, the user experience wins. And it became a negative user experience, and died on the vine.”

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