The rise and #fail of the Guardian Facebook app
This week the Guardian has announced they are changing the way that they integrate with Facebook, by closing the app that I helped design and launch. It is the perfect moment to reflect on what did and didn’t work, and why the app was designed as it was.
When I was in Frankfurt for the World Publishing Expo a few weeks back, I had the slightly surreal experience of watching someone from the Guardian I’d never met, pick up an award for something I’d designed. The Guardian Facebook app was being recognised for innovation within social media, a few months after I’d left the newspaper, where I used to be Head of User Experience. Fast-forward a few weeks, and the Guardian has announced that they are closing the app down in favour of tighter Facebook integration with their main site.
And there won’t be many people in the wider media commentariat lamenting the app’s demise.
The app was launched in September 2011 as one of several using Facebook’s new “frictionless share” feature. After a user authorised a publisher to do so, websites and apps could post directly to a their timeline without them having to explicitly share an item.
As can often be the case with many Facebook changes, the feature was greeted with suspicion and a lot of criticism.
And I’ve had some bad reviews in my time, but a tweeted death threat to “the children of whoever designed it” was a new low. I use a different tweet in presentations to illustrate the negative reactions, for the brilliant combination of lots of swearing AND caps lock:
“WHY THE FUCK IS THERE A GUARDIAN APP ON FACEBOOK WHEN THEY HAVE THEIR OWN FUCKING WEBSITE” — @Playwert
When the Guardian and Facebook partnered on the project, we didn’t know the names of the other news organisations who had joined in too, let alone what they were designing. There was no prior art, and no way of knowing in advance whether our approach was different from everybody else’s.
In fact the Guardian had taken a different approach to other publishers — intercepting referrals to the Guardian from Facebook, and directing users to versions of Guardian content that lived on a canvas app within Facebook.
Why would you do that?
In my view every design should be testing a hypothesis, and the hypothesis for displaying Guardian content within Facebook was that 77% of people who visited guardian.co.uk from facebook.com immediately bounced away. We figured that this bounce rate might be reduced by:
1: Keeping people in the Facebook environment, so they were still signed in to chat and still able to see messages and status updates arrive from their friends in the ticker that Facebook were introducing at the same time.
2: Instead of showing them links to content related directly to the story, or to the area of the website which had published it, we would show them links to content that was popular with people like them on Facebook at that moment in time.
We wanted to shift that 77% metric and get more people clicking on a second story.
My original design sketches imagined that you would be shown a selection of very popular stories that a few of your friends had already read, and some less popular stories that your friends had shown a disproportionate amount of interest in. In the end, the database operations to do this seemed like too much heavy lifting, and blunt popularity ruled the day.
Conversion rate was fairly low for signing up to the app, but I think a lot of people who criticised the implementation were missing a rather significant point. You didn’t actually want too high a conversion rate. Crucially anyone clicking “Cancel” ended up on the Guardian website, and reached the article anyway.
Think of it this way.
One person frictionlessly sharing one article might share it to their (on average) 150 Facebook friends. If 15 of those friends clicked on the link, 13 might end up reading the article on the Guardian website because they didn’t want the app, and two might install the app.
Those two installations would then automatically share the article to a combined (on average) 300 friends. 30 of those might click on the story, with 26 ending up on the Guardian site, and four installing the app.
Those four people would then share it to a combined total of (on average) 600 friends. And so on. Potentially exponential traffic growth. The graphs were sensational. The app was an engine of viral distribution, not a destination in itself.
There seemed a consensus amongst media commenters that the Guardian had ceded too much control to Facebook. Certainly the volume of traffic and the distribution of content within Facebook was down to the algorithms concocted in Menlo Park, but it was in Kings Place that the master switch on re-directing traffic to Facebook resided.
The Guardian could have switched off the app at a moment’s notice. The pages were delivered via a system residing on Google App Engine, and all of the ad revenue within the canvas iFrame was the Guardian’s to keep.
I used to have a poster next to my desk of a tweet which had asked:
“I wonder how much referral traffic the Guardian has lost from Facebook since implementing their social reader”
Nobody outside the Guardian seemed — or still seems — to understand how the Facebook sharing was still driving lots of referrals from facebook.com to the main site, and lots of search traffic began to be related to stories that people had only been exposed to because of a “frictionless share”.
The app was designed to be a leaky bucket, and most of the traffic still ended up on the Guardian website.
It isn’t all about the end product
If you can only look at what appears front-of-house, you don’t get to see the other ways a project or product might be valuable for a company.
A very small product team worked on the project, demonstrating that at very low cost you could build and deploy something built on top of the Guardian’s API, and deeply integrate it with somebody else’s system, all in the space of a few weeks. The tech team had to learn to work at Facebook’s speed of constantly releasing new code and changing specifications and schemas.
A team of developers and myself went to the US in February to work directly with Facebook along with some other Guardian colleagues, and it was an amazing learning process. Not just the experience of the culture of Facebook itself, but a reminder that four people locked in a room can get a hell of a lot designed, coded and released if none of you are distracted by meetings or working across multiple projects.
It was also that trip that caused me to switch over to designing in the browser with HTML prototypes as my preferred method of working, and the app gave the tech team a chance to get to grips with running the first A/B tests the Guardian did in a relatively low-risk environment. Facebook also taught us a lot about the power of obsessing over data and metrics. My morning commutes turned into one long Facebook Insights and Omniture session, tracing the rise and rise and eventual fall of the app.
Too much sharing
Were there problems with the approach of frictionless sharing?
I think the initial launch in a blaze of glory, with recently read stories pinned to the top of everybody’s Facebook news feed, was clearly overkill to a lot of Facebook users. And the stories weren’t presented in the ideal way for news — a lack of timestamps allowed old news to propagate as if it had just happened, and a lack of thumbnail images blunted the appeal of human interest stories.
Mind you, when Facebook did start adding thumbnails into people’s news feeds, we discovered there was just a little too much human interest in the naked human form — I’m fairly certain that the Egyptian blogger story was the only place you could see full-frontal nudity in the Facebook environment. We also found that images with even a hint of nudity were being marked as “offensive” by Facebook users.
And the user experience of signing up to the app was always problematic. The app sign-up page had to be generic enough to work for every type of app on Facebook, and so my initial ideas of a sign-up flow didn’t ever see the light of day. In the end all the Guardian had to play with was about 140 characters of description to convey to users what would happen if they said “yes” to the app.
No distribution. No value
Am I surprised at the demise of the app?
Not at all — the writing has been on the wall for some time. Or rather, it hasn’t been writing to the user’s Facebook wall.
Getting the kind of content super-distribution that allowed Facebook to briefly oust Google as the main referrer to guardian.co.uk requires lots of people to be exposed to the content, and Facebook has long since stopped notifying users of every single read.
You might see the odd “trending article” or “most shared” component on your news feed, but the recent changes to the EdgeRank algorithm mean brands aren’t even guaranteed to reach all their fans when they post original content on their timeline, let alone reaching people with a “frictionless share”.
The act of posting a “read” into the OpenGraph always seemed the very lowest level of interaction that anyone might be interested in doing on Facebook.
There is a much richer vein of interactions to be tapped, and that was one of the reasons that in February 2012 we added the ability to simply “disagree” or “agree” with the author of a comment piece.
Regrets. I’ve had a few.
Regrets? Yes, of course. But not too many.
I absolutely loved working on the project. As I’ve said in several presentations about the app, being at the sharp end of the relationship between a company that is nearly two hundred years old, and one that isn’t yet ten, was an incredible experience.
At the time of launch the Guardian had around 40m monthly active users, and Facebook 800m active users. That meant there were at least 760m active monthly Facebook users who weren’t getting exposed to the Guardian’s journalism, but who potentially could be. It still seems to me to have been worth trying to reach for that prize.
Prior to launch, the product manager and I went around key senior editorial figures at the Guardian to explain what we had built. Our message to them was that “Either in a month’s time we’ll be issuing press releases about amazing traffic figures. Or we’ll switch it off after two days because the whole thing will be an incredible privacy PR disaster for us and Facebook. At the moment we simply have no idea which.”
That is an unusual position to be in. It is very rare that an established large media organisation will take on such a big risk with a high-profile product launch.
There is an unquantifiable long-term effect on the Guardian. It is one of the top three visited newspaper websites in the world, so the approach of channeling some traffic through Facebook clearly hasn’t greatly impeded growth.
But as I used to say, “I can show you an analytics graph with the numbers of people visiting. I can’t show you an analytics graph of the number of people being annoyed.”
Over recent months, since I left the Guardian, I’ve observed a lot of user testing sessions where people are very nervous about clicking any kind of Facebook sign-in or integration button, expressing concern that they don’t know what it will do, and don’t want everybody to know everything that they are reading.
This must be a worry for Facebook, although it isn’t by any means universal. Only yesterday I observed a session where a woman explained that she was more than happy to share whatever news she was reading. “There is no secret in reading the newspaper. It isn’t porn” she said. But the longer legacy of “frictionless sharing” might not be lots of rows logged in a database somewhere, but an impact on the willingness of users to activate features that involve Facebook.
Evolve or die
Another thing that struck me during the course of working on the app was how little news organisations do to really promote individual items of content. They might link once to a piece in their Facebook or Twitter streams, but the rush and the push to fill the pages and the airwaves daily means that even feature pieces have a limited shelf-life.
Something like the Jonathan Jones piece on a 9/11 photo was viewed around a million times within Facebook over several months. The sharing may have been “frictionless”, but consuming the content still involved a click or two.
When do news organisations ever set themselves the goal of getting the maximum possible number of views for a specific piece of content, and work it day after day?
I began to look at the high page impression numbers you could get for a well-crafted piece of content with massive Facebook distribution, and wonder why you wouldn’t strive to hit those sorts of numbers all the time, producing less features perhaps, but devoting more time to specifically marketing each of them.
In the end though, everybody keeps saying the media has to try different approaches in order to work out the future.
It is a case of evolve or die.
Just as we know that evolution throws up some mis-steps in the natural world, we also know that not trying new approaches will see many media companies go out of business over the next few years.
I’d always much rather be working on projects that try something new, and learn from the trying, even if they ultimately fail.