Facebook Proves Elusive
ABC News, others alter online efforts
By Alex Weprin -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/17/2008 8:00:00 PM
BC News and Facebook have quietly removed the much-ballyhooed U.S. Politics application they partnered on last year to engage users during the presidential election season, and are expected to announce a new, larger project in the coming weeks.
The move marks one of a number of course corrections that some of TV's biggest news organizations are making to their efforts to tap Facebook's powerful user base during the run-up to the political conventions and election.
CNN and MSNBC.com—NBC News' portal—confirmed they, too, are revamping their presence on the social network.
To this point, the news networks have connected with a minuscule percentage of Facebook's more than 83 million users worldwide. However, news executives say that considering the low risk involved in experimenting with the platform and the high potential return of luring youthful masses to their brand, they will continue moving quickly to alter their approaches until they find strategies that resonate.
ABC News and Facebook representatives told B&C that the partnership announced in November 2007 remains intact; however, ABC News pulled the application because, with the primaries done, its usefulness had run its course. Facebook declined to provide statistics about the application's use.
“As designed, the original U.S. Politics application fit best with the type of online discussions and off-air reporting that took place during the presidential primaries,” said an ABC News spokesperson in a statement. “Both organizations, though, continue to offer election-oriented features and plan to do more together.”
The ABC News-Facebook partnership called for Facebook to have its name attached to the primary debates in New Hampshire, and the ABC News brand to inhabit the Facebook equivalent of beachfront real estate for its U.S. Politics application. The application pulled together wide-ranging ABC News political coverage with an interactive component in a single Web location.
But in the last few weeks, it has been phased out. Users were unable to download the ABC News/Facebook application, and if they upgraded to Facebook's new design template, it disappeared altogether.
PROBLEM REACHING MASSES
Although Facebook has more than 83 million users around the world, with almost 30 million of them in the U.S., according to CPM Advisors, as of this writing CNN's official fan page has just over 6,700 “fans,” while MSNBC.com's has fewer than 600. Fox News has had a presence on Facebook going back to 2006, longer than its competitors, and has more than 20,000 fans. CBS News does not have a fan page, but said that a number of its applications, including one featuring presidential likenesses, had been received warmly, though numbers were not immediately available. Fox News declined comment.
Facebook is a ripe target for television news organizations, as the site attracts a young audience (an average age of around 23, according to CPM Advisors), who are in the key 18-34 or 25-54 demos the networks are looking to attract. It is second only to News Corp.-owned social networking site MySpace in total users.
While the fan pages for the news networks are barely making a blip among the tens of millions of users, the low cost of having a presence on the site, and the huge potential audience, make it hard for news network execs to ignore.
“It is a relatively low risk, low investment opportunity,” says Catherine Captain, VP of marketing for MSNBC.com. “Some things hit and some things miss—that is part of the game. Facebook gives you that room for experimentation.”
MSNBC.com relaunched its Facebook fan page earlier this month to coincide with the rebranding of its own site. It also released three applications, including a game, Newsblaster.
Facebook encourages the creation and success of original applications and features on the site, but the company declined to speak about specific applications in which it is not directly involved.
“Facebook is focused on enabling any candidate, user or developer to connect and share information about the election and politics,” Facebook spokesperson Matt Hicks says. “Facebook also enables any user to create Facebook Groups and Events where they can support or oppose candidates, and organize with others around common issues.”
At presstime, searches on Facebook for the terms ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and NBC News each returned a notification of “over 500 results” for groups and pages mostly created by users.
FEEDING WORD OF MOUTH
“How do you capture those 80 million people in a useful constructive way?” Captain says. “You hope that you get a lot of word of mouth; digital word of mouth kind of snowballs on its own.”
Of course, word of mouth can also be helped along. CNN made a media buy on the site, placing an ad that appears to people with “CNN” in their profiles, and MSNBC.com says that it is considering making a similar buy of its own.
“You try and find your most loyal consumers and get them to become advocates for your brand,” says Andy Mitchell, VP of interactive marketing for CNN.
CNN recently relaunched its official fan page on Facebook, and is working on revamping its Facebook application, which delivers headlines from CNN.com, to make it more interesting for users. The network is also creating a fan page for anchor Anderson Cooper, hoping that fans will join to keep up with his latest reports. (To read more about CNN's Facebook plans and the potential pitfalls facing news organizations that dabble in social-networking sites, see BC Beat, p. 8.)
Facebook applications, like widgets that are embedded in user profiles, allow for much greater interactivity. But traction among users hasn't necessarily followed.
CNN's existing application feeds headlines from CNN.com to profiles. At presstime, it had 686 monthly active users. MSNBC.com's three applications have a combined 240 monthly active users. Fox News' lone application, You Decide 2008, which was designed for the presidential primaries, has just 50 monthly active users.
“What we are doing today is very different than we will be doing three months from now and very different from what we will be doing six months from right now,” CNN's Mitchell says. “You do some things that don't work and they evolve, and then there are some things that do work and you can stick with.”
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