Facebook is increasingly trying to get into the news business through the back door.
No longer content to hook up friends with other friends, the company is pursuing its own hookups—with television networks that can provide a steady flow of topical information to its massive base of customers.
But analysts say there’s more to these joint ventures. With traditional media struggling to keep an audience and Facebook facing continuing issues with its sagging stock price and the need to retain users, the partnerships might be less a new-media tool and more a means of survival.
Mark Zuckerberg’s company has cut four separate partnerships with media organizations this year. In January, NBC and Facebook held a joint GOP primary debate in New Hampshire. During the primaries, Politico partnered with Facebook to mine user data to analyze voter behavior. Earlier this month, CNN joined Facebook to create an “I’m voting” app and conduct state-by-state research for the fall campaign. Two days later, the social network announced a similar partnership, with NBC Sports, for Olympics coverage.
“Facebook is getting a lot out of it, and it’s giving people something to get out of it by being the go-to source for information,” says Nora Geiss, a digital director at the brand-consultancy firm Interbrand. The partnerships, she says, are also helping Facebook “allay fear after its IPO struggled to show that it is still going to be able to grow to meet investors’ expectations. It shows that they will continue to make partnerships that can bring people back and get more revenue.”
Facebook’s two most recent television alliances offer users various kinds of engagement—by watching the networks’ segments online, reading exclusive content that both CNN and NBC promise to post, or commenting on fan pages and answering surveys.
“The London 2012 Olympics and the U.S. election are events that people around the world will be talking about on Facebook,” Andy Mitchell, strategic partner manager at Facebook, tells The Daily Beast. “It is great to be involved in partnerships where viewers will get a sense of what people are connecting and sharing about on the platform.”
Because of the exponential number of Internet sites available, companies have to constantly develop new content to attract viewers and hold onto the ones they have. And there are signs that Facebook is struggling to retain its fan base: comScore found that the social network’s unique users in the U.S. dropped 4.8 percent in the last six months. That’s why these joint ventures loom particularly large.
The partnerships are how Facebook “guarantees access to a growing pool of content that will keep people coming back again and again,” Geiss says. “It’s a built-in, essential element of the model. The partnerships are, in essence, an interactive distribution hub that is constructed on top of people’s personal networks and individual interests.”
By aligning itself with established names like CNN and NBC, Facebook executives can readily provide their users with informative content without having to do the scut work of gathering it.
“Facebook wants to be more than just a place for people to say what they did in the afternoon or post pictures of their babies. It wants to be a purveyor of news itself,” says Nikki Usher, assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “It’s a way for Facebook to take advantage of the news it doesn’t write.”
Needless to say, the media partners teaming up with Facebook also benefit from the arrangement.
Back in 2009, under a partnership with CNN, more than 21 million viewers watched a live-streaming feed on Facebook of President Obama’s inauguration, which drew more than 2 million comments on the CNN.com Facebook feed. The unprecedented numbers not only proved that streaming news coverage online could be done successfully, but also that outside companies could grab the attention of Facebook users.
“We fundamentally changed the way people consume live-event coverage, setting a record for the most-watched live video event in Internet history,” K.C. Estenson, a CNN senior vice president, said in a statement.
With more than 900 million users, Facebook is an appealing platform for companies, which often are allowed to tailor their products to individuals. Facebook can measure how ads are resonating with users by measuring the clicks—and limit who sees the products based on age group or gender.
“Every brand, regardless of whether or not you are a media company, wants two things: one is access to your audience, and the other is understanding your audience so that whatever you put out there they will engage with it,” Geiss says.
Media outfits like CNN can use the social network to provide news stories on Facebook in the hopes of gaining a new readership, and in turn they can measure the response to the articles or polls both qualitatively and quantitatively. That data can then be turned into new stories.
“Facebook gives you so much data. It gives you where people live, where they are from, and their interests,” Usher says. “It’s very useful to media organizations because they have for the very first time ever a really cheap way of understanding their audiences. Instead of going out and doing massive surveys, they have it right there in front of them.”
But Facebook’s Mitchell cautions that “every partnership is different and every partner is unique. We consider that in everything we do and try to craft partnerships that align with a partner's goals.