The release of Facebook's Paper app coincides with a quarterly earnings report confirming that most of the network's business now occurs on mobile. It also debuted alongside an algorithmic change designed to make it a more reliable source for real-world news rather than baby and pet pictures, brand posts, paid ads, and sticky content a la Upworthy.
The cause certainly sounds noble — but while Paper could make Facebook even more powerful for publishers and journalists, its value as a PR tool remains unclear.
The organization's attempts to redefine itself as a hub for informative content are understandable given an October 2013 Pew Research Center survey in which 30% of Americans named Facebook as a place where they go to find news. As large as this number is, it represents less than half of the two-thirds of Americans with Facebook accounts. One survey respondent unknowingly explained the challenge Paper aims to address by saying, “I believe Facebook is a good way to get news without actually looking for it.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to change that perception by positioning his company as both a social network and a customizable newswire.
The most important aspect of Paper from a promotional perspective is that it does not feature paid “right column” advertisements, sponsored posts, which will disappear from Facebook entirely in April 2014, or posts from brands. Nor does it include a search function that pulls content results; the search pulls brand pages instead. Most users also report that, like newsfeed, Paper strongly favors content posted by those friends with whom a user interacts most often. In other words, while Facebook will inevitably look for ways to monetize Paper, for now every post viewed on the app is “earned” media unless it's a piece of sponsored content shared by a user's best friends. These factors explain both its potential value to users and journalists and its limitations as a PR tool.
Facebook's hope is that each Paper user will eventually see only the content that truly interests him or her. If said content should feature your clients, then the value is shared — but PR professionals will not play a direct role in making that connection.
A promo video makes clear that Paper's highly responsive “click and drag” interface allows for more nimble browsing than the vertical “scroll and click” newsfeed. Paper doesn't just show readers what they choose to see. It also encourages them to explore both within and beyond their chosen preferences, which may be further customized via a series of self-selected “section.” these suggestions range from “Headlines” to “Equalize”, or “news for women and men creating a level playing field,” and “Cute” for those who still want to see pictures of pets.
In this way, Paper's model more closely resembles that of competitors such as Google Currents, Yahoo's News Digest, and LinkedIn Pulse. The difference — mentioned in every review — is the fact that a team of Facebook “editors” armed with endless streams of data will attempt to create a more satisfying experience by infusing the feed with content from sources that a user does not actively follow on a “you may also like” basis.
Paper's visual interface also assigns each publication a “summary card” that users may scroll by post, issue, and year, and its layout emphasizes the publisher's logo over the individual headline. This is great news for media outlets looking to build that crucial brand loyalty among readers who will see more of what they post. In Geoffrey A. Fowler's Wall Street Journal review, Facebook product manager Michael Reckhow emphasizes a desire to promote “the people behind the stories.”
On the business side, the company's most recent earnings report emphasized its growing mobile ad revenues. On the user side, however, it has begun to move away from its status as a platform for brands to promote themselves with paid and unpaid content. By releasing both the Paper app and the revised algorithm, Facebook has responded to users' complaints about being bombarded with promotions by shunning branded content altogether.
As it exists today, Paper is a potential boon for journalists and publishers, a setback for social media managers whose posts will go unseen, and a nonentity for public relations professionals.
Leslie Campisi is MD of Hotwire PR in the US.