By Tim Parsons
I’ve been using Facebook’s Paper for over a month now and I have to admit, I’ve grown to like it. Smartphone users love to swipe, as everyone in mobile UX will tell you, and once you get used to the layout it is indeed happy, immersive swiping. Well done Creative Labs, much better. (Remember Poke? No, nobody does.)
However the advent of Paper was not simply a shift in user experience from a clunky, web-adapted interface to a cool, savvy one. It was a massive shift in platform functionality - a clear sign that Facebook is moving into the realm of organised media curation.
A lot of people already use Facebook as their primary source of news consumption. Speaking as someone who spends more time on the internet than is medically advisable, I have read far more newspaper articles off the back of Facebook shares than actually visiting those site’s homepages. In that sense, content curation seems to be a relatively natural step - a gradual pivot from the social graph to the interest graph.
Nevertheless it’s an ambitious move. Yes, the sections are pleasingly swipey, splitting content into neatly defined interest cards like Sports, Ideas, Planet, etc. but none of these have inspired me particularly thus far editorially speaking, despite covering many topics I would consider my areas of interest.
I suppose that may be because I’m UK based, so it’s not really geared for me yet, (the Sports section is utterly bewildering,) and also because I’m an habitual user of RSS readers (Feedly now, formally Google Reader, RIP) so I’m used to a highly customised system of content aggregation. Even if you don’t customise your content intake so systematically, you probably do on some level, even if that’s just a list of apps or websites you browse on your morning commute.
Paper does not currently offer any customisation as a feature, so the key question is why users would prefer Paper’s editorial to the tried and trusted news sources we follow already? What will drive the level of migration necessary for the platform to triumph over competition in the same way that Facebook did?
Since the TED2014 conference kicked off on Monday, the Ideas section on Paper has featured exclusive material from the event. This struck me as a significant development, as it went some way to explaining the allure of Paper as a media source. If you're a fan of the Ideas section, unique TED content is about as strong a pull to Paper as any I can think of, and one theoretically strong enough to compete with any pre-existing preferences.
If you’re more likely to be found on the sports pages, imagine how this partnership strategy may work in that arena. Say they were to partner with FIFA during the world cup, and users were able to view match highlights exclusively through Paper. The migration of football fans to the platform would be a stampede of epic proportions.
Facebook has already stated categorically that they have no plans to become a media company - fair enough, they don’t need to be. With the resources at their disposal, user growth beyond traditional Facebook functionality could plausibly be driven by these partnerships.
So what does this mean for brands on Paper? At present, no branded space exists within the interest cards. Opportunities are limited to page posts carried through to the Facebook section. Assuming the Newsfeed algorithm works in a similar fashion, brands can currently expect roughly the same exposure that organic reach usually affords them.
Perhaps Paper will introduce promoted posts for brands who want to publish in these areas. The incarnation of this could resemble PR-esque placements within the sections, or something like sponsored posts on sites like Buzzfeed that aim to mimic the style of the platform, the golden ticket being shareability. The interest tabs are a space for publishers and as brands become publishers, this space becomes far more intriguing.
The potential of Paper is enormous, but only if Facebook can turn 1.23 billion users into an active readership. The TED partnership is a significant step towards this, and may pave the way for partnerships with more progressive brands who are already acting as publishers.