Facebook is the alpha dog of social networks, and it’s also becoming a top dog when it comes to referring traffic to news sites. That became clear in February when Hitwise found that Facebook was referring more traffic to news and media sites than Google News. But for a long time, Facebook only had intermittent communication with media companies about how they used the social network.

That all changed last month when Facebook launched its new Facebook + Media page, along with a media partnership team headed by Justin Osofsky that’s on a “listening tour” of media companies. The goal is to hear what tools publishers want developed by Facebook, and build a stronger relationship with them. So far, tools like the omnipresent “Like” button, the activity box listing most “Liked” stories on sites, and Facebook Connect have created a true symbiotic relationship: Publishers get traffic, and Facebook gets high visibility and more members.

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Justin Osofsky

“The nature of our [media] partnerships is mainly as a platform company,” Osofsky told me in a recent phone interview. “The Facebook platform gives media companies and other organizations the ability to build social experiences by bringing in people’s friends, what they care about and want to recommend. Since we launched social plug-ins back in April, more than 350,000 sites have implemented it, and that’s the primary way we work with media companies.”

Facebook also did extensive research and issued best practices for media organizations, including best placement for the Like button, what story types did best on Pages, and how to use Facebook Insights, their version of Google Analytics for Facebook Pages.

But one thing that’s off the table is sharing revenues with media properties from the ads Facebook serves onto their popular fan pages. For instance, CNN’s Facebook Page has more than 1 million fans, but the ads that run on that page only bring in revenues for Facebook. Osofsky says Facebook is happy to drive traffic to publishers but hasn’t considered sharing revenues with them.

The following is an edited transcript of my interview with Osofsky, where he discussed how Facebook worked with the New York Times on a World Cup visualization, and how they are considering a page on what stories have been “Liked” the most Facebook-wide.

Q&A

Tell me how you got involved in doing media partnerships at Facebook.

Justin Osofsky: We recently formed a team at Facebook to focus on media companies. We’re excited to begin a dialogue on how best we can deliver value. Media companies are great at creating content and delivering it to the right people at the right time. We’re excited to think about how those things can have a social dimension. We formed this team a couple months ago, and I’m leading the team.

Why you? What’s your interest in working with the media?

Osofsky: I’ve worked at Facebook for a little over two years in various roles, most recently I led product marketing for Facebook Connect for the Facebook platform and led our platform partnerships. I’m excited about the opportunity to partner with media companies, because there are so many interesting things going on in the industry, and there’s also this desire to share content with friends and recommend it to friends. The opportunity to work with media companies to create innovative experiences was one that was personally exciting to me.

Osofsky explains that partnerships with media companies don’t involve money, but simply Facebook providing tools for them:

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What do you hear from the media companies that they would like to see from Facebook?

Osofsky: Media companies are excited to work with us for a few reasons. First, they want Facebook to drive more referral traffic to their sites. And they’re interested in using our tools, both the social plug-ins and also pages on Facebook to help drive traffic. The average Facebook user has 130 friends, so when a Facebook user shares a piece of content from a media company site, on average 130 people see it. So Facebook can be a meaningful referrer of traffic.

Also, media companies can make the experience on their site more customized and engaging for each user. For instance, they can surface friends’ activity and recommendations on the site itself. A great example of that is CNN. On the home page I can see what articles my friends have recommended and shared with others. There are other examples of that — CNN, ABC News, the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe — they all use the activity panel to show what friends have done.

But I think engagement goes beyond plug-ins. For instance the New York Times recently did a very interesting visualization. They took the public status updates from Facebook users during the World Cup, and created a visualization showing which soccer players were most popular [and mentioned most on Facebook] during specific days during the World Cup.

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Osofsky: I thought that was a good way to show how people are expressing themselves on Facebook, and create an engaging, immersive experience on the New York Times.

Were you able to work with the Times on that project?

Osofsky: Yes, the Times used our search API to create the visualization and our team helped them in the process.

So your team will help in an informal role for people like at the Times?

Osofsky: Yeah, the purpose of our team is to work with all sorts of media companies to create engaging experiences. We work with them to develop innovative new ideas and implement our platform tools.

Is there a tool that publishers have asked for from Facebook that you don’t offer yet?

Osofsky: We’re in an active dialogue, we’re on a listening tour, and asking publishers, ‘What can we do to meet your needs?’ Publishers are constantly giving us feedback on how we can do things better, from improving our Insights product to deliver better stats to them to potential plug-ins we could create. What my team does is bring that back to the product team to meet their needs.

If publishers create a Facebook Page that gets hundreds of thousands or even millions of fans, would it be possible for them to serve their own ads onto that Page or do a revenue split with Facebook for the ads that Facebook serves up?

Osofsky: Within a page, there are monetization opportunities. We don’t work with publishers directly around that, there is no revenue share. We encourage publishers to create popular pages which can then drive traffic back to their sites, where they are obviously good at monetizing them.

But if they create a page that has interactions and engagement, shouldn’t they deserve some of the ad revenues from that page or serve their own ads? I know it’s not something you currently do or offer, but perhaps it’s something publishers might want down the line?

Osofsky: We’re not currently looking into that model. The value to the publishers out of the fans they acquire is to create a meaningful long-term distribution channel. So when I’ve liked a page, the publisher can reach me as frequently as they want to reach me with engaging content, and send that traffic back to their site to monetize it there. That’s the core value that our pages provide.

Osofsky explains why he attended a recent Hacks and Hackers meetup in San Francisco:

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Did the media folks you met feel like they had had problems getting through to people at Facebook in the past?

Osofsky: We do our best to communicate well with developers through our development site and other communication channels. Like any platform, we can always do better. Publishers and media companies appreciate the focus on the media industry and their needs.

I like the way you let people track activity on their sites and you offer plug-ins for publishers to put on their site to rank their own stories that get “Liked” the most, etc. Have you considered doing a page on Facebook that ranked all the stories on all of Facebook that are being shared or “Liked” the most?

Osofsky: That’s actually a question that’s been raised by a number of companies and organizations we’ve talked to. I’m currently providing that feedback to the product team to see where that fits into what we’re trying to accomplish. Generally, the most effective way to communicate to a Facebook audience is for an individual to communicate with their friends, rather than for us to share information that’s occurring across the system as a whole. It’s the most social dimension. If we’re friends and you see something I shared, it’s actually a really cool experience, and that’s been our product to date. But I’m providing feedback to the product team based on conversations we’re having.

I think it is interesting to understand at a network level what’s going on. Part of what we do are these best practices, where we pull out some similarities and commonalities about what works well on Facebook for media organizations. We’re open to hearing ideas like this and then we can figure out how well they integrate into our product direction.

In your research, did you find that there are problems with cluttering up the page with Like buttons? Is there a point where you overwhelm someone with too many of those kinds of buttons on a page?

Osofsky: We didn’t find that there would be too much clutter with a Like button on a page, but we did find that the way people implement a Like button does have a real effect on driving traffic. We found that if you had a Like button with thumbnails of your friend, and if you let people comment when they are Liking something, and show it next to visually appealing content — those things combined can increase the use of the Like button by three to five times. Implementation definitely matters with the Like button.

Publishers often grapple with the question of how often to post to their page on Facebook. Have you found any best practices around posting frequency?

Osofsky: We didn’t look specifically at the frequency of posts. What we looked at was the nature of the content in the post. Was it a question? A headline? A call to action, such as ‘like this article’ or ‘comment below.’ The time of day it was posted. We did see significant differences when it comes to passionate debate or emotional and evocative or interesting breaking sports news like the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup. Those tended to have two to three times more engagement. And status updates with calls to action also had more engagement.

We didn’t look specifically at the frequency issue, but I think that probably depends site to site. There are some forms of content where more frequent updates are something people are interested in. For instance, I follow the Boston Globe’s coverage of sports, and if they sent me the Boston Red Sox score every night just as the game was ending that would be great and useful to know for me. But on the other hand there are things that are lengthy discussions, and at that pace, a high frequency of postings wouldn’t be as effective.

What’s great about our Insights tool is that it gives you the ability to understand how users are interacting with it. You can understand which posts are most engaging, and also if you’re posting too much, users have the ability to hide all posts from a publisher — which is a good leading indicator to how people are reacting to your frequency of posts.

So you can see how many people are hiding your updates?

Osofsky: Yes, you can see a stat [to find out] after making a post if people are hiding future posts from you. On the flip side, you can see the engagement after each post, how many Likes you got or comments, which can be positively reinforcing.

Osofsky talks about future plans for the Facebook + Media page:

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*****

What do you think about the new Facebook + Media page? How has Facebook helped drive traffic to your site? Do you think they should share ad revenues with page publishers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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