by Ben Elowitz

This article was published as a guest post in AdAge, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

My friends in the expensive business of premium content have an economic bone to pick with a certain social network. The story goes that Facebook gets mundane content from its users for free, and then uses that content to draw its audience of more than a billion people, most of them spending hours on end at the site. And somehow, without spending a dime on content, Facebook rakes in the advertising dollars.

It’s not right, is it? The world’s most creative professionals painstakingly toil to create outstanding – and undeniably expensive – content, all while banal photo snapshots of breakfast make billions for Facebook. Oh, the humanity!

But there’s an insidious catch to the myth that Facebook doesn’t need professionally-produced content. The truth is that Facebook not only benefits from third-party content – the network actually wouldn’t survive without it.

Of course, that’s not a message shouted to us out loud from the tops of the Mountain View campus. In solidarity with Google and Twitter (and more recently Yahoo), Facebook claims that they are not a media company. And the way Facebook slammed the door on the Social Reader last year, leaving previously boosted publishers in a sudden traffic free-fall, you’d have to agree that media is not their top priority. It’s easy to understand why: staring down the barrel of the IPO, Facebook was smart to refocus efforts on advertising on their own site and away from non-revenue-generating avenues like publisher partnerships.

In the long run, however, the Facebook equation will be highly dependent on premium content. As the novelty of status updates wears off and a generation of consumers is born immune to its charms, the utility of Facebook will need to increase. Baby pictures sure seem to garner lots of Likes, but people come to Facebook seeking connections that go beyond a simple thumbs-up. The only way to build true connection is through conversation. And what spurs conversation? Meaningful, relevant content.

You don’t have to tell this to LinkedIn. They launched their own – proprietary!! – content program last fall: a mix of trending business news and opinion pieces written by top CEOs and other influencers. Then traffic and engagement went through the roof. And when did YouTube hit its stride? There’s no denying that elephants are cool, but it wasn’t the user-generated content that attracted hordes of internet viewers – YouTube really took off when people realized they could post and watch clips from Saturday Night Live and other expensive-to-produce shows.

We share and post things we feel strongly about: opinions, news, our favorite TV shows. Without that kind of conversational kindling built into the Facebook feed, the social network will inevitably start to lose our attention. In fact, according to Rupert Murdoch, it’s already happening.

Even if they haven’t publically acknowledged it yet, Facebook is well aware of the gaping content hole in their long term survival strategy. In fact, according to a source at The Wall Street Journal, Facebook has been quietly working on their own news reader for over a year now.

It’s too early to say whether they’ll execute it well. But if they do it right, Facebook could become the one-stop shop for news and premium content – all that stuff we’re currently crawling the rest of the web for. Even better, instead of barraging us with whatever random sponsored inventory they need to move, Facebook knows enough about us to become an ultimate trusted curator – of personal updates, media content, and even products that are truly interesting to me. And the more it works, the more valuable it makes Facebook as a critical distributor for media companies themselves.

It’s not far-fetched … not at all. In fact, LinkedIn’s recent moves in more professional circles validate the opportunity; and Facebook could provide a service for consumers both comparable and complementary to its competitor.

The bottom line is that Facebook does need content from publishers in order to succeed: content is the currency of conversation among users. Without good, thought-provoking, emotion-inducing content, it’s all just duck faces and sponsored messaging.

After all, we’ve seen that before – it was called MySpace.

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  • http://www.yamanoor.com/ Yamanoor Srihari

    Facebook’s long and slow descent started when Mark and his team decided that they should “hide” shared, free content and promote spurious ads that are not even well targeted.

  • http://www.digitalquarters.net Ben Elowitz

    The best would be if the ads are good enough that users look forward to them… the Super Bowl effect. When ads are content, they’re more valuable all the way around. Will they ever get there?

  • http://www.yamanoor.com/ Yamanoor Srihari

    Yes, I agree. The ads should really be deals, or at a minimum relevant. As a liberal, I was and continued to be chagrined with Facebook promoting Romney or other anti-Obama pages, not for political reasons, but for the fact that the tool is ignominious. Worse still, once upon a time, FB used to ask you whether or not the ad was relevant, now they have pulled the plug on that. What you see is what you get, your own preferences be damned!

  • Joseph Campbell

    Great analysis. I’ve been saying for years that Facebook’s best bet
    would be to convert from social connections hub to full-fledged distribution channel combining the best of TV (Hulu, YouTube), movies (streaming, Netflix), radio (Spotify, Pandora), books (e-readers, Audible), news (publisher news readers)
    and the internet across all your devices. In other words, be the next
    link in the chain of mass media evolution…printing press –> books –> magazines/newspapers –> radio –> big screen –> small screen –> internet –> Facebook.

  • http://www.digitalquarters.net Ben Elowitz

    It feels like they are moving in that direction, though with surprising fits and starts. Twitter, on the other hand, seems to be even more determined to do that. That’s how Twitter may leapfrog Facebook for mass use, if they do it well and become the must-have “first destination” for media for consumers.

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