The conventional wisdom has been that websites, especially media sites, benefit in traffic from having as much free content out there as possible, optimized for organic search. The New York Times was roundly criticized for making members pay for some content as has been the Wall street journal among others. After all, the growth in online profits is most likely to be driven by advertising growth and walling off a portion of your site limits the number of people who will use it.
Still, social media sites, while remaining mostly free of charge, rely on walls to protect the integrity of their users’ personal information. This hasn’t hurt their popularity at all and in fact the biggest sites boast audiences that other online sites are salivating to get their hands on and market to.
Facebook has been one of the fastest growing of the big social media sites but has also had a hard time monetizing it’s millions of captive users. Interestingly, the New York Times has been one of the few advertisers to tout its success on Facebook marketing their election coverage. Just yesterday they also had an article about Facebook’s tool, Facebook Connect, which allows users to use their Facebook login to access partner sites like Digg around the net. This news actually dates back to May so the significance may be in hwat’s not being said: put the two stories together and it looks as if the Times might be considering joining the new partners Facebook is rolling out.
These partners include CNET, which had a great blog post about the pluses and minuses from their perspective. There, as far as I’m concerned, lies the real story. Facebook delivers a truckload of potential new users to a partner site but in exchange they get to keep all the good info about what their users are doing and where they go to online – valuable stuff from a marketing perspective. The partner gets a boost in traffic which allows them to charge more in ad dollars.
The New York Times is the ideal kind of site for this as they have given up charging but still have a wall around some functioning on their site, especially social media. How many sites will look at this and decide that they too would like to trade somewhat less accessibility for more traffic and potentially more revenue? If the trade-off to having a walled in section is the ability to leverage it as a an attractor for Facebook users that’s a tread-off many sites may say yes to.
The other side of this is the quest for warm bodies to stay on your site or platform for longer periods of time, which can also increase ad revenue. Google has been approaching this with their SearchWiki platform and Facebook’s Connect is a similar set of baby steps towards a social media enhanced web navigation platform. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Facebook’s recent redesign has a handy bottom frame that could be ported over from site to site, giving the user access to Facebook tools while they surf. Connect is a small part of the bigger picture. Similarly Google allowing users to customize search results is a small step to the larger possibility of social media enhanced search allowing users to see comments and popularity on results, presumably as an option rather than default.