Alongside record earnings figures, one of the big pieces of news to come out of Facebook's recent Q4 earnings call was the launch of Paper, a new publishing app from its creative labs division.
Paper itself is a fairly straightforward news-curation/publishing app, but its launch and recent comments from Mark Zuckerberg about further releases in the near future paint a fascinating picture of Facebook's possible future, one which may be quite different from the ubiquitous social platform we're all so familiar with.
Over the past few months there have been a number of articles pondering the 'Death of Facebook', and while the social giant is still incredibly important in any decent social strategy, there's no denying that apps like WhatsApp, SnapChat and Line are playing an increasingly important part in the social ecosystem.
So far, commentary on this has tended to be a little glib. Facebook isn't 'cool' anymore they say. No one wants to hang out with their parents online.
While there's some accuracy to this, the truth as always is more complicated.
So what's behind this shift by users, and what does Paper tell us about Facebook's plans for the future?
One of the interesting things about these fast-growth apps is that many of them are orientated around single functions.
Send a message.
Take a picture.
Instagram is an obvious example of this. Currently, my iPhone currently allows me all the functionality of Instagram. I can take a picture, add filters, edit, and share the results easily, yet whenever I want to do so I still end up using Instagram.
While I'm probably in a minority, I also use FourSquare to check in to locations, rather than Facebook.
For those of us who manage social channels, having access to everything in one place is a godsend. We all use Tweetdeck or Hootsuite to monitor multiple Twitter accounts, publishing systems like Socialbakers or Buddy Media are popular because they allow us to easily place content on multiple platforms.
Because of this, it's easy to become blinkered in our approach to user behaviour. Marketers are almost always the exception to the rule when it comes to usage.
While privacy (Who doesn't want the ability to post pictures of themselves asleep in a dumpster without parents or employers seeing them?) doubtless plays a large part in the rise of these apps, something that is often overlooked is the need for clearly delineated content.
Content: divide and conquer
Facebook, for all its good points, is a highly random collection of links, posts and emotional triggers.
If I look at my Facebook page I've got weddings, divorces, holidays, work gripes, bad jokes and of course, brand posts trying to compete among the clutter.
The same accusation could of course also be levelled at Twitter, but its speed creates a different user expectation.
Facebook is actually surprisingly good at surfacing relevant content, but it's also one of the few networks that actively 'hides' content from you, and re-jigs the order of posts depending on user actions.
Whereas with Twitter it is possible to scroll through older updates to locate a piece of content you've missed, on Facebook there is always the possibility that it will have vanished from your feed forever, and as Christopher Ratcliff pointed out previously Facebook's search has never been the sharpest tack on the block.
Separate content = engagement
This is where other apps come in.
Each enables the user to create a separate network. While there's some crossover between my Twitter and Instagram friends, my Facebook network is wildly different to any of my other social channels, and frankly I like it that way.
Consider the sheer number of group conversations, private messages and interactions going on at any moment on Facebook.
Facebook isn't just about posting public content; it's also an extremely versatile messaging platform.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg mentioned that several of the company's upcoming apps may not require a Facebook login, meaning that users will regain a sense of control over their updates and messages that is currently missing from Facebook.
Paper also offers users the ability to separate content.
Currently, the Facebook news feed is a hodge-podge of random updates. Brands who complain about not reaching users need to understand that in the current environment, marketing is competing with very personal updates from close friends and family.
However beloved your brand is, it simply cannot compete with that level of interest, and given the impetus to have users 'Like' as many pages as possible, it's increasingly difficult for pages to deliver relevance.
With Paper, users are offered different news sections, meaning that if they want updates about sports they can get them instantly, separate from current affairs, or fashion.
This delineation is one of the driving factors behind other megaplatforms like Reddit, or Pinterest.
Pinterest boards allow users to follow a wide variety of topics, but keep the separate from each other. Similarly, Reddit continues to grow apace.
I know that I can check the frontpage for a variety of sources, but if I really want to talk about SEO or Lord of the Rings, there's a place for that and my discussion will not be interrupted by someone I knew in high school publishing 500 pictures of their new baby.
On balance this seems obvious. Publishers have always sectioned content off and continue to do so. Go to the BBC news site and take a look. World news, Local news, tech news, all separate, making them easier to find and more relevant.
Facebook has always struggled with this, so apps like Paper which appeal to interests with more separation, make more sense.
The future of Facebook
Taking steps to develop a new range of loosely connected apps casts a new light on Facebook's possible future fortunes.
The current hub approach is unwieldy and a continuing rush for Likes has reduced the strength and relevance of many connections.
While Paper is initially launching ad-free, much of the content being tested will come from approved partners (who you can bet will be paying heavily for the privilege), and ads may become part of the experience in the future.
What does this mean for marketers?
This move towards a wider app-based system does raise some obvious questions:
Do we need to be present across all of these apps?
How will we manage content across such a wide network?
The simple answer is that Facebook has already placed an impetus on deep, highly visual content, and Paper will be no different.
While Paper's subject headings (which include tech, pop culture and 'LOL') may lean towards the BuzzFeedy side of content, it appears that Facebook's longer-term strategy is to get back to its roots and focus on limited, engaged communities.
This means that these communities will have greater value for the brands that focus on them and may finally bring a more active purchase intent to Facebook.
With a starting block of 1.23bn users, this approach feels right, and while we may ultimately see the demise of Facebook as we currently know it, a focus on standalone apps indicates a bright future for the company.
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