How to save social readers from extinction

May 14, 2012: 12:15 PM ET

Users are fleeing pioneering media social readers on Facebook. Here's why — and what publishers can do to save themselves.

By Alex Konrad, reporter

washington_post_social_reader

The Washington Post's social reader.

FORTUNE -- So-called social readers -- Facebook apps that facilitate, well, reading -- are based on a simple premise: blending news and social media boosts readership. Like a twenty-first century version of the loud-mouthed newsy on the corner, readers from the likes of The Guardian and The Washington Post allow users to peruse articles while sharing their literary habits with friends and contacts on Facebook. That's all well and good when you're reading a sober, in-depth analysis of super-PAC financing, for instance. But broadcasting that diversionary gallery of Lindsay Lohan's evolving locks? Not so much.

There lies the difficulty. As a category, social readers hit a rough patch last week. On Monday, Forbes pointed readers to a chart from AppData.com that suggested a startling drop-off in The Washington Post Social Reader's users. BuzzFeed's John Herrman went further, pointing to soft numbers for two other popular apps. Herrman's article set off a flurry of reader comments predicting doom for short-lived social readers.

Such apps, most of which are less than a year old, face serious problems. For one, many have skewed from hard news to tabloid fare. That is a step backward for media sharing, says Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti. "These aren't the things people wanted to share in their lives, but what they couldn't resist clicking," says Peretti, who was also one of the founders of The Huffington Post. What's more, some social readers employ questionable methods to garner more clicks, tantalizing users with suggestive headlines but forcing them to broadcast what they're reading to friends before they can actually see the story. Patrick Salyer, chief executive of Gigya, a firm that provides businesses with social networking tools, notes that such tactics are a major turn-off.

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In that light, The Washington Post's loss of almost half its daily users and over 5 million monthly users in the last week, according to tracking by AppData.com, isn't quite so surprising. The Post did not respond to requests for comment, but tweeted this explanation. Facebook, meanwhile, argued that changes to its newsfeed feature had created a temporary dip in traffic. Still, it's too early to send social readers to the graveyard. Here are two ways they might yet save themselves:

1. Clearer controls
Gigya's Salyer says that social readers must appeal to enthusiastic users who will share most or all of their content alongside more private individuals who would prefer to curate what they share. Salyer points to The Onion which makes it clear what users are opting into on Facebook. Spotify, a streaming music service with deep Facebook ties, is another standout example.

Rob Grady, COO of social media company Wetpaint, believes social readers can match up better with users' tastes by specializing more -- news for the Yankees or Red Sox, say, instead of all baseball -- with controls allowing users to share articles one at a time. The Wall Street Journal's reader, for example, has yet to acquire a major following but allows users to "unread" articles so they remain private.

2. Better context
Even though Buzzfeed gets much of its traffic from high-frequency social media users, Peretti hasn't been impressed with social readers. Peretti's vision of the social reader represents more of a hybrid of the individual "share" and "recommend" features. He prefers new "reaction" buttons. Click one of the site's headlines and you can "share" the article on Facebook or provide a contextual reaction: the article "Kris Humphries Knows He's A Douchebag," for example, might be deemed "Trashy" or a "Fail," sharing the story on Facebook -- but priming friends with a reaction to the story.

Gigya is also working to improve the "like" button for its clients. With NCAA March Madness, for example, Gigya provided social buttons for each game page on the NCAA's official website. "Users could categorize an event on a scale from boring to instant classic and also predict a winner, then see how their votes compared to others. Clicking the "classic" button prompted one to shared the story on social media, only with something a user actually cared about, says Gigya senior marketing manager Victor White. "As a business, you want to share as much as possible," Salyer explains. "It's Facebook's job to make sure you get the best experience in your Newsfeed, so let them handle that curation."

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There is likely still time for social readers to pull out of their downward spiral. Operating on a social platform with its own periodic redesigns, it seems the worst thing readers can do is failing to adapt at all.

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