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The New York Times' Facebook Deal May Prove to Be 'Growth Hacking' at Its Best

News Feed publishing broadens the pool of potential subscribers

The New York Times is one of Facebook's launch partners for 'Instant Articles.' Photo: Getty Images

The New York Times, among a small cadre of other outlets, today announced it will start publishing selected articles directly into Facebook's News Feed. Some think the move historic; others deem it unremarkable.

Either way, the intriguing part is to understand how to make sense of this deal and what it means for the future.

New York Times is in the direct-pay, subscription business. To be successful, it needs a vast network of paying customers, and it needs their credit card information and their recurring payments. To jeopardize its subscription network would be nothing short of irresponsible.

But to grow a network, one needs to think like a network.

The fastest growing disruptors today, like Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp or Airbnb, have all "piggybacked" on pre-existing social networks at some point in their development. They built upon the user base and social dynamics of what is already out there. This allowed them to grow fast by swiftly gaining scale and creating massive network effects.

Airbnb piggybacked on Craigslist, which it used for its initial growth. Paypal piggybacked on eBay and its vibrant world of transactions. Instagram piggybacked on Facebook and its massive resources. Snapchat and Whatsapp piggybacked on the phone book of everyone with a smartphone.

This strategy is also known as "growth hacking." Growth hacking is considered to be one of the most scalable and sustainable growth strategies because it doesn't waste time in building network effects from scratch (think how long it took for a telephone or even Internet to achieve mass adoption). Growth hacking is especially powerful for a company when the pre-existing network it piggybacks off offers some form of complementary value-add to the company's original offering—like commentary, ratings and sharing.

By using Facebook as a publishing platform, The New York Times could effectively hack its own growth.

It's also offering a road map for survival to other publishing companies.

To win in the new publishing landscape, where Facebook is as much (or arguably more of) a force as The Washington Post, publishers need to think like growth hackers. They need to shift from playing defense to taking the offense, even if that means risking or discarding formerly successful approaches.

The value that The New York Times is getting from piggybacking on Facebook is cultural impact and brand visibility—at the cost of display ad impressions. It gets to attract and retain attention with the next generation of readers. If it can somehow convert this attention into direct pay, great. The option is already out there: growth hacking as a marketing technique inherently revolves around optimization of funnel conversions, and the wealth of Facebook data provides rich opportunities for content sampling and testing.

More critically, growth hacking allows The New York Times opportunity to capitalize on network-effect marketing. In its shift from advertising to the direct pay business model, this kind of low-to-no cost marketing may prove to be a critical step in the process of retaining financial viability.

Ultimately, the success of this venture will depend on how well New York Times understands the nature of its relationship with the network it's piggybacking on. Facebook isn't in the business of saving journalism. Its goal is to trap people on its platform through baby gifs, ISIS videos, "Dad bod" photos - and New York Times articles.

The publishing industry already labeled The New York Times' move as "tectonic." There were questions of preservation of journalistic integrity, the volume of articles that will be featured in the feed, guesses about revenue split between the two partners. The late David Carr noted that "the wholesale transfer of content sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike."

In the end, it will all come down to the terms of the deal, the execution and how publications adapt. Until then, it's all speculation—likely of tectonic proportions itself. 

Ana Andjelic is a strategist focused on global luxury and fashion brands. Follow her on Twitter at @andjelicaaa. 

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