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ESPN.com Enables Facebook's Automated Sharing

Publisher the latest to sign on for Open Graph, with some restrictions
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Publishers are warming to Facebook’s Open Graph—with some reservations.

For example, ESPN.com last week began rolling out Facebook’s social sharing product on select news pages. Users who opt in will automatically alert their Facebook fans to what articles they are reading on the site. For example, today a user would see a notification when one of their friends reads an article about Magic Johnson leading a group to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The plan, according to Michael Cupo, ESPN’s director of social media content and strategy, is to eventually incorporate the Facebook “enable social sharing” button throughout the site, first on text pages, and down the road within ESPN’s video player.

ESPN’s partnership with Facebook is noteworthy—given ESPN’s size and clout in the media space—and in particular because of the terms of the Facebook arrangement.

Indeed, last September when Facebook introduced the passive sharing aspects of the Open Graph product—under the moniker “Read, Watch, Listen—early publishing partners such as The Washington Post, Yahoo News and Spotify saw Web traffic explode, and their presence within Facebook News Feeds border on the excessive.

But most publishers stayed away. Many were fearful of giving Facebook too much control, data and traffic. There was particular resistance to the model selected by The Washington Post, which required users to download an application if they wanted to read the same stories their friends were reading. And that consumption could only occur on Facebook—which many publishers weren’t crazy about. Why let Facebook have all that valuable traffic and audience face time?

The debate played itself out publicly with Hulu’s launch on the Open Graph. Hulu users can download an app to watch and share shows via Facebook. But if they opt to watch an ABC series like Modern Family, they are directed to ABC.com and off the Open Graph.

ESPN.com has essentially chosen to go the Yahoo News route. Friends can share what they’re reading, but all the reading happens on ESPN.com. “We’re taking a very measured approach to this,” said Cupo. “We feel like the experience on our site is best. We think we’ll get a bump in traffic. But the most interesting thing for us is understanding the user experience and the features this enables.”

That seems to be the approach most major media companies will look to take. Though there are still plenty of holdouts (like The New York Times), last month a group of publishers signed on to the Open Graph, including The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and MSNBC. Most are insisting that consumption of shared articles occur on each publisher's site, not on Facebook.

ESPN believes that sports fans will have a particular interest in social sharing, since fans are driven by a need to know and are heavily influenced by others. After all, ESPN.com has only one homepage but produces 600 pieces of content a day.

One feature that Cupo noted was the ability among Facebook users to subscribe to their favorite ESPN reporters and commentators and see what they are reading. “We think there is going to be a true serendipity that comes from that,” said Cupo. “If you’re a fan who really enjoys Jalen Rose’s NBA commentary, or loves reading [The Sports Guy] Bill Simmons, wouldn’t you love to know what they are reading?”

Or watching? ESPN isn’t planning to integrate Facebook’s Open Graph with its Watch ESPN app, which provides cable subscribers with the ability to watch ESPN live on tablet devices. “But it would not be crazy to see things going that way down the road,” said Cupo. You could even see Facebook somehow integrated into TV set tops someday, allowing passive sharing of what people are watching on TV at a given moment.

More immediately, ESPN does plan to explore ad opportunities tied to its new Facebook partnership. There may even be a way for ESPN to target Facebook users down the road, said Cupo.