How to Use an Open Social Reader to Grow Your Audience

What if every time someone came to your website, they were able to see what their friends were doing on your site? What if they got real time recommendations from people they trust on what to buy, which videos to watch, or what to read? The technology is there, and a few companies are doing this already with great success.

Huffington Post has received accolades (and a landslide of traffic) for their implementation of technology that allows readers to show their friends what they are reading. Let’s take a look at what they are doing, and talk about why you might want to do something similar.

Huffington Post Leverages Facebook Connections

If you’ve visited Huffington Post, you’ve seen these boxes, where, if you are logged into Facebook, you can see which articles your friends have read. These same activity elements can be shared out to social networks like Facebook. This is very useful for reading recommendations. These activities are important – they drive a lot of traffic back to the site.

In 2009, Huffington Post said that instituting these social news features increased Facebook referral traffic by 48%. Comments also increased by a huge number. If you’ve ever been on the site, you know that popular articles can accrue thousands of comments.

Yet, it’s three years later and there are still so few companies doing this. Why?

Facebook Social News App Limitations

Facebook has made it easy to implement recommendations and show friend connections on a site with their Open Graph widgets. However, if you simply use Facebook Social Reader or the Recommendations Box widgets, you cede control of your page content.

With the Facebook Recommendations box, Facebook decides which pieces of content to show your site visitor. Facebook also decides which friends show up in their feed. In addition, Facebook collects all of the data about your user – what they do on the page, which pages they comment on, and which items they share – all the while this high value social profile data could be used to enhance your marketing programs.

Some companies don’t like the idea of giving up this control.

Social News with Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter

Why not build a social news application that includes not only Facebook, but LinkedIn and Twitter as well?

Broadening your social networks, also means broadening the social profile data you could request permission to access, collect and use. Some social experts are pointing out that Twitter may in fact have better data about its users than Facebook does. In addition, LinkedIn recently made major changes to their login API to include verified email, job titles, and other important data which is attractive for B2B sites.

By building an open social reader application, you can give someone who prefers Twitter or LinkedIn the same social reading activity that we have been describing. This works especially well for B2B sites that may want to keep their branding and community focus on business and away from the casual nature of Facebook.

(Janrain has built something similar with one-click sharing and reading application on Facebook’s Open Graph, with plans to add more social profiles in the near future.)

What’s more, by taking this open web approach to building on-page engagement tools, you will be more prepared when up and coming networks release their APIs. Google Plus and Pinterest have intimated that their APIs will be available soon. If you have an open platform as I describe here, you can simply fold in these new API when they come along.

Activity Streams

One natural extension of the open integration approach is to start surfacing more of a visitor’s activity to their friends on-site. Huffington Post has done a good job of this as well.

In addition to the sidebar box mentioned above, a person can also navigate to her own profile and see the history of what her friends have read, opening up even more relevant content. You can also see which Huffington Post users she has followed recently, as well as her entire network of friends on HuffingtonPost.com.

By giving each site visitor a public facing profile, you create more content for search engines to index, and you also create another engagement point for friends of your readers or customers.

By building this activity feed and incorporating multiple social identities you can start to build a 360 degree view of who your web visitors are by requesting permission to progressively access more social profile data as they engage more deeply with you and your content. You also make your website a central hub for discussion and activity around your brand (instead of allowing the entire discussion to happen off-site). You can see that this level of on-page integration is the natural progression of social as it becomes more and more ingrained into our lives.

This activity can apply to many businesses besides media. A B2B company can show a stream of white papers downloaded. An education company can show a stream of courses taken and tests passed. A retailer could show a stream of things that their friends have purchased. The list goes on and on.

Of course, the next step toward even better personalization is using the social profile data gathered to create personalized ads, email marketing, and user-specific offers. The technology to do all of these things exists right now.

Janrain works with a number of partners to create personalization activities like I’ve outlined here. We’ve positioned ourselves as the central identity hub powering the necessary user authentication to each of these services, and have had discussions about these ideas with a number of clients.

Have you tried to build anything like this where you are? We would love to hear about it in the comments, or contact us directly.