Are You Paper-Worthy? Branded Content and Facebook's Ambitious New Reading App

Brands Can Probably Play on Paper, but Quality Is More Important Than Ever

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Facebook is aiming very high with Paper, starting with an introductory video reminding us of the role actual paper has played in the analog world for centuries as the primary medium for storytelling. With that set-up, and the selection of Paper as the brand name for its app, Facebook is trying to position the features and abilities of Paper as a new sort of standard tool and delivery method for content and information in a digital world, a kind of now-generation storytelling medium. It promises to bring you the best, brightest and most tailored content -- across your personal and commercial sources for news and information -- rather than require you to spend time browsing, surfing and searching.

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Considering it in that context, Paper has a very nicely executed user experience. Here is what Paper does extremely well:

It occupies an under-used space for experiencing content. The experience provides a "third way" to consume content and digital media. The flipbook-style card format fits nicely between the two primary "tent poles" of digital content consumption: quick, highly scan-able experiences like instant messaging, Twitter and RSS readers on the one hand an potentially time-intensive platforms such as websites, e-books and email on the other. Paper slows you down a bit and demands deeper thought but stops short of feeling like intensive reading. Flipbook and Pinterest share these traits, but Facebook has significant size and powerful data on users. Its entry could drives this approach from a somewhat niche offering to the mainstream very quickly.

It's smart about how it optimizes for mobile. Paper clearly wants to align itself as your personal, "always on" method for consuming your favorite, most newsworthy stories from across the web. As such, it puts the utility of a highly optimized mobile experience -- especially for phones -- first and foremost. Everything within the app is easy to control and manipulate with just one hand. The transitions and interactions to sort, reveal, delete and manipulate the Paper story cards are highly ingrained with the native iPhone behaviors. The palette of interactions the Paper team worked from are almost all app-driven, with next to no deference to web-based conventions. Certain executions are especially nice, such as the pan effect where panoramic images can be viewed by slightly tilting the phone left and right.

Whether Facebook Paper succeeds or fails on a big scale is wholly dependent on how well or poorly this personalized content curation and syndication works. If the population and selection of the content feeding into the Paper experience isn't timely enough or relevant enough, the novelty factor will wear out and people will revert to the way they get news and other content before.

But assuming Facebook Paper effectively inserts itself as the newest, emerging go-to platform for how people consume, share and collate their favored topical digital content, what does that mean for brands and the marketers that constantly strive to stay relevant and top-of-mind?

Facebook has not provided any details for how exactly advertising and marketing content will be incorporated into the platform, but if it is as serious as they seem to be about treating Paper as a wholly new, different storytelling medium -- and as a new way to bring both existing and new Facebook users into their digital domain -- it is likely to be cautious and take incremental steps.

The insertion of branded content, either directly or indirectly, should also strive for a balanced approach that hits the right notes to play well within the ground rules Paper is trying to establish.

Here's a hypothetical example. The alpine skier Ted Ligety is a Sochi Olympic medial hopeful and Coca-Cola sponsored athlete. A respectful and thoughtfully aligned formula for targeting content into a hypothetical Facebook Paper stream might be:

Two parts immediate topicality. Any attempts to insert branded content into the Paper story stream should be tied to specific events related to the athlete and the event. It needs to be timely, to feel like news and something of value the user would want to know (because they are clearly followers of alpine skiing, the Sochi Olympics, Ted Ligety, or all of the above)

One part brand. The presence of the brand should be that of a supporting role, at least within the Paper story stream. Any destinations or experiences the initial story shares could certainly amplify and strengthen the role of the brand, but in the early going, very overt and brand-first messages are likely to not make the cut – either because of curation by editorial staff at Facebook because of the initial algorithms judging what is Paper-worthy.

And one part trusted source. While the card or element that appears within the story stream might originate from the brand (Coca-Cola), if it brings attention to both the nugget/headline ("Ted Ligety makes it to the medal round") and a respected supporting media source ("View his winning run on the NBC Universal Sports website") the likelihood improves that material will find its way into the curated experience.

Clearly at this stage, all is conjecture. But whenever a company with the digital size and footprint of Facebook (with terabytes of consumer data to match) makes a new foray into how we will potentially "get" our digital content, everyone should take note and start trying out their "What if…?" scenarios.

Doug Hopkins is director of user experience at Isobar.