Digital A-List 2009

CNN/Facebook Inauguration Pairing a Watershed Moment

Virtual Viewing Party Offers Peek at How Social and Mainstream Media Can Benefit Each Other

By Published on .

Illustration: Pete McDonnell

NEW YORK ( -- There's no question Barack Obama's inauguration was a historic occasion for the White House, but it was also a turning point for many in understanding how social and mainstream media might be married to their mutual benefit.

Millions of people used the midday occasion to stream the inauguration while logged in to Facebook and chatting with their friends on the site -- a sort of virtual viewing party that offered a hint of what shared digital-media experiences might look like going forward.

With 39.7 million online viewers, more people watched the inauguration online than on TV. And the 11 million users who streamed the inauguration at had the option of watching on a video player integrated with Facebook, where exclusive web coverage aired before and after the 90-minute ceremony.

Alongside the player ran a service familiar to Facebook users: the newsfeed, where people simultaneously discussed the event. By 1 p.m., Facebook saw more than 1 million status updates, and CNN logged 18.8 million video streams globally, more than tripling its record from Election Day and making it the most-watched site on Inauguration Day. In a world in which marketers are seeking more media metrics that reflect engagement and not just reach, a million status updates is a breakthrough moment.

Hard-nosed Pali Research media analyst Rich Greenfield called CNN's Facebook integration a "watershed event" for social media, while KC Estenson,'s senior VP-general manager, described it as "a template for us to find great breakthrough platforms and partnerships." Dave Morin, Facebook's senior platform manager, dubbed it "a shining example of how well these partnerships can work and scale."

Powerful combination
In the end, it also shined a light on the value of the assets the companies do -- and don't -- have. Namely, one has content but limited community, the other a registered base of 170 million users but not much original programming to keep users engaged. That's still a primary goal for the all-important advertisers who have been identified by many -- including Facebook -- as the best potential source of monetization.

Together, however, they were a powerful combination. The inauguration integration was critical for Facebook, which wants to grow its Facebook Connect partner sites. It sees that utility as a way for users to take their "social graphs" to sites across the web, and reinforce Facebook's importance in their lives. "We want people participating, connecting and sharing with each other not just on Facebook but anywhere," said Mr. Morin. "We want you to see not just other people but your friends. It all starts with the publisher. They get more distribution in a more organic way, more than the traditional broadcast level."


By 1 p.m., Facebook saw more than 1 million status updates, and CNN logged 18.8 million video streams.

Ian Spalter, creative director for mobile and emerging media at R/GA, likened the Facebook Connect concept -- and other, similar versions from Google and MySpace -- to "a unified 'plumbing system' that allows access to our social networks beyond the walls of an individual website, mobile application or IPTV extension."

For CNN, being able to harness Facebook's social functionality was essential to energizing its online user base. "We know skews younger than CNN television," said Mr. Estenson. "If you're under 40, you're accessing news through the internet more than on television, so it's our opportunity and obligation to make that experience as compelling as possible."

The integration seems to have produced a halo effect for CNN: Usage and live-video viewing are up since the inauguration. "We're up in every demo, and in global numbers as well," Mr. Estenson said.

Plugging in
Marketers such as Starbucks and Cisco bought ad time during live, in-stream video breaks on Inauguration Day. Anheuser-Busch, Brother and Sprint booked online pre-rolls throughout the day. Greg D'Alba, CNN's chief operating officer and exec VP-ad sales, said he likes the idea that plugging into an existing network can amplify a brand's message -- if you can get users to talk about it: "Your ability to reach a particular person can be the same as reaching 1,000 people."

For Facebook, the payoff was in showing the media world the value of Facebook Connect. Mr. Morin said no money changed hands in the CNN partnership, and said Facebook Connect is a "free and open service" for content partners.

CNN did, however, buy sponsored invitation ads on Facebook to get viewers to tune into Mr. Obama's national address the following month. After shattering their respective traffic records on Inauguration Day, the two companies had modest expectations when they reteamed for that event.

Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook's marketing director and co-host of both broadcasts, wanted to see how the Facebook Connect model would work for a live event with more normal distribution.

"Since it was state of the nation, we knew it was a little more targeted, and the people who were going to tune in were more politically minded and active," she said. Hundreds of thousands of Facebook users RSVP'd to CNN's sponsored invite, and more than 200,000 users logged in from and updating their status. "For me, that was a huge success for a targeted event," Ms. Zuckerberg said.


Greg D'Alba
Use social connections to spread the reach of a TV event -- or a brand campaign.

It's the effect of networks, said Greg D'Alba, CNN's exec VP-chief operating officer of ad sales, referring in this case to social ones, not TV networks. And it's how CNN will generate new reach. "That one person out of 10 tells the other nine what to watch, who to vote for," he said, "and that is ever more important today."

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