Readers of The Economist’s website will soon be able to log in and make comments using their Facebook identity, through Facebook Connect. The Economist.com will also take on features similar to social networks itself, allowing readers to create profile pages and earn a reputation through other users’ recommendations of their comments on the site.
Ben Edwards, publisher of Economist.com, hopes that Facebook will help his site acquire new readers and develop a “deeper level of engagement” with existing ones.
“We have a mission online of being the foremost destination for global discussion and debate, which is a social proposition,” Mr Edwards told the Financial Times. Making Economist.com more social is “the core of our strategy”, he said.
Broadcasters such as Sky and ITV, as well as publishers such as Guardian and the New York Times, are finding that mingling with the huge audiences gathering on Twitter and Facebook can be a source of traffic to rival that of search engines. The Economist, in which the Financial Times owns a 50 per cent stake, currently has more than 90,000 Twitter followers.
About 180,000 people have joined its official “fan page” on Facebook. A marketing budget of “tens of thousands of pounds” will be allocated to help boost those figures to meet its targets.
Both sites publish links to Economist.com, which has 4m monthly unique visitors, 3m of whom have registered their details with the site. Mr Edwards said the number of paying subscribers was “fairly small, but growing healthily”.
Profile pages for registered users will be expanded to include additional details such as where they have studied and worked.
But more people are expected to use their Facebook profile details than registering with Economist.com directly. Although advertisers might find that data valuable if shared with The Economist rather than Facebook, Mr Edwards is betting that using Facebook Connect will ultimately bring more comment makers to Economist.com.
Reader comments on The Economist’s Facebook page are shorter than the lengthy notes on its own site. So a new Economist.com reputation system will make sure the most popular comments more prominent, whether from Facebookers or long-time readers.
The Economist will also be “a lot more active” on Twitter, which will be a “full-time job”, Mr Edwards said. “That shows the importance we place on it as a source of traffic,” he said.
The changes are expected to be introduced within three to four months, alongside improvements to its subscriber-only features.
But The Economist’s discussion forums will remain free.
“People aren’t accustomed to being charged for conversation,” Mr Edwards said.