Ty Ahmad-Taylor is the founder and CEO of FanFeedr, a real-time personalized sports feed. Previously, he was SVP of Strategy and Product Development at Viacom (NYSE: VIA) and, before that, Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA). He tweets at @tyahma
One of the things big and small media companies grapple with is identity, and the larger issue of owning the customer. This often comes into play with user-authentication systems, and specifically whether media companies should use their own or tap into existing third-party networks that often have broader reach. When I was at Viacom in 2007, we had our own user-authentication system that had over 1 million addresses, but we never did much with the addresses we captured. We started over with Flux, our own social network. The result? Only about 1.5% of the users signed up. It didn’t help that they had to jump through some crazy hoops (Captcha and email verification; no blood samples, though).
In starting my own business, I very quickly got past any emotional attachment to having a user’s email address, and adopted Facebook Connect as well as Twitter’s authentication system. Dozens of publishers have done the same. The benefits are well known: Those platforms help publishers leverage a user’s friends to drive traffic, engagement and virality.
But at what real cost to the publisher, in terms of dollars and effort? There are some downsides to Facebook Connect that don’t get as much attention—but they may be enough to give some publishers pause.
1. For marketing purposes, you will want to be able to reach your customers when they are not on your website. That requires getting their email address. Facebook recently began allowing third-party websites to request email authentication, but we have found that only some of those customers (about half in our case) allow you to contact them directly, and thus you only have a direct relationship with a subset of a subset of total site visitors.
2. If you have a pre-existing authentication system, which most websites do, getting Facebook integrated on top, along side, or underneath your current setup isn’t the easiest thing to do. “Wait, I can sign in with my email OR with Facebook Connect? Why would I choose one or the other?.” I won’t lecture you on the paradox of choice, but two options does double complexity. Facebook’s announcements la f8 last week have greatly lowered the technical costs of integration, but haven’t removed those obstacles altogether.
3. Facebook’s Connect team changes code and very, very occasionally, their servers can go down, which means that that login option can go away, leaving users vexed, to put it politely.
The main benefit of adopting Facebook’s authentication system that I have seen on my site, FanFeedr.com, is the complete absence of having to pay for moderation. At Viacom, we had moderation costs in the tens of thousands of dollars each month, adding up to over $500,000 annually. Facebook Authentication is the closest you are going to get to real identity, so the moderation becomes less important/unnecessary
Still, sometimes people don’t want to be their “real selves.” This is most apparent if you are, say, running a sports web site, and people who frequent your site do so during business hours, and oh, say, their corporate IT department, in an unenlightened fit of pique, blocks access to Facebook.
Building a separate social network at Viacom was a mistake, and an expensive one at $40-plus million. At FanFeedr, we have been able to
avoid having to write that check. But that doesn’t mean Facebook Connect has been without problems.