Image via hitwise.com

A few days ago I suddenly realized that somewhere along the line, Facebook somehow became my go-to source for news. When the site’s redesign finally displayed in full-effect this week, I even wondered if that’s where they were intentionally headed to next- turning themselves into a one stop shop for all of my online needs. Today, a friend confirmed my suspicions: according to new data from Hitwise, Facebook is in fact the world’s largest aggregated news reader, above Google or anyone else. So how did this happen, and where do I think it’s headed next?

I’ve been trying to sell friends on the idea of using RSS for years, but not too many seem to grasp the concept or usefulness of a news reader (and those that do say they’d rather visit the webpages individually so they “don’t miss anything that could be interesting”.) It wasn’t until Facebook’s News Feed came along that I finally had a way of visually explaining exactly what a RSS does to people who didn’t know and were having trouble understanding. (“Oh, like Facebook! I got it.”) The fact of the matter is that Facebook is one of the only sites thus far that has consistently utilized and simplified old and new online technology (RSS, customizations, short-links, embedding) and then trained the average user to use these functions without the user even needing to know how they’re doing what they’re doing. As allfacebook.com‘s Nick O’Neill said recently, “The best technologies don’t need explanations of how they work, they just work.”

Though I’ve heard people say that Facebook is as much of a trend as Myspace, I’d like to be one of the first of many to argue that they’re wrong. For what was a small college project 6 years ago has quickly evolved into one of the most massive online powerhomes to date. Now, between their newest layout and murmurs of Project Titan, it has become very clear that Facebook does not plan on going anywhere anytime soon. And why should it?

The reality is, the more overwhelmed our world becomes with information, and the more accessible that information is, the more likely we are to seek news, products, and services from people we know and trust rather than “randomly searching” out in the ether. Facebook is unique in that it allows us to not only share the news and information that matters to us, but also have a personal discussion about these issues with friends and family a thousand or more miles away on a daily basis. It simultaneously gives us insight, good or bad, while filling that void for human socialization, providing the everyday interaction with other people that we so primally crave. No longer are we relegated to discuss an article on a comment board with people we don’t even know; instead, we can easily gain a wealth of opinions and ideas from the people we value the most in our lives, openly debating these subjects from the comfort of our living room couches.

So where am I going with all of this? For starters, this is huge news for content providers (as well as for advertisers.) While Facebook already dabbles in “targeted” advertising to some extent, if the ads that pop-up in my Facebook sidebar are any indication of what the website thinks of me, then I think they are being quite presumptuous. But with the addition of a more news reader friendly homepage, and the ability to add your favorite RSS feeds and blogs to your News Feed (thusly creating a personalized news channel), poorly targeted ads could be a thing of the past. Not only can Facebook now monetize Ad Views more successfully, but give the average user more useful ads as well. Each user’s demographics, interests, friend circles, and news preferences are at the site’s fingertips- they simply have to integrate a powerful meta data search function to capitalize on what is already there (the wheels of which I’m sure are already in motion behind the giant curtain.)

Despite these new advances that may help to pull the site out of the red, there’s still the looming question of whether or not Facebook will eventually charge for access once it becomes an invaluable if not necessary asset to our daily online usage. Even though I’m on-board for a low-cost per year model, given the transparency of the internet, why do such a thing? Instead, I propose that Facebook presents each user with an array of choice advertisers for them to opt-in and personally discuss on a monthly basis. By targeting the demographic that each advertiser wants their message to be received by, the site can still find revenue where it counts while simultaneously creating a user-generated open forum where all positive and negative comments can be heard, discussed, and reviewed by various companies to further meet their consumers’ needs. Many brands already have fan pages that are highly successful examples of this feedback model. I say take this a step further and create an integrated marketplace that thrives on it.

Initially, this model may not seem like it could provide the ROI that most advertisers claim to seek. But the proof is in the pudding here folks- how many advertisers can actually produce a detailed analysis of their ROI from the millions they spend on magazine or TV ads? Newspapers? (The only significant report to date that I can remember reading about advertisers being able to track the cost effectiveness of advertising was actually, believe it or not, through social marketing, and it was in reference to Dell Outlet’s Twitter feed, which now boasts over 600k followers.) Advertisers need to stop looking at their ROI in terms of dollars and brand awareness, and start looking at it in terms of customer loyalty and brand integrity, because that’s where the real money lies. The same brand awareness that they get on TV is now achievable (and more specifically targetable) online, but by focusing on constantly improving their products rather than their sales pitches, they will finally create a connection with the people who matter the most: their consumers.

(And isn’t that what this is all about?)

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