In its latest collaboration with publishers, Facebook today launched Notify, an iOS app that lets you subscribe to push notifications from your preferred content makers. More than 70 media partners signed up for the launch, including CNN, The Weather Channel, Bloomberg, Comedy Central, Vevo, and Vox Media, parent company of The Verge. Among your options in Notify: you can subscribe to a daily top story from The Verge, as chosen by its editors.
At first glance, Notify appears to fall into the broad bucket of tools that are much more appealing to publishers than the readers they are intended to serve. But think about it from the publisher's perspective for a moment. Over the past few years, you've seen traffic to your home page plummet, and come to rely on Facebook's opaque News Feed algorithms for an increasing percentage of your traffic. Facebook has sought to capitalize on this leverage by asking publishers to publish their content in a Facebook-specific format that positions it to share advertising revenue with them. At the same time, publishers around the web have reported a mysterious drop in referral traffic from Facebook this year as the News Feed grows ever more competitive (and Facebook busies itself turning the feed into a TV network).
Looking to Facebook for salvation, again
If only there were a way for publishers to reach their readers directly, right?! Except that app development and maintenance is difficult and costly, and also the average number of apps a person downloads each month is zero. And so for salvation publishers now look once again to ... Facebook, which built them an iOS app that tells them everything they want to hear except perhaps how they're going to get people to use it.
Facebook's case for Notify, as shared with our colleagues at Recode, goes like this: "People have different ways they want to consume information," said Michael Cerda, product director at Facebook. "Search is one way. Social is another way. And we think push notifications might be yet another. We see that as an evolving medium and want to be a part of that." In its official blog post, Facebook describes its "stations" of notifications for 11 paragraphs before mentioning that "if you want to see more" than the sentence or two on your lock screen, you can tap the notification to load it (for eight seconds!) inside an in-app browser. Or you can just sit back and rely on this evolving medium to keep you informed.
It seems likely that Notify is an experiment, and Facebook will use what it learns there to inform the way it builds notifications into the flagship Facebook app. It would be much more useful to publishers and readers to let users subscribe to push notifications from brands inside Facebook, with varying levels of granularity to separate those who want to see everything from a publisher from those who only care about top stories and breaking news. And perhaps Notify will help get Facebook there. In the meantime, if you've been clamoring for more push notifications on your phone, dozens of publishers are here, and they're ready to help.