Facebook Lite: 3 lessons for newspapers and other old media

Facebook Lite was designed for slower Internet connections, ostensibly, but it also seemed to be a response to user fatigue and outbursts of anger at the site’s relentless tinkering, especially during 2008 and 2009.
But Facebook Lite is no more. It always seemed to me to be a step back — maybe one nostalgic users wanted, but ultimately not a move forward. Facebook isn’t about being slimmed down — it’s about being the constant in your life.
There’s one similarity and one difference with Facebook’s failure when compared with old media. The similarity? Well, it’s that for many newspapers and magazines (still!!), the website is still but a slimmed-down, ugly and/or regurgitated version of the print edition. This trend extends to the iPad.
The difference? For Facebook, Lite wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t integral to the future of the company, and the only odd part was why it was launched at all. But for newspaper and other old-media companies, the Web is life and death.
Here are 3 lessons that old media must take from Facebook Lite:

1. Content and presentation are only as good as the user’s ease of use.Too many websites, be they big, small, new or old media, crowd the hell out of their front pages. Nothing stands out, visually or in a hierarchy. Facebook and Twitter, unlike MySpace, for instance, have clean, relatively simple designs. But each is unmistakably recognizable and cues users toward what they want to do.
Facebook Lite didn’t have that problem; its downfall was being a less-useful version of regular Facebook, and not just for advertisers. But it had some content, a great presentation and was familiar to users. If only old-media websites had the problem of user enthusiasm and loyalty in need of a good presentation. Oh wait, many do!
Some newspapers don’t have good content, or content that’s not already outdated and in print. Other newspapers lack a clean presentation. Few, if any, old-media sites stand out. All of this makes them less fun, less smooth and less used.

2. Don’t half-ass it
As far as I could tell, personally and anecdotally, Facebook Lite was promoted briefly and quietly when it debuted, and then quickly disappeared off the radar for regular Facebook users. I’m probably a heavy FB user, and I can guarantee I’ve seen the ridiculous prompt to use “U.K. English as my language” at least a dozen times over many months. How many times did I see a prompt for Facebook Lite? Two, maybe three times, and all in the first week.
Does this mean newspapers have to quit print and all that diminishing-but-still-there revenue to really, truly, be a Web business? Not necessarily. It does mean that the Web can’t be treated like a hobby — and every company in every industry should heed that advice. Conversely, I suppose Web companies that maintain some kind of real-life presence shouldn’t half-ass that, either, but I’m not willing to hazard a firm guess on that.

3. Decide what you want to be, and be that — aggressively
Old media can’t be everything to everybody. The general-interest newspaper is reflective of an America that no longer exists. Even if news organizations had done everything right online — and everything right in the 1980s and 1990s in print and in their communities, for that matter — it doesn’t seem likely that a newspaper’s website would be the focal Web point for everyone in a community, at least not for things that aren’t news. Here’s where magazines should have a built-in edge, being narrowly defined.
As for Facebook, it knows what it wants — it wants to be everything social, and slowly, almost invisibly, extend “social” to mean the Internet. Facebook Lite was a step back, a moment where, maybe, Facebook hesistated in where it wanted to go. That moment’s passed, however, and with little fallout. That means, again, that it’s time for everyone else to get moving.
As anyone who’s an old-media veteran knows, a foolish rush forward may get you killed, but hesistation has yet to work out, either.

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