When ESPN breaks a major news story, it's able to push that headline to tens of millions of smartphone lock screens around the world. That's more than the circulation of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today combined. In any given week, the ESPN app pushes more than 600 million notifications. And ESPN sees the benefit in increased traffic to its Web properties.
No other publisher can compete with ESPN's reach on mobile, but Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) is here to help. Business Insider reported in August that Facebook was working on a breaking-news app, and The Awl found out more details this month. The app will be called Notify, and Facebook is working with publishers to push news notifications to users' phones through this app instead of its own. By aggregating dozens of publishers into one app, publishers have a fighting chance against mobile behemoths like ESPN.
But will anyone download another Facebook app?
To be honest, it's very unlikely a lot of people will download Notify, which The Awl expects to be released soon. But Facebook doesn't need every one of its 1.5 billion users to download another app for it to be a success.
Facebook releases a bunch of different apps that don't receive a lot of downloads, but it uses feedback from those apps to integrate features into its flagship platform. Paper, for example, inspired the burgeoning Instant Articles that are starting to crop up on more users' phones. Camera, Facebook's first stand-alone app, was the breeding ground for multi-photo uploads and filters. Neither of those apps were runaway successes.
With Notify, Facebook can acquire enough data to figure out whether it's worth integrating a similar feature in its flagship app, which is installed on over 144 million smartphones in the United States. That could have a real impact on the reach publishers have on mobile.
Facebook is already becoming a significant source for news, considering that 63% of Facebook users get the news from the app. That's the same percentage as Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) users. Notifications could easily be added to Facebook with a link below articles posted in the News Feed. ("Notify me of breaking news from Huffington Post" or "Notify me of breaking news about the 2016 Democratic Primary.")
Going after Twitter
Notify is just the most recent effort from Facebook to capture the attention of Twitter's core audience of news junkies. Twitter has worked to make it easier for its users to discover and follow breaking-news stories with the recently released Moments feature. Moments takes full advantage of the best content Twitter has to offer, which usually has information on breaking-news stories before major publications do.
Facebook, meanwhile, is expanding Instant Articles to more publishers and more users. Instant Articles provide a rich user experience that loads quickly from inside the Facebook app. It also introduced a tool called Signal to help journalists find trending topics and content from Facebook for syndication on their own websites, which operates very similarly to Twitter's Curator tool, released earlier this year.
Integrating Notify into Facebook could enable Facebook to overtake Twitter as a source for news among users who have accounts for both social networks. Pushing notifications to users' lock screens is a powerful traffic driver -- just ask ESPN.
But how does Facebook benefit?
While it's not quite straightforward how Facebook can benefit from sending traffic to publishers' content, there are at least two ways Notify can help Facebook.
First, Facebook is able to gather more data on its users' interests. This will help it provide a more engaging News Feed and better targeted ads for when its users browse through its app and website.
Second, Facebook could drive traffic to Instant Articles. Facebook receives 30% of ad revenue from ads it puts in publishers' Instant Articles. What's more, when a user opens an Instant Article from the lock screen, he'll find himself inside Facebook's app, which increases the likelihood he'll check his News Feed or update his status and spend more time in the app.
Both could lead to increased ad revenue for Facebook, with the latter leading to increased engagement rates. But Facebook is still a long way from that point. The first step is to see how users and publishers respond to Notify and perfect it before integrating it into the flagship app.