If you’ve ever seen a presentation by a Facebook exec, you’ll know that they hold up The Guardian as the poster child for building an audience using a timeline app.
After launching its social reader last September The Guardian reported 4m installs in just two months, and in March it predicted that social traffic would soon become more important than search.
Then last month Facebook director of platform partnerships Christian Hernandez said that the app has 5.7m active monthly users and had been essential for allowing the newspaper to “close the viral loop”.
The supposed power of Facebook apps is that they force a user to sign up before they can view the content.
The developer therefore gets access to their data and the user’s friends see all the articles they read in their timelines. This then encourages other users to sign up.
For a while the evidence appeared to show that social readers were a huge success, but new data flagged up by BuzzFeed suggests the user growth has come to a crashing halt.
In fact, it’s fallen off a cliff.
Figures from AppData.com show that in the past month The Guardian has gone from 5.7m monthly active users to just over 3m.
And it’s not the only one to see its users leave in droves.
The Washington Post’s monthly user numbers peaked at more than 17m last month but since then has plummeted down to around 8m.
Such a massive collapse must be ringing alarm bells at Facebook and app developers. In fact, the drop off is so severe it does raise questions over the validity of the data.
However the way social readers push out content does at times feel like you’re being spammed, so it could be that users have finally gotten tired of the experience.
Furthermore, BuzzFeed highlights the fact that the Washington Post’s engagement producer Ryan Kellett has sought to explain the drop off on Twitter.
Facebook recently began aggregating content from social readers into one tab showing ‘trending stories’ rather than listing them individually. This limits exposure to each story and has apparently caused a massive decline in readership.
If this does prove to be the reason for the decline then Facebook will almost certainly takes steps to alter how it presents content from social readers.
Timeline apps are central to its pitch to advertisers and brands, and it won’t let anything undermine its ad platform with its IPO only a few weeks away.