The New Yorker’s tongue-in-cheek Facebook campaign

The New Yorker's Eustace Tilley examines an oddly shaped butterfly

The New Yorker's Eustace Tilley, that old weirdo, is chasing more than butterflies these days.

Roughly coincident with the New York Times’s paywall rollout in late March, the New Yorker is conducting an experiment on Facebook. But unlike the Times’ arguably more conventional approach, which is to require that online readers who access more than 20 articles per day subscribe on a weekly or monthly basis, the New Yorker’s wall goes up before you read even one article. The article in question, the only one available under these terms, is a longish piece by novelist Jonathan Franzen.

Of course, a Like wall isn’t really much of a wall at all, since it doesn’t cost users anything to Like Facebook content, and you don’t have to register. (Except on Facebook, and who hasn’t done that yet?) And even though it might be a bit of a stretch to ask users to Like something they haven’t even seen yet, the Facebook experiment is an intriguing extension of the magazine’s online marketing effort — especially in consideration of the publication that’s conducting it, not to mention the author of the piece and its subject.

There's no Like wall in front of New Yorker publicist Alexa Cassanos'
profile pic.

‘Deep’ thoughts

Alexa Cassanos, a publicist at the New Yorker, told Poynter that the primary aim of the project is to “find fans of long-form journalism,” to which end the magazine has also been selectively releasing some articles from each week’s issue on its website, along with chats and multimedia content. Cassanos told Mashable, “we want to engage with people who want to engage on a deeper level,” a seemingly elliptical statement that’s also more than a little amusing in light of the act that’s meant to represent this “deeper engagement.” What is more superficial a level of engagement than clicking a Like button?

Still, if the New Yorker is looking to spread the word about its (increasingly boutique) editorial mission, Facebook may be the best way to do it quickly, if not well. It’s widely considered among the more effective ways to conduct any viral marketing, at this point, so why not use it to find new readers, even if those are readers of a magazine generally associated with reading experiences that run to the hours, rather than the seconds or minutes a person might spend on most Facebook content?

Yeah, but do you like me like me?

The Like button, simple enough in concept (it dates 2009, when it was nearly launched as the Awesome button), is deceptively powerful. Like makes it easy to spread information, sometimes idiotic and simple, sometimes profound and complex, to huge numbers of people very quickly without any one user investing more of himself than it takes to click a mouse. Mark Schulte likes Einstein’s theory of relativity! And with its recent usurpation of the “become a fan” and “share” functions, Like is now a one-stop-shop for syndicating content through Facebook.

Hip hop superstar Lil' Wayne garnered more than 200,000 Likes in an hour, a Guinness record.

But how effective is it, really? Especially at tasks like expanding the audience of people who enjoy spending significant chunks of time reading rambling pieces about personal discovery? (Franzen’s article describes a journey he took to a remote Chilean island to escape, among other things, Facebook.) A 2009 study by online marketing firm Razorfish revealed that most people friend (now, Like) a brand because they’re a current customer or because they are looking for coupons. They follow brands on Twitter for much the same reason.

And in a blog post from last October, Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru cited data revealing that fewer than 10% of retailers view the network as an effective way of finding new customers. It seems reasonable to wonder whether those numbers might dip even further if they looked at magazine subscribers, especially those of the New Yorker.

Artists, though, seem to be in a mood to experiment with Like walls. Musicians including Lil’ Wayne and Jennifer Lopez have given away tracks to Likers recently, leveraging what’s become an important part of a smart big-time artist’s marketing strategy.

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. His unfinished novel, "The Pale King," will be
published next month.

Strange bedfellows

Cassanos has not (yet) answered a question I asked her about Franzen’s part in all this, but I bet I know the answer: the writer is totally on board. He and the subject (one of them) of his article, the late David Foster Wallace, would probably get a kick out of the idea of using Facebook to “deepen” anyone’s engagement with anything — much less with the kind of difficult, time-devouring, reader-confounding fiction they both practice(d) and which Franzen, in a blurb on the back of Wallace’s 1996 opus, Infinite Jest, said “can still run rings around the competing media.”