Facebook Timeline Apps: New Way to Engage?

8 Comments 23 January 2012


On January 18, Facebook introduced Timeline apps, along with a list of the first 60 Timeline apps that are approved and ready for Facebook users.  (A user’s profile is now his or her “timeline” of activities.) Timeline apps are the next iteration of Facebook’s Open Graph, Facebook’s way of connecting users to Facebook through real-time actions on the web. Facebook is promoting this as the new way to know what your friends are doing, in real time. I’m a bit more realistic: this roll out offers Facebook and application developers a lot of information about what you like to do.

I think this is a potential game-changer for how brands and organizations will use Facebook. The apps offer greater exposure within Facebook to potential supporters, and more information about your supporters on Facebook. I’m personally a bit doubtful about whether or not it will deepen online engagement, which I consider at the end of this blog post.

What is the Timeline app?

In simple language: version one of the Open Graph was a Facebook user Liking things on the web, and connecting those actions integrated back into Facebook. E.g. you clicked “like” on a website, and that like showed up as “your name likes name of website/brand/product” in the newsfeed.

Version two extends the concept: a Facebook user may add a Timeline application to his/her Timeline, and every time the user takes an “action” related to the application, the app updates the user’s ticker (the right-hand side home page scroll) with a notice that the user has taken an “action.” Facebook explains, “We are now extending the Open Graph to include arbitrary actions and objects created by 3rd party apps and enabling these apps to integrate deeply into the Facebook experience.” The Open Graph can also be used to graph anyone’s use of certain actions that are officially integrated with Facebook, such as clicking Like on a website.

Here’s an example of a Timeline application I’m using: I belong to Goodreads, a book-reading social site. Goodreads has developed a timeline application. I first enabled the Goodreads app for my personal Timeline.

While enabling Goodreads for Timeline, I determined how the parameters of my actions within Goodreads would appear in my timeline:

I tested this by adding and rating two books I’ve recently read:


My Facebook friends and subscribers might see these activities on the right-hand side of their Facebook home pages, in the “ticker.” Anyone could click on my Goodreads actions within their ticker, in which case Facebook would send that person to the Goodreads application to install. It’s a virtuous circle: wonder what I’m doing with Goodreads? Install the app and find out!

Of course,  the other way to get users to install the app is to market to the app’s own audience.  Goodreads featured its Facebook app on the home page; last time I logged in, I opted to enable the timeline application.

Three fundraising vendors have already developed Timeline apps

Three nonprofit fundraising vendors partnered with Facebook initially to launch their Timeline apps: Artez Interactive, Causes, and Fundrazr. With Artez’ timeline app, a donor can choose to  “spread the word on your Facebook Timeline,” telling their friends that they’ve donated online. If a donor’s Facebook friends click on the donation post, the friends are taken to the nonprofit’s donation form. Fundrazr‘s and Causes’ apps function similarly, though each offer slightly different options for Timeline visibility. This is Causes’ list of Timeline action preferences, for example:

I would love to have seen Facebook partner with a few nonprofits at the launch of Timeline apps. This was a huge missed opportunity for Facebook, and I’m sad to see that they didn’t see it this way.

FYI: How to develop a Timeline application

Facebook envisions tens of 1,000s of actions and applications, and I don’t doubt that this could happen. Facebook points people to this developer tutorial for a step-by-step tutorial. The most important thing is to know what you want app users to do, such as donate to a cause, taste a wine, or read a book, and create the app based on your goals. You will also have to submit the app for approval from Facebook.  The primary developer framework, according to Facebook, is that the app should enable public actions that are simple, genuine, and not misleading.

Can Timeline apps benefit nonprofit organizations?

Timeline apps afford an opportunity for nonprofits to promote causes, activities and mission. I can envision apps that promote online campaigns, encourage people to interact with the organization in a certain way, encourage specific actions, track activity, and/or to raise brand awareness. A few ideas:

  • Support the nonprofit: “Jerry supports the Canadian Red Cross”
  • Activism: “Debra signed a petition to stop fracking” or “Eliana contacted a brand to ask about its slavery footprint via Slavery Footprint”
  • Play a game: “Adam has donated 2,173 grains of rice to the UN to date via Free Rice”
  • Donate: “Kylie has started a virtual food drive with Feeding America”
  • Support a campaign: “David is growing a mustache for Movember”

In my opinion, I think the greatest Timeline app benefit is in the information the nonprofit will gain about app users, and how committed a supporter is to the cause. Installing an app is a deeper commitment than passively Liking a Page, or joining conversation on a Facebook Page. App users should be the organization’s most committed online supporters.

When an app is installed, the developer knows a supporters’ email address, other Likes, and how the user is engaging with the application. Ultimately, the app both gathers supporter information that isn’t available from people who Like a Page, and spreads awareness about the organization/campaign/cause through the ticker.


While Timeline apps could increase specific types of online participation, I suspect that they will be more successful in awareness-building than deepening engagement. I worry about action burnout: as the ticker scrolls on and on, showing endless actions from friends, users will begin to ignore the ticker. The sameness of how the apps appear on the Timeline and in the ticker may hinder engagement from non-supporters.

But, as we all know, how this shakes out is anyone’s call. I’m just as curious as you.What do you think about the new Timeline apps?


  • Debra, you beat me to it.  I was writing up a blog post on Sunday while playing around with the timeline developer tools.

    I agree with most of what you say here, but might be able to extend some of it with my developer hat on.

    Nonprofits can get the benefits of more data, and more knowledge, about supporters from any kind of Facebook app, not just timeline.  Facebook permissions are complicated, but incremental.  You can ask them to sign in using Facebook one time, then ask them to share their Likes for a different reason, and then ask them to add Timeline when you have a good reason to do so.  It all ties back to the same profile, and the cause (or app developer) would have access to everything shared (per FB’s privacy and TOS, of course).  It’s really not that hard to make a FB app, and I think more causes should have one.

    Timeline is still fairly constraining – the main argument for making one is that your content shows up in more places, in different ways, and conforms to the internet’s obsession with making nouns into proper nouns (Friend, Follow, Post…).  This way, Important Words on your website become Important Words on Facebook, which can be critical for branding.  I can see Komen getting in there with Cure, or Livestrong doing something with VerbStrong or NounStrong.  

    You can only use certain actions names, and certain objects, and you need to be careful how they’ll appear in various Facebook phrases, titles, and contexts.  Some of the sentences you wrote wouldn’t be possible without simplification or grammatical gymnastics.  Probably the biggest challenge with designing a timeline app is choosing terms that will suit your organization for years to come.  

    I think unless your team knew timeline was launching, and already have the perfect idea for it, I’d wait until it solidifies a little.  Remember, Facebook features are known to change, and as of Sunday the “submit action” process had a bug.  


    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Ehren, thank you so much for your comment. When I was researching and writing the post, I was thinking that a developer would have a lot of insight into Timeline apps, so I’m especially glad you took the time to add your “developer” thoughts.

    One thing I was struck by when thinking about Timeline apps was that they don’t seem to be that different than regular apps, other than the automatic push notifications to the Timeline, and how they are set up. Am I wrong here? Just packaged and presented in a bit of a different way, with more options for publishing to a user’s Timeline.

    I agree with you that more nonprofits should use apps, but how they are used has always been the nonprofit’s challenge. Given that, what I do like about Timeline apps are the noun-verb pairings (such as a GiveStrong idea you suggested) and how they convey an action a supporter is taking so easily.

    Waiting until the bugs and quirks of Timeline have been worked out is definitely solid advice. Most nonprofits aren’t early adopters, and most don’t have a developer on site that can work to get an app ready quickly, but thinking and planning for a Timeline app would be worthwhile to do at this juncture.



    John Haydon Reply:

    Debra – One of the most powerful implications of timeline applications will be with mobile apps (iOS, Android…).  If you only consider how people will be using these apps in a browser, then you’re right –  timeline apps aren’t really different from other Facebook apps (aside from what you mentioned in your comment).

    The reason that asking the user only once for permission is huge is so people can more easily use these apps on their mobile devices,  and have those actions echoed on their Facebook timeline which promotes the application to the user’s friends.  Of the timeline applications already available, almost all of them can be found in the iTunes App Store. This reinforces my theory  that their ultimate use is to capture actions from mobile users and not necessarily people using Facebook through a browser.


  • Debra – Very insightful post! I agree with you about the potential use for orgs in identifying core supporters. At the same time, I agree with Ehren’s comments below about understanding the long-term implications of how an org would use a timeline app.


  • Pingback: What Do Facebook’s New Timeline Apps Mean for Nonprofits? | Beth’s Blog()

  • Thought of one other thing – whether or not, and how, Timeline activity will be exposed through the News Feed and Profile Feed (http://developers.facebook.com/docs/reference/api/).  For HelpAttack!, would people be able to give whenever they Read, Listen, Eat, or whatever else?  Will that data be exposed to another app that also has permissions with that user?  

    I don’t have any Timeline apps installed, but I did see that my engagement to Kim (a Timeline event) does not appear in my feed from the API.  

    No matter what the documentation says now, or the API sends now, it’s probably subject to change.  It looks like that data is not yet exposed.  


    Drew Love Reply:

     Great post Debra, and glad you can pull in people like Ehren and John to start up an even more informative discussion.

    The conversation about Apps is especially intriguing. I know there was initially a lot of concern from marketers about losing the ability to make custom landing pages, and that concern was then assuaged, because approximately 10% of traffic default landing tabs only drive 10% of the total Page app traffic.

    I’m going to take a guess that with apps being integrated into the timeline, and thus becoming a more prominent feature for both Pages and the Individuals who use the apps, apps themselves will become much more influential in extending the reach of a brand.

    In fact, it makes me wonder if app activity will start to be incorporated into facebook insights.

    For example, every time I listen to song through my Spotify Facebook app, that has a similar broadcast effect to someone liking, commenting, or sharing something on the Spotify facebook page. In terms of how Facebook treats that “app action” it’s identical to someone “talking about this” as it’s currently defined by facebook insights.

    What are other’s thoughts?



  • Pingback: Facebook Timeline apps: A new way to engage()


Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

Follow Debra

Subscribe via email




© 2020 Social Media Strategy for Mission-Driven Organizations.

Site by Arrow Root Media