Facebook is currently running a trial period for Instant Articles; so far, only a small number of users who’ve downloaded Facebook’s iOS app can see them. But the real deal will soon be upon us — and with big publishers like The New York Times and BuzzFeed participating, the results of this trial period are worth watching very closely.
What are Instant Articles: Instant Articles allows publishers to post articles directly in Facebook’s app. Facebook has framed it as a way to make users’ reading experience faster and richer (articles take an average of eight seconds to load in its mobile app, Facebook says).
That’s great for users, but what about the people who actually produce the articles? Publishers already rely heavily on Facebook for traffic; if Instant Articles becomes huge, they could find themselves rethinking their business model entirely — and not necessarily to their benefit.
The situation isn’t black-and-white, of course. Let’s look at the pros and cons for publishers:
What’s good for publishers
To some extent, Facebook has an inherent interest in treating publishers well. “It is . . . vital that, over time, Instant Articles delivers recurring benefit for publishers, whose continued investment in original content underpins its success,” Tony Danker, International Director, Guardian News & Media, said in Facebook’s introduction to Instant Articles last May.
And publishers haven’t gotten a completely raw deal. They can display their own ads inside Instant Articles and keep 100% of the revenue those ads generate (Facebook will fill any unsold slots with ads of its choosing and take 30% of the revenue). comScore will give publishers credit for the traffic they get via Instant Articles. Will Oremus, Slate’s senior technology writer, called the arrangement “remarkably generous.”
Plus, Instant Articles is pretty easy for publishers to use: Facebook automatically converts each piece into Instant Article form. Publishers will even be able to spice up the content with a suite of snazzy features like interactive maps and in-line commenting.
What’s not-so-good for publishers
Still, the section above describes short-term benefits. Instant Article presents the publishing world with a number of conundrums, some practical and some downright existential.
The most obvious problem is that Instant Articles doesn’t send users back to publishers’ actual sites, where users might discover more content they’re interested in. Instead, it keeps users in Facebook’s ecosystem, increasing the chance that they’ll jump from publisher to publisher. If Instant Articles is truly as user-friendly as Facebook promises, publishers’ conventional posts are inevitably going to start performing worse. Plus, it robs publishers of the incremental revenue they receive by serving more ads directly on their site to their readership.
In addition, Re/code’s Peter Kafka points out that Facebook isn’t helping publisher sell ads — at least, not as much as it could be:
“The biggest downside I can see is that the ad inventory Facebook is letting publishers sell may be some of the least valuable inventory Facebook has, since it isn’t giving publishers access to all of the interest and targeting data that Facebook uses when it sells its own ads. So publishers will have to tell advertisers that the basic banner ad they’re selling is an interesting banner ad simply because it’s running on Facebook.”
On MIT Technology Review, Michael Wolff digs into the larger existential problem Instant Article presents:
“In this, publishers effectively give up their own channels and become suppliers of content to more efficient distribution channels. There is no New York Times, there are just New York Times articles—a distinction Facebook might not think much of, but that all publishers, in this gradual relinquishing of their brand and audience, ought to have an existential crisis about.
In effect, the New York Times becomes a wire service–the AP, except where the AP gets paid huge licensing fees, the Times does not. (In fact, the Times itself, reliant on the AP for its pictures and other reporting, will still be paying those fees to the benefit of Facebook.)”
What’s a publisher that exists to feed content to social media companies? Is it still a brand, or is it just a commodity?
Why does Facebook drive so much traffic to publishers? The core reason is disarmingly simple: the site’s powerful algorithms all but guarantee that when users scroll through their News Feed, they’ll see things that engage them, whether it’s friends’ statuses or articles from The New York Times.
That’s because Facebook knows an incredible amount about its users. In fact, researchers at Stanford and the University of Cambridge found that when their computer model analyzed users’ Facebook likes, it assessed those users’ personalities better than their friends and family.
All that data allows Facebook to personalize each users’ newsfeed. For example, Facebook knows that I’m based in San Francisco and really keen on trying new kinds of food. The result? I constantly see articles about new restaurants opening up in the city. And I click.
The key to competing with Facebook, then, is to make your front page, and every subsequent page, as much of a destination as Facebook’s News Feed. By personalizing it — by showing readers what they want to see as soon as they land — you can embody Facebook’s News Feed with your own unique content. You can go beyond making your website interesting and make it downright addictive. You can build a more loyal audience, one that will go directly to you. You can leverage your valuable first-party data. You can retain more control of your content and brand — and with that, more control of your business.