On Dec. 9, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is tweaking Instant Articles based on negative feedback from media companies, who weren’t generating enough revenue from the platform (versus just posting content on their sites). Changes are expected to go into effect by the end of this week.

Media companies will now be able to…

1. Place one ad after every 350 words instead of every 500 words
2. Control the links to other articles that appear at the bottom of Instant Articles (and put in sponsored content, advertorials, etc. if they wish)
3. Sell Facebook-only ad campaigns (which allows them to pitch them at a premium)

The changes demonstrate that, at least for now, media companies have real bargaining power. Instant Articles would have a hard time getting off the ground without participation from household names like The New York Times and BuzzFeed, so Facebook has to listen to their demands; smaller sites without that kind of influence ultimately benefit.

But this victory shouldn’t make media companies rest easy, whether they’re big-name brands or smaller operations. Although Facebook is playing nice now, several trends indicate that it might be more aggressive in the future:

Facebook might be driving less traffic to media companies’ sites…

“Some sites now receive as much as 90% of their traffic from the social network,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Unsurprisingly, then, media companies are keen on getting data about Facebook referral trends. Right now, the results are muddled:

  • SimpleReach found that referral traffic for the top 30 Facebook publishers (e.g. the publishers most reliant on the social network) dropped 32% between January and October 2015. SimilarWeb found that traffic for a number of big names fell significantly: a whopping 60% for The Huffington Post; 48% for Fox News; and 40% for BuzzFeed.
  • However, those numbers don’t line up with what Chartbeat found after aggregating data from 100 media sites in its network: referral traffic was pretty much consistent between January and October. Parsely even said that referral traffic rose in that time period.

The companies reporting this data follow totally different methodologies: it’s a classic case of comparing apples to oranges. But these companies don’t really have much of a choice.

… Though we can’t know for sure what’s happening with referral traffic, because Facebook’s algorithm is a black box

How does Facebook decide what to show to whom? Great question: that’s still up for debate. We do know Facebook isn’t prioritizing Instant Articles over links to publishers’ sites — Instant Articles’ product manager told The Wall Street Journal that “Instant Articles earn distribution based on providing a really good experience” — but not much is stopping Facebook from changing that in the future.

(To be fair, the UX really is fantastic. Instant Articles look beautiful and load in the blink of an eye. If media companies could provide a mobile experience that’s even 75% as good, I’d be a happy camper.)

Facebook is eating the internet

Highlights from The Atlantic’s article by that title:

  1. Facebook drives a quarter of all web traffic.
  2. Facebook made $5 billion from ads last year — which is 10% of all digital ad revenue.
  3. One out of every 5 minutes spent on a smartphone are spent on Facebook.
  4. Nearly half of adults who use the internet get their news from Facebook. In other words, reader loyalty is eroding: instead of sitting down with a newspaper or even browsing a handful of sites, people are increasingly using Facebook as an access point to a wide variety of content from a wide variety of sites.
  5. A telling quote from Austin Carr’s article in Fast Company: “The great social network of the early 21st century is laying the groundwork for a platform that could make Facebook a part of just about every social interaction that takes place around the world.”

We’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Facebook isn’t evil. It’s simply a corporation acting in its best interests (and it’s far from the most irresponsible one of the lot).

But that doesn’t mean media companies should just give up and bend the knee. The best way to maintain autonomy is to invest in reader loyalty. If you own the audience, you own the eyeballs — and the bargaining power.

Your data is the key to your audience

In order to do that, media companies need to understand each of their readers as well as Facebook understands each of their users. Most media companies understand, in a general sense, which topics and channels the majority of their audience prefers, but that leaves out plenty of valuable readers who don’t fit the norm.

Marketers in other industries have long faced the same problem. They knew what their prospects wanted in a very general sense, but they lost a lot of potential customers because they couldn’t respond to everyone’s unique preferences. To gain a competitive edge, they’ve turned to predictive marketing technology: it allows them to take what they know about each person and make predictions about what to show them next. The market for predictive analytics has grown substantially: research firms predict (ha, there’s that word again) that the predictive analytics market will reach $5.2 to $6.5 billion by 2018-2019.

Facebook itself employs this technology. When you check out an article your friend shared, you always see related articles underneath, right? That’s essentially predictive analytics — Facebook is predicting that a person who enjoys article X will also enjoy articles Y and Z.

Predictive analytics are advanced right now, but this technology isn’t far from becoming table stakes. To make sure they still have bargaining power when they’re up against Facebook, media marketers and audience development folk should think seriously about upping their tech game.

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