Facebook Instant Articles means smaller slice of bigger pie for news publishers
Facebook officially launched Instant Articles last week, promising an improved experience for users and the chance for publishers to access its vast audience and proven advertising model.
The idea first surfaced in March this year when it emerged that talks between Facebook and The New York Times had reached an advanced stage over a native publishing deal.
Nine publishers, including The New York Times, have now partnered with Facebook as part of this new venture: the popular news site BuzzFeed; established US news brands National Geographic, NBC and The Atlantic; Britain’s BBC News and the Guardian; and leading German titles Spiegel and Bild.
Quicker, better experience for users
Facebook is already a major source of news. A recent study by Pew Research revealed that half of the US adults who use Facebook regularly use it to read news stories.
But following news providers they like or using aggregators to find news on their favourite topics has its drawbacks. According to Facebook, users experience a significant lag between clicking a link in their Facebook app and getting access to the full article in their browser.
“People share a lot of articles on Facebook, particularly on our mobile app,” the social network said in a blog post announcing Instant Articles. “To date, however, these stories take an average of eight seconds to load, by far the slowest single content type on Facebook.”
With Instant Articles users can remain within the Facebook environment, which means quicker access to their chosen news content. Facebook also promises an improved reading and viewing experience with tilt-to-zoom, high resolution photos, auto-play videos and interactive maps.
More eyeballs and more ad dollars for publishers
For the publishers, Facebook offers an audience that not even the most popular news websites can hope to compete with. Facebook has more than one billion members globally and has excellent reach on tablets and smartphones with 1.25 billion active monthly mobile users, according to its own figures.
Facebook users are not only big in number, they are also engaged. There is strong demand for news content and Facebook is seen as the first port of call for many people when it comes to following the stories that interest them, particularly on their mobile devices.
“That’s where the audience is… it’s too massive to ignore,” Vivian Schiller, a former Twitter executive and media consultant, told The New York Times recently.
Mark Thompson, CEO and president of The New York Times, echoed those sentiments, admitting that an increasing number of his readers were on Facebook and that his paper therefore needed a strong Facebook presence.
“We have a long tradition of meeting readers where they are and that means being available not just on our own sites, but on the social platforms frequented by many current and potential Times users,” he said.
Facebook has said that its nine publishing partners will have the option of selling their own advertising around Instant Articles and keeping 100 per cent of the revenue or using Facebook’s advertising inventory, which will cost them a 30 per cent royalty.
With the success Facebook has had reaching mobile users and monetising them, it’s likely that the 70:30 split will be more appealing, particularly in the short-term.
“Facebook has figured out what other online ad sellers haven’t: how to effectively target and track mobile ads,” said Wall Street Times blogger Jack Marshall. “For years publishers have struggled to successfully generate revenues from mobile ads, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll be any better at it if they sell their own ads for Instant Articles… 70 cents on the dollar could be better than a whole dollar.”
More credibility and less sharing traffic for Facebook
Facebook made USD $3.32 billion from advertising in the first three months of this year. To put that in some context, total quarterly revenue at The New York Times is around USD $500 million.
But while Facebook comfortably out-earns established media brands with their high costs, complex distribution models and various legacy issues, it still faces a highly competitive marketplace for advertising dollars and for the attention of its users.
Instant Articles addresses this challenge in two ways: firstly it supports Facebook’s goal of raising the quality of the content its members produce. Original, high quality journalism from globally-recognised publications is about as far away as you can get from pictures of people’s lunch.
Secondly, it helps keep users in the Facebook environment. Right now, users might see a headline and summary of a news story in their Facebook app, but will get sent out to a web browser if they want to read the full article. And while Instant Articles might benefit the user by getting them to their content quicker, plugging that potential traffic leak is super valuable to Facebook.
There is similar thinking behind Facebook Add A Link, which allows some users to search for content already shared on Facebook when they create a new post. Going out to a browser to find a URL to share will no longer be necessary, keeping users on their Facebook app where they can’t get wooed away by a competitor.
Facebook and Google both making nice with newspapers
Facebook’s Instant Articles partnership seems to offer real potential for publishers struggling to find a workable business model in the digital age. For once, the interests of Facebook and old media seem aligned. As Tony Danker, Guardian News and Media’s international director said, Instant Articles could only succeed if it “delivers recurring benefit for publishers”.
This is a quite a change. A good chunk of the adverting dollars Facebook hoovers up every quarter would have gone to newspapers a generation ago. Now, Facebook and its peers are holding all the aces and iconic brands like The New York Times and The Guardian face a battle for survival.
It’s a small step, but Instant Articles makes Facebook appear part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And it comes as another internet giant, Google, looks to repair its own fractured relationship with the newspaper industry.
As well as swallowing even more ad dollars than Facebook, Google has also ruffled feathers among newspaper brands with its Google News service, which critics claim deprives news websites of visitors and uses their own content to do it.
Last month, Google announced a joint initiative with eight news publishers that will see the search engine giant stump up USD $150 million to support newsroom innovation, training and research. The aim is to help traditional publishers remodel themselves for the internet age, but the bigger prize is repairing relations with potentially valuable content partners.
Just like Facebook, Google is looking at ways to keep more traffic on its own properties. The Knowledge Graph is a great example of that, with Google now answering some queries itself using third party content at the top its search results.