Facebook recently launched their much anticipated Instant Articles program, but many publishers are still trying to determine how to react. Responses range from wholehearted endorsements to strong skepticism. The program offers magazines, newspapers, and other online publishers with an interesting trade-off – one that has clear benefits for users but also has brought about some understandable fear and uncertainty. At Irish Titan we like a good debate so, naturally, we’ve been keeping a close eye on this one.
If you are one of the roughly 1.5 billion active monthly Facebook users on mobile devices you may have noticed articles with small lightning bolt icons. And if you’ve clicked on those articles you’ve probably seen that they load super-fast – as much as 10x faster than a standard article loading in a web browser, according to Facebook.
Those stories use Instant Articles functionality.
One of the reasons Instant Articles load so quickly is also the reason Facebook was motivated to launch this feature: Users who view Instant Articles do not leave the Facebook app. A standard article directs visitors to an external website. Now, with Instant Articles, some publishers instead push their content directly to Facebook where they load more quickly due to a stripped-down design and a distinct lack of pop-ups and other features.
Implementation is made relatively simple via an RSS feed, the Instant Articles API, or a supported third-party publisher tool. The Facebook team must also initially review and approve the formatting of a publisher’s Instant Articles content.
User Experience Benefits and Publisher Concerns
Publishers who might otherwise view Facebook as a means of driving web traffic may be asking themselves just what the heck is going on. Why would other publishers essentially give their content to Facebook? The answer lies is a combination of user experience benefits and advertising incentives.
The user experience benefits cannot be disputed. Users browsing Facebook are there to browse Facebook, not necessarily link away to another site. This is especially the case if they need to wait for content to load. If an article can be loaded quickly, and a user can return to their Facebook News Feed equally quickly, it is simply easier to use Facebook to consume content. Naturally, that is what Facebook wants, but the important question is how that benefits publishers who are – gulp – not directing traffic to their websites.
This is where we need to return to user experience benefits (I know, again) and advertising considerations.
Media organizations who have embraced Instant Article have done so because they see more engagement with their content as a positive step, despite the in-app Facebook experience. As more users become accustomed to Instant Articles they may be less inclined to click on standard articles, and some simply don’t want to be left behind.
So if a publisher is skeptical, but feels backed into a corner by the changing media environment, what benefits can they look to?
If a publisher views online content as the product they provide, and not their website, the combination of an improved user experience and specific advertising incentives may be appealing. Publishers utilizing Instant Articles have two advertising options: Sell advertising on articles themselves and keep 100 percent of the revenue or cede the implementation of advertising to Facebook in exchange for 30 percent of ad revenue. While at first blush 100 percent of ad revenue sounds like the obvious choice, this may not be the case for some. To run ads on Instant Articles a publisher is required to use Facebook’s advertising platform. For those using Google’s DoubleClick for Publishers or other programs, moving away from a tried-and-true platform to an entirely new program may be a barrier to entry.
There are also a number of advertising restrictions applied to Instant Articles that may impact the bottom line, including a minimum amount of content between ads and a maximum number of ads per-article.
Shareability and Measurability
Of course, when you’re talking about articles on Facebook some of the most important considerations are shareability and measurability, and it will come as no surprise that the social media giant has those covered as well.
Instant Articles can be shared from a mobile device and viewed as any other web page. This is because each article is required to have a corresponding URL on the publisher’s website. The company also claims that Instant Articles are more frequently shared when compared to standard mobile web articles, further amplifying reach.
When measuring article engagement publishers naturally want to avoid the mind-numbing task of manually combining information from Facebook and other reporting tools. Thankfully the program is compatible with Google Analytics and other measurement tools.
The Big Picture
Facebook is certainly not alone in working to improve user experience through rapidly loading articles. Google, Twitter, and Apple all have launched similar efforts, though with distinct differences. Still, even by the standards of today’s rapidly changing media environment, these changes have caused a stir. Opinions have ranged from a total embrace of the technology – Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jess Besos is a notable example – to detractors weary of a media landscape where publishers out-source distribution to Silicon Valley giants.
Whether Instant Articles will drive more ad revenue for publications remains to be seen. However, Facebook just might have made the bar for implementation low enough for publishers to give it a try, even if the trade-offs at first seem hard to swallow.
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