While Facebook has had a rocky relationship with publishers – which was further exacerbated by the platform’s major News Feed re-focus announced earlier this year – The Social Network knows that it still needs publisher content to keep users coming to its platform, and it still wants publishers to post Facebook-exclusive material. Even if building any significant reliance on the platform remains a risky proposition.
In line with this, Facebook has this week announced that it’s expanding the capacity for more publishers to offer subscriptions via Instant Articles, providing an option to build direct connection with their audience through the Facebook-specific offering.
Facebook first started testing their subscription options last October, and they’ve reported seeing good results from those initial trials:
“In May, people who saw Instant Articles from publishers in our test group were 17% more likely on average to subscribe to those publications directly from Facebook than people who saw standard web links.”
That’s certainly an encouraging figure, and Facebook's now looking at several new options to improve the process, including:
- Tools that enable publishers to define when a reader sees a paywall (for example, number of articles per month; which articles are open vs locked). For publishers with metered models, we'll support a flexible monthly meter with no restrictions, and we'll add weekly and daily options over time.
- Support for time-based special offers (like a July 4th sale) on the Instant Articles paywall and pre-paywall upsells.
- A propensity model that predicts how likely someone is to become a subscriber to a certain publisher. We're experimenting with ways to put that understanding to work, such as showing additional upsells to people who are likely to subscribe.
In addition to this, Facebook’s also testing a new Page button which would enable publishers to promote their subscription offers direct on their Facebook presence.
And those are all interesting – it’s good to see Facebook offering new ways for publishers to connect via the platform, without putting all of their reliance on Facebook itself.
But then again, there are the ongoing concerns about algorithm and platform shifts, which can see the rug pulled from under publishers at Facebook’s whim.
In line with this, Slate has reported that Facebook traffic to their platform has dropped some 81% over the last year.
From Slate's article:
“To put it another way: For every five people that Facebook used to send to Slate about a year ago, it now sends less than one. “Every time Facebook traffic would go down, we’d think, ‘OK, maybe this is the low point,’ ” said Slate’s editor in chief, Julia Turner. “And then it would go down even further.”
That’s been the experience, in varying degree, of many publishers on the platform – and given such steep declines, it may be a hard sell to get them on board with Instant Articles, even as Facebook provides more ways to establish direct connection with readers.
But then again, Facebook still has more reach than any other platform, a huge lure that will continue to bring publishers in. And that’s before we even mention other Facebook-owned properties in Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp.
The contrasting storylines here underline the constant dilemma that is Facebook for brands. Get it right, and work with the platform’s algorithms, and you can see massive traffic benefits. But all that effort to get it right can also be erased in an instant if Facebook decides to change tack.
Given this, the new Instant Articles tools should be welcomed – but the counter-narrative definitely waters down their potential. Even if they do cater more specifically to publisher concerns.