With news organizations looking for more ways to generate revenue from online readers, as the COVID-19 crisis forces more jobs cuts and publication closures across the industry, Facebook is now testing a new option that would enable a publishers' subscribers to link their Facebook account to the publication, so that they could view the publishers content direct from Facebook, without paywalls or being asked to sign-in to a separate service.
As reported by TechCrunch:
"The idea is that when Facebook identifies a subscriber from one of its publisher partners, that subscriber will be invited to link their news account to their Facebook account. Once they’re linked, if they encounter a paywalled article on Facebook, they’ll be able to read it without hitting the paywall or having to log-in again."
That could provide another way for publishers to maintain connection with their audience, while Facebook says that it would also look to show subscribers more content from the publishers they're subscribed to, another key incentive for potential partners.
Facebook has been trying for years to develop better tools to help publishers maintain connection with their audience, after criticism that by acting as the middleman, Facebook takes all the benefits of such connection, leaving publishers with limited data and/or connection options to continue to generate revenue from their audience.
Back in 2017, Facebook tested out a new subscription option within Instant Articles to further incentivize use of the option, which sees articles load faster using Facebook's tools.
Facebook expanded that program in 2018, but given limitations in the process, and the lack of direct connection with the audience, Instant Articles haven't provided the solution that Facebook had hoped when it first launched the option.
The key concern publishers have is that Facebook has a history of changing the rules, and severely impacting their reach and performance. Originally, publishers on Facebook could build an audience, and reach all of them with their content, but Facebook's continual algorithm shifts have restricted such further and further, which has made many skeptical of the company's later advances to build stronger ties with publishing groups.
If you rely too much on Facebook, you can lose it all at its whim. Given the history, you can see why publishers are pushing hard to institute more direct connection options before they sign-up.
Will this proposal be any different?
It doesn't seem like the ultimate solution, but it may be another step in the right direction. Facebook is also working to expand its dedicated News tab, into more regions, which also includes advanced partner deals to share data and connection options. It's hard to predict how successful that will be, or how beneficial it will be for publishers, but by facilitating new deals like this, Facebook could be getting closer to finding a better arrangement to ensure that news publishers can feel secure in working with the platform, without the risk of losing all that work at the next algorithm tweak.
On the one hand, Facebook offers massive reach, which is enough of a lure to get many interested in its offerings. On the other, significant risk, with respect to audience connection.
Facebook still has some work to do to mend the wounds of the past in this respect, but maybe, through smarter, direct linked options like this, it's getting closer to a more equitable solution.