After much speculation, Facebook's Instant Articles are here. Instant Articles gives publishers the opportunity to post their content direct to Facebook, in a move that some are proclaiming as 'selling their soul' to the social giant. The concern, given Facebook's history of changing the ground rules, is that while the initial offering from Facebook on Instant Articles is good, the other shoe will eventually drop once the process has become embedded and publishers are reliant on the new practice. Like Darth Vader, the expectation is that Facebook will alter the deal, and once it's become a key part of publishers' overall strategy, they'll be left with no choice but to simply pray that Facebook doesn't alter it any further.
How does it work?
Instant Articles translates publisher content via HTML and RSS into good looking, easy to consume content, available direct on Facebook. There's also a range of additional publishing options exclusive to the new platform to boost the presentation of content in the News Feed, things like auto-play video and interactive maps, all of which will function smoothly within Facebook's mobile news feed. It's worth noting that Instant Articles are only available via the mobile app right now - trying to access the same content on your desktop PC will take you to the normal, mobile web version of the article (though Facebook specifically notes 'for the moment' as a qualifier on this).
Instant Article posts load much faster than normal links, which is one of the major pain points Facebook is seeking to resolve with this option. The average mobile load time for an external link from Facebook is around eight seconds. Now, that seems like nothing, right? Eight seconds isn't long to wait for an article to come up, but on a wider scale, when you consider how many people are using Facebook each day, that time is significant. Facebook has 936 million daily active users, if each of those users opens just one link per session, that eight seconds load time equates to more than two million total hours that people around the world are waiting, each day, for posts to load - time those people could be spending doing other things. Like reading more content on Facebook. From that perspective alone, Facebook's move has a significant pay-off, even if they maintain the current ad revenue split, which, at present, looks pretty appealing for publishers.
How do publishers make money?
One of the biggest concerns about publishers posting first-run content direct to Facebook was that they'd be surrendering their own audience in favour of Facebook's. If people no longer need to visit your site to view content, that's going to result in less traffic, and by extension, less opportunity to monetize your audience. Facebook's worked to alleviate this by offering publishers the ability to display their own ads within their Instant Articles, with all revenues from any such ads going back to the publishers. Facebook will then fill any unsold ad spots, and will take a 30 per cent cut from any revenues generated by those ads, with the rest going back to the publishers.
Facebook has also worked with comScore to ensure Instant Article views within Facebook's app will count as traffic for the original publisher, not Facebook. So while publishers are ceding control to The Social Network, they're getting a pretty good deal on advertising and losing nothing in audience stats. Facebook will also provide performance data on Instant Articles, better enabling publishers to work out what's resonating best with their Facebook audience and make improvements.
Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? And considering many publishers are already significantly reliant on Facebook referral traffic anyway, partnering with the network via Instant Articles makes sense, as it's likely (despite Facebook saying this is not the case) that Facebook's algorithm will give preferential treatment to Instant Articles over other posting options. Though that, too, is where publishers hesitate in shaking Facebook's outstretched hand and look down at the feet to see if their standing on the trap door.
What's The Issue with Instant Articles?
The problem with Facebook's new option is not what Instant Articles are now, but what they may become. Major players posting direct to Facebook is a fundamental shift in the publishing process. While, right now, the deal looks good, and it seems as though Facebook has done a lot of negotiating with their launch partners to ensure the deal beneficial for all, as with the many changes to the News Feed algorithm, Facebook has the right to change the game whenever it sees fit.
If publishers don't sign up to Instant Articles, will that see eventually their content de-emphasised by the algorithm, making it harder to reach potential audience on the platform? If Instant Articles are given preferential placement in the News Feed, will that further reduce the reach of all other content as there'll be less News Feed real estate remaining as a result? If Instant Articles are a big hit, and publishers become reliant on that as a new source of revenue, will Facebook re-configure the advertising split, leaving publishers with no choice but to take the hit and give over more money to the social giant?
Obviously, there's no way of knowing how it will play out, but it's generally agreed that building a reliance on 'rented land', in social networks or any other platform of which you don't control the back-end, isn't sustainable practice in the long-term. But maybe Facebook is, as they say, only seeking to improve user experience. Maybe eliminating that load time results in more people spending more time visiting other areas of Facebook or direct posted articles further enhance Facebook's status as a key source of information, increasing time spent on platform, and thus, opportunities for Facebook to serve ads, and that, in itself, is enough reason for Facebook to maintain the system as is. It seems unlikely, in the long term. The initial deal being offered seems a little too good to be what it will in its final configuration. But it sure is appealing. You can imagine many publishers would be willing to sign-up to get better reach to Facebook's 1.4 billion users.
Instant Articles is definitely an interesting development, and one everyone in the content, media and publishing space will want to keep a close eye on.