When Facebook launched its 'Instant Articles' offering back in May, many proclaimed it to be the end of publishing as we know it. But since then we've seen... well, not much.
Facebook's been very cautious and strategic about the deployment of this new product. Thus far, Instant Articles have only been made available on iOS devices - and only 12.5% of iOS Facebook users have been given any access at all to the offering, making it hard to say what, if anything, Instant Articles is and what it might mean for the wider media industry.
This appears to be the new way Facebook is rolling out significant changes. After causing much user angst with previous product launches and algorithm shifts (which have been flagged as the key reason for user migrations), Facebook's moved away from its initial mantra of 'move fast and break things' and taken a more relaxed, 'wait and see' approach, leading to better product development overall, but also lessening the impact of such changes because they're slowly fed in, allowing them to become a more prevalent part of the wider Facebook experience away from the knee-jerk backlash of initial reports.
Along this line, Facebook has this week signalled its intentions to ramp-up efforts on both Instant Articles and on their new live-streaming offering, both in different ways.
According to a report on re/code, Facebook will soon be expanding Instant Articles, both in terms of audience reach potential and content. Currently, Facebook says that 'hundreds' of articles are being published via Instant Articles every day. Soon, that will be thousands, with Facebook announcing a raft of new publishers coming on board to provide Instant Article content. Those publishers include:
The Huffington Post, Mashable, MTV, Daily Mail/Elite Daily, Business Insider, Hearst, MLB, Complex, Bleacher Report, MoviePilot, Vox Media (which owns this website), Mic, Gannett, Time Inc., Refinery 29, Bustle, the Dodo, CBS Interactive, IJ Review, NBA and the Blaze.
That's an impressive list, and one which will form a solid foundation for Instant Articles to get some real momentum in the market - if Facebook can show that Instant Articles is a better way to provide content via these popular publishers, that'll put pressure on other providers to follow-suit and sign-up to the platform also.
And Facebook is best placed to do just that - in an interview with Josh Constine at TechCrunch's 'Disrupt SF 2015' event this week, Facebook's ad chief Andrew Bosworth noted that they're looking at various ways to boost Instant Articles, with 'increasing recirculation' of content noted as one of the ways they might be able do this. As Facebook has the biggest audience reach of anyone, it's able to ensure publishers gain the widest possible audience for their content. And with so many big name publishers becoming 'Instant' publishers, there's a good chance they could dominate their respective markets through Facebook distribution - if they get a heap of readers and shares, other publishers will be compelled to join in order to compete.
Facebook's also working to entice publishers to Instant Articles by promoting the simplicity of the article creation process. In a post on the Facebook Developer Blog, TR Vishwanatah, an Engineering Manager at The Social Network, has outlined how Instant Articles communicates directly with publishers' existing Content Management System (CMS) to ensure the process is as simple and seamless as possible.
From the Facebook post:
"We heard clearly from publishers that they want a single tool to publish articles to the web, mobile apps, or any other places readers see their content. That's why Instant Articles supports publishing directly from a publisher's Content Management System - there's no need to author articles in a new location.
When publishers get started with Instant Articles, they provide an RSS feed of their articles to Facebook, a format that most Content Management Systems already support. Once this RSS feed is set up, Instant Articles automatically loads new stories as soon as they are published to the publisher's website and apps. Updates and corrections are also automatically captured via the RSS feed so that breaking news remains up to date."
It's that easy - but, of course, Instant Article content is hosted on Facebook, not on your site, so while the feed is easy to establish and the process is straight-forward, the traffic and metrics are all in the hands of Zuckerberg and Co. But as noted, if successful, publishers may be left with little choice.
The other element Facebook is pushing forward on is their live-streaming option, currently only available to celebrities and those with verified profiles through Facebook's 'Mentions' app. But the expectation is that Facebook will eventually roll-out live-streaming to all users - the initial release seems designed to highlight the strengths of the option by putting the content in the hands of people who can create work of a wide appeal. Big name celebrities can show the way, giving audiences some insight into how to use live-streaming to best effect, which builds interest in the option while also (maybe) reducing the amount of poor content when the functionality is switched on for everyone.
In line with this, Facebook has today published a new post which showcases the potential of their live-streaming option, with hosts from 'The Talk' giving fans behind the scenes access via Live.
Hey! I'm about to go live from my dressing room at The Talk. Hooray!Posted by Aisha Tyler on Tuesday, September 15, 2015
This is particularly interesting given the target demographic of The Talk - according to Nielsen, The Talk's key market is women aged 25-54, a demographic with significantly lower social media take-up than younger brackets. It's likely that many of these users would be unaware of live-streaming, which is an interesting angle for promotion for Facebook to take, targeting new markets to showcase the potential of the option. This is likely aimed at promoting the functionality on a wider scale ahead of a full roll-out, and by seeding awareness in this way, Facebook is positioning itself to gain a larger share of the live-streaming audience.
The promotion also raises awareness of the potential of live-streaming, with hosts from The Talk engaging fans before and after broadcasts with live Q and As, a strategy that's delivering results:
"New Page likes for "The Talk's" Facebook Page increased by 241% this week, and the hosts' Live videos and The Talk's videos accumulated more than 1.7 million total video views."
Those are pretty big numbers, amongst an audience you may not have suspected would be an ideal focus for live-streaming - other celebrities and brands see those view counts and they're going to be very keen to try it out for themselves. In doing this, Facebook may be best placed to move live-streaming beyond its current niche market and into the wider, mainstream consciousness.
The Calm Before...
What's evident on both fronts is that Facebook is not just sitting quietly and seeing how things develop with Instant Articles and Live. They're planning. They're putting things in place. Facebook's grand scheme is to dominate all attention online, but that's not something that can be done overnight. Learning from past implementations, and the responses to such changes, Facebook is now taking a more cautious approach, and is working to scale their new apps and features in a more structured and strategic manner. This is a great way for Facebook to work, and will no doubt lead to better, more stable offerings which are more widely accepted as a result.
Every Facebook project is designed with this wider ambition in mind. It's worth considering where they're headed - and how they might intend to get there - when viewing such developments.