The lure of Facebook Instant Articles (FIA) is simple. The world of publishing is dependent on nurturing attention: who can grab it most effectively, who can hold it, who can pull off the holy grail of converting that initial interest and curious click into a long standing, sustained reading habit. This being the case, the load time of any given page is a primary selling point: The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook’s claims of an ‘instant’ load time did indeed hold true: articles were typically ready to read between 0 and 0.300 milliseconds, compared with 3.66 seconds on publishers’ own websites. That kind of time frame might seem trifling, but that latter figure is also going to change depending on the strength of local internet speeds.
If things load faster, they can be read faster. If they can be read faster, they can potentially be shared faster as well. For the reader, instant access doesn’t test patience and it satiates our need to immediate information. For the publisher the upside is obvious: it removes any obstacle for the reader to start reading, and, with the average attention span apparently hovering around the eight second mark, those three seconds that an article might take to load in a browser may well be the difference between something getting read and something else getting read instead.
Naturally there are upsides for Facebook too, and this is where publishers start to feel uneasy. Whilst Facebook might claim that its FIA receive no preferential positioning in newsfeeds, once you get down into how Facebook ranks articles, it’s easy to see how FIA get the edge on more conventional posts. Facebook typically determines where articles appear in your newsfeed by looking at metrics such as load time, engagement and shares. Since FIA is designed to have the edge on all of these things, it’s natural that articles distributed this way have an advantage over those that don’t.
In addition there’s the old issue of monetization. As of October, publishers have the option to sell their own ads into the space, where they would keep 100% of the revenue (and though this sounds promising, there is a limit as to how many ads Facebook will allow you to place within an article) or you can use Facebook’s audience network to create ads, although here FB takes a 30% cut. For publishers that rely on ad revenue, this is potentially a downside, so it’s interesting to note that publishers who opt not to use Instant Articles are often the ones actively pursuing a subscription-based business model. More on that later.
There’s also the problem of limited access to valuable data, meaning that publishers may not get a full understanding of how their articles are actually being consumed. Yes, Google Analytics are now linked into FIA, but as any editor will attest, the information is not sufficient to be useful to editors and journalists interested in how their content is actively being consumed.
The Washington Post have wholeheartedly jumped into the FIA pool, which might seem incongruous when you consider that their business model is one that relies on redirecting readers to the main site where hopefully they’ll take out a subscription. That said, they do have Jeff Bezos at the helm, who – as Lucia Moses has quipped – has deep enough pockets to give the publication some ‘wiggle room’. The Post doesn’t yet have the high subscription rates that publications such as the New York Times can boast, so they may be willing to sacrifice reader data and ad control in the hope of raising its profile through publishing to the huge audience that is Facebook. It will be hoping that FIA pays out in terms of brand awareness which will convert later into subscriptions and a loyal reader base, something that Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at the Post affirmed in March 2016: “we have seen a dramatic uplift in the number of people who come more than once a week to our content, so publishing on Facebook Instant Articles brings recirculation and a deeper engagement”.
With Medium now struggling after having persuaded so many companies to onboard so hurriedly, the old adage involving eggs and one basket really does spring to mind
The Atlantic were another enthusiastic user of the program back in the spring of 2016, though while it was initially uploading around 85% of its articles to Facebook via this speedier route, when surveyed again in September, only 10% of its links on Facebook utilized FIA.
Mic were another publisher who leapt right in. Cory Haik, who came to Mic from the Washington Post, said at the time of her appointment that, “you can’t really tell what these platform things mean until you do them at scale.” It’d be interesting to see whether her thoughts have changed nine months on.
What seems to be agreed across the board is that FIA works best if it’s used judiciously. Some publishers, “seem to be getting more analytical about how they’re using the format, which could account for some of the pullback”, reported Lucia Moses for Digiday in September.
“It isn’t a matter of high principle,” says Ken Doctor of the Financial Times’ decision not to use Instant Articles. “It’s a matter of data”. The London-based publisher, one of several who have actively pursued a subscription-based business model, values user interaction and says that success is something, “we judge in the form of incremental reach, advertising and subscription value, and, most importantly, a direct relationship with the audience.” By keeping readers on site, they’re perhaps better placed to do this than by using FIA, but then again, unlike the Washington Post, they’re not looking for a low-cost, high-volume readership.
The Boston Globe posted all of its articles onto Facebook via Instant Articles as an experiment to see what – if any – effect the super-speed facility made. After three weeks they, “didn’t see a lift in engagement, at least not materially”, according to their social media Director, Matt Karolian.
Several publishers have “pulled back” from FIA. Business Insider’s use dropped from 10% of articles published on Facebook via FIA around May 2016, to around two in 100 by the end of September.
The BBC, National Geographic and Wall Street Journal have barely used the facility at all. Bloomberg eschewed it completely, but in a way that you can if you’ve got the sophisticated tech arm of your company at your disposal. They are able to reach their readers and viewers through well-established TV, radio and web branches.
So, where does this all leave us?
Once again we must refrain from a kind of reductionism where we assume that reader behavior is universal, or at least neatly compartmentalized. As the consumption patterns of millennials shows us time and time again, there is no one way people get news, and there’s no corresponding single solution to how that news should reach us. “There is no right answer. Each publisher has a different strategy that’s right for them, and we should not copy the tactics of others, because each organisation is different,” says Andiara Petterle of Grubo RBS, the Brazilian publisher who elect to put much of their content through Facebook and use the platform as a subscription funnel.
One thing that they pick up on is the undeniable ability of Facebook to target readers specifically according to their locale, interests and preferences. With the number of active monthly users of Facebook now grazing the 1.8 billion mark, it is certainly too big a presence in the publishing world to ignore, but with Medium now struggling after having persuaded so many companies to onboard so hurriedly, the old adage involving eggs and one basket really does spring to mind.