Facebook Instant Articles: Blessing or Curse?

Posted by Sarah Hughes on Jul 6, 2016 9:49:34 AM

Topics: Publishing Platforms


When Facebook first opened their Instant Articles program to all publishers, the industry projected mixed feelings of excitement and apprehension, and understandably so. Facebook has already claimed the throne of social platforms, and publishers are wary of depending on traffic from a platform they had no control over. But now that Instant Articles has proved its worth in the form of increased revenue and traffic, publishers have no choice but to go all-in. In light of the most algorithm change that prioritizes user posts over publishers’, the industry tension has returned, and publishers can’t help but ask: is publishing on Facebook still worth it? We went ahead and weighed the pros and cons to evaluate whether Facebook Instant Articles still has a place within a successful content strategy.

CURSE: The infamous algorithm change

The Facebook newsfeed’s perpetual changes in algorithm are always keeping the industry on its toes. But if one was to compare the relationship between Facebook and news publishers’ to that of a rocky marriage, Facebook’s recent announcement would be grounds for a divorce. Many publishers have become dependent on Facebook’s reach and scale - and now that the newsfeed algorithm has been set to avoid, well, news, publishers are pretty angry with their former cohort. But what publishers are now forced to realize is that Facebook never actually put a ring on the publishing industry - their priorities are and always have been to cater to the user, and unfortunately what the user wants is more baby pictures.

BLESSING: Your audience is still there

Facebook’s commitment to user experience is what drives their 1.09 billion daily users (almost half of which are mobile) to keep coming back - and what makes the platform so valuable to publishers in the first place. To top it off, 66% of that audience use the platform for its news videos and articles, and to share content with their fellow news buffs. Facebook’s algorithm will have no other option but to give them what they want, or else they’ll find reasons leave the “walled garden” that Facebook has so carefully built (more on that later).

Regardless of Facebook’s constant changes in algorithm, user engagement has always been the most important factor in determining social reach. So as long as publishers continue to distribute share-worthy content, and users make it clear that news content is still a priority, nothing is really going to change. According to Facebook, users share Instant Articles 30% more often than mobile web articles on average. That’s why even after the industry-shattering algorithm announcement, publishers like LittleThings are still on team Facebook: “We’ve seen Instant Article traffic go through the roof. We’re seeing really high engagement, really high [ad prices], a ton more traffic from that platform than we’ve ever seen before.”

And for some more positive reinforcement, publishers that have focused on video for social engagement will still have the upper hand on a user’s Facebook feed. SocialFlow data recently revealed that “video accounted for just 0.9% of posts but for 7.15% of reach, 5.2% of likes and 11.1% of shares” on the platform.

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CURSE: Walled garden

Publishing content anywhere outside of an owned-and-operated site is always risky. When it comes to publishing on Instant Articles, which requires a 10 step set-up process and an HTML format native to Facebook, the program was essentially created to keep users within Facebook’s walls. So for publishers that invest in social platforms in order to drive traffic back to their site, Facebook Instant Articles is not that kind of investment.

BLESSING: User experience + monetization

Publishers that want to invest in their audience, however, have come to the right place. Ben Jacobson’s review of the Instant Articles makes a valuable point: “If you’re in the publishing business, your content – not your website – is your product, so it’s easy to argue that distributing your product and resonating with relevant people is your primary goal, regardless of who owns the platform you use.” Facebook Instant Articles may even give users a better experience with your brand than they would on your site. Even with its interactive media and video elements, Instant Articles load 10X faster than standard mobile web articles - which makes users 70% less likely to abandon the article.

The publishing platform also supports sponsored brand content - an advertising format that, according to The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2016, audiences prefer over standard display ads when getting free news. Branded campaigns in Instant Articles have been set so that users can “visually distinguish branded content from editorial content,” and publishers like The Washington Post and The Atlantic have already benefited from these user-friendly campaigns.

Facebook Instant Articles is also a solid source for more traditional monetization. Publishers that sell and serve their own ads keep 100% of the revenue. If you monetize any unsold inventory through the Facebook Audience Network, 70% of the revenue is yours to keep. So how big is this revenue opportunity? If you take into account that 78% of Facebook's ad revenue is fueled by mobile ads, and that Facebook’s total ad revenue is $5.2 billion, and that most users are accessing Instant Articles on mobile… let’s just say it’s not a terrible pie to have a piece of.

CONCLUSION: Another valuable extension of your brand

The slap in the face felt by publishers after Facebook’s most recent algorithm change may have actually been a much-needed wake-up call. The publishing industry has now reached the age of diversified revenue streams, where dependence on any single publishing platform is never a good strategy. Algorithms will continue to change according to the audience needs of each platform, and publishers must be able to evolve accordingly. As of now, Facebook is still where a majority of your online audience is, and its Instant Articles platform is proving to be both a valuable source of revenue and a great way to give users an enjoyable experience with your brand. Because the platform can be easily integrated with analytics tools including Google Analytics, and publishing tools like Wordpress and Medium, Instant Articles has the potential to seamlessly expand your distribution strategy.

Publishers can gain more from Instant Articles than just using it as a publishing platform. Two of its key principles in particular should be applied to their own on-site strategies: an allegiance to audience preferences and adherence to UX design. Sarah Lacy, founder and editor in chief of Pando, may not trust Facebook but recognizes that publishers’ priorities should be more in line with those of the media giant, not the other way around: “Rather than shaking an entitled fist at Facebook, learn from them: They continue to grow because they serve their audience. If you serve Facebook’s algorithm more than your audience, why should you have one?" Publishing content to Instant Articles helps brands reach the initial goal of finding and engaging with users, along with making their mark on the digital news landscape. Audiences will eventually be compelled to leave Facebook for more news content, and will seek out the trustworthy brands they met on their newsfeed. Make sure your site welcomes them with the same level of emphasis on user experience that Facebook Instant Articles has set the bar at - because it’s clear they have that part of the audience equation right.