19 May 2015

Baekdal: “The Thing about Facebook Instant Articles”

What many publishers don’t seem to understand is that Facebook is incredibly limited in terms of the behavior its audience has. People don’t go to Facebook for news. Instead, people primarily only use Facebook when they are having a quick break. That means that the audience is coming to Facebook without a specific intent. And because there is no specific intent, there is also almost no loyalty.

If you can optimize your content for that, then Facebook is amazing. Buzzfeed, for instance, have optimized almost entirely for people who are on a break, mostly bored, and with no specific intent. And because of this, Buzzfeed attracts quite a staggering level of traffic via the social sites, and primarily via Facebook.

Thomas Baekdal

The latest experiment in news delivery launched late last week and already there’s been an incredible amount of commentary about it – possibly more than the number of published Instant Articles. As the article linked above discusses at length, I see three main perspectives here:

We're excited to introduce Instant Articles, a fast and interactive experience for reading articles in News Feed
  1. Reader loyalty: while publications will probably see increased traffic (and ad income) in the short run, over time this will further erode the waning relationship between readers and newspapers. Despite keeping the specific branding of the publication, every time somebody reads an Instant Article means one less visit to their website or app – and one more visit to Facebook! If, in a couple of months, Instant Articles are retired or quietly buried by Newsfeed algorithms, do you think people will return to the separate apps for news? Most likely they will continue to browse whatever Facebook is showing as if nothing happened. In a way, this is an immense opportunity for Facebook to attract content creators – and apparently they already proposed this to some journalists.

    Here’s the thing: the shoe has in many respects already dropped. When people follow a link on Facebook (or Google or Twitter or even in an email), the page view that results is not generated because the viewer has any particular affinity for the publication that is hosting the link, and it is uncertain at best whether or not their affinity will increase once they’ve read the article. If anything, the reader is likely to ascribe any positive feelings to the author, perhaps taking a peek at their archives or Twitter feed.

    Ben Thompson
  2. Net neutrality: just as another recent Facebook initiative, Instant Articles raises questions about certain sites being ‘privileged’ from the user’s point of view. The difference is the form of this advantage: in the West, where Internet access is everywhere, sites compete on speed and design, and Instant Articles provides both for the partners involved; in the third world, where people lack basic Internet connectivity, Internet.org provides it for free – but again for select partners.
  3. It’s only an experiment – for Facebook at least. The best argument in favor of this idea is how Instant Articles launched exclusively on the and in the US. Choosing the iPhone means less development costs, while at the same time reaching a wide audience. This helps determine if people like the new format, lets Facebook experiment with subtle variations – and also minimizes losses if (when?) Facebook decides to retire Instant Articles, or to morph them into something entirely different. We’ll see how this plays out over time, but I’m not optimistic for the other so-called ‘partners’ in this initiative.

    The risk isn’t that an evil Facebook suddenly tries to destroy or pervert the causes of journalism, or goes to war against media entities (although the network’s relationship with news is troubled, as my colleague Erin Griffith points out, and censorship is not uncommon). The big risk is that Facebook plunders the relationship that news companies have—or should have—with their readers, and then destroys their business model almost accidentally, while it is in pursuit of other things.

    Mathew Ingram

By the way, Instant Articles is such a strange name – reminds you of ’s Instant Search, doesn’t it?

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