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Strategic analysis
The Thing About Facebook Instant Articles

Written by on May 18, 2015

Last week, Facebook launched Facebook Instant Articles in a partnership with a whole slew of impressive publishers. And if you follow me over at Twitter, you might have seen that I tweeted several not entirely positive tweets about this deal.

But it's so hard to explain something as complex as this in the form of a tweet. More so because my concerns about this are somewhat different from what others are commenting.

Most media people have talked about some dystopian outcome in which Facebook will first lure people over to them, and then cut off the publishers. That's not really what I'm concerned about, though. My concerns are defined by what we are seeing right now, today. And my concern is that publishers seem to suffer from an acute case of Alzheimer's disease, where the main symptoms are memory loss and confusion.

It seems to me that many publishers and media commentators have completely forgotten what Facebook is, how it works, and what it does.

Facebook Instant Articles isn't a new thing at all. We already know how it will work and what you can expect from it. But many publishers seem to have completely unrealistic expectations.

So let's talk about this.

Facebook Instant Articles are amazing

Before we go to the analysis, let's just have a quick look at Facebook Instant Articles, because they are amazingly designed and conceptualized.

The design refreshingly focused on bringing you into the articles in ways that just makes you want to read them. They are filled with interactivity designed to be amazing in a mostly non-interrupting way.

Here is a video presentation:

Notice how you can like, share and comment not just the article itself, but each photo and video within the article. That's a nifty social feature. And the social aspects extend the journalists too, who can have their Facebook profiles linked to each article, helping publishers build up the all important social capital that they need for building an audience.

It's brilliant.

And then we have the partnership details, which are some the best I have ever heard. Facebook will allow publishers to run their own ads on Facebook's Instant Articles, keeping 100% of the revenue. And if publishers can't fill their own ad spots, they can include Facebook ads and then keep 70% of the revenue.

Oh my god! That's amazing.

Granted, there are limitations for what ad formats publishers can use and where, as WSJ reported:

  • One large banner ad, sized 320x250 or 300x250 pixels, or 2 small banners sized 320x50 or 300x50 pixels for every 500 words of content.
  • A maximum of 4 total ads per article, and a maximum of 2 small banners per article.
  • All articles are allowed to have at least one ad, regardless of the length.
  • Publishers may include no more than one house ad per article.
  • No ads may be placed "above the fold" on the first view of the article.
  • Publishers may not include ads in autoplay videos embedded in their articles, although ads in third-party video players are allowed.

But publishers can include native ads from brands directly as Instant Articles on Facebook.

Wait, what? A native ad sold by publishers can be published on Facebook, and the publisher will keep 100% of the revenue? What remarkable madness is this?

Also, since publishers can keep using their own ads, we don't have all the trouble with EU data protection laws, and publishers can keep at least some control over the user data (as pointed out by Build).

And on the UI/UX side, it gets even better.

The name Facebook Instant Articles comes from the fact that these articles will load instantly. No waiting, and no slow mobile crap. Just instant.

The way this works is that Facebook will preload the start of each instant article before people even reach it in their NewsFeed. So by the time people choose to click on it, it's already loaded in the Facebook app.

It's technically brilliant.

What Facebook has done is absolutely remarkable. It really sounds like a win (Facebook), Win (publishers) and win (readers) situation.

Very, very good job everyone!

But...

"Wait a minute," you say. "If you are so impressed by this, why the negative tweets?" Well, that's the thing. My concerns have nothing to do with the concept of Facebook Instant Articles, or the partnership as a whole. That part is brilliant. My concern is what publishers think they can get out of this, and how it changes their role with their audiences.

Net Neutrality

Okay, I do also have an overall philosophical concern about the future of the internet as a whole, in relation to what the internet is supposed to do and net neutrality.

The promise of the internet is that everyone have equal opportunities, and that you never have to ask permission from a gatekeeper to become a publisher. That was why the internet was invented.

This is also why it should be a concern when we hear that Verizon is buying AOL, and is suddenly the publisher of sites like Huffington Post as well as the gatekeeper to people's internet connection. And it's even more scary when Verizon plans to use their monopoly on internet access (for many people in the US) to promote, target, and collect data for their own ad networks and content platforms.

The very idea of that makes me shiver. And we are starting to see the same with Facebook. As Dave Pell tweeted:

As a small publisher myself, I'm sick and tired of these constant partnership between huge tech companies and legacy media titles. It violates the very promise of the internet. The promise that says that everyone is treated equal, and that you don't have to ask permission from a gatekeeper.

It's not just Facebook, of course. We see this everywhere. On Twitter, Google, Apple, Amazon, and so forth.

We are moving back into the old world of AOL, and it sucked! It didn't just suck for you and me, the AOL style of internet was terrible for everyone involved, including AOL after a while.

I understand why it sounds like a good idea for the publishers who get invited into this exclusive club of preferred content partnerships, but it isn't. It's a terrible plan, as have been proven so many times, over and over again.

But my philosophical concern about how our social platforms are turning into AOL style gatekeepers isn't really the big problem here. I think it's worth debating, but there are other and more immediate concerns.

Speed

Another minor issue is the main selling point. Facebook says that the reason they are doing Facebook Instant Articles is because publishers' websites load way too slow. I agree with Facebook on this. Newspaper websites are almost hopeless when it comes to delivering an optimized experience.

Back in 2014, I posted an example of this over at Google+. To load just a single article from one of the national newspapers in my country, you would have to download 2.2 MB of website code and content, taking 12 seconds to render. To put this into perspective:

The article itself was 2,072 characters / 328 words long, but the javascript code was:

  • 552,620 characters long
  • 79,445 words long

If you decided to print just the javascript code alone, it takes up 366 pages of US letter, or 350 pages of A4.

This is just the javascript. They are forcing people to load a page that is longer than an entire book of Harry Potter. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was 76,944 words long.

But think about what Facebook is saying here. They are telling us that because of the sheer incompetence of newspapers at optimizing their own websites, they will now fix it in return for being the place where people go to get news.

If newspapers had actually taken the mobile web seriously to begin with, there would be no need for Facebook Instant Articles at all. Facebook is solving a problem that shouldn't exist.

As one person replied to me:

It's the same when we hear all these editors talk about Facebook Instant Articles in the Facebook intro video above. They talk about what Facebook has done as if it's almost magical, apparently not realizing that they could have done all of it themselves.

For instance, the Senior Photo Editor from NatGeo talks about how amazing it is that you can click on a photo and then tilt your phone to see it. If he thinks that is so amazing, why didn't National Geographic do it on their own website?

Facebook is mocking you. I imagine this was how they discussed it afterwards.

We presented how you could make photos slide, and they all thought this was something new. Oh man, that was too funny. And, did you hear that these publishers didn't even know how to do autoplaying videos? Or what about when the publishers gaped in awe when we showed them interactive maps. Oh boy, we laughed at that one for hours afterwards.

We also showed them that by removing all the extra elements from a page and slightly optimizing the code, we could make it load faster. They couldn't believe it. Ha ha.

Man, we had soo much fun at that meeting.

Publishers, you should have done all of this yourselves years ago, and it serves as yet another example of how far behind the legacy media world is.

But let's discuss some of the more important things.

Not everyone is like Buzzfeed

Last week I published a Plus report (43 pages) about the five different behaviors that define news consumption. The break, the update, the lookup, the story and the passion, and the recline.

In that article, I explain how massively different each one is, and how that influence your editorial product and strategy.

My point was to illustrate that we have five major forms of news consumption, but too many publishers think we only have one.

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.

So, it makes all the sense in the world when Buzzfeed partners with Facebook. Facebook's audience, and Buzzfeed's editorial focus are a perfect match.

But for a newspaper like Bild or publishers like The Atlantic, we see an entirely different outcome. Their audiences are entirely different. Their stories are defined for people with a different behavior and, as such, they don't really benefit that much from Facebook. And even when they do, the traffic they get is usually of the low-quality type that just clicks and leaves.

This is the problem I have with Facebook Instant Articles. Publishers don't seem to realize that Facebook isn't this wide-ranging field of people who they can benefit from no matter what. So, their expectations of what they think Facebook can do for them is completely out of proportion with reality.

Again, read my Plus article about reader behavior in the digital world.

This leads us to...

What you can expect from Facebook

As said in the beginning, we already know what to expect from Facebook Instant Articles.

There is a weird kind of expectation that, by being on Facebook, you will magically reach all of Facebook's 1.3 billion users. As one media analyst wrote:

This sounds like a pretty straightforward exchange of value. Facebook gets what will hopefully be engaging content for its 1.4 billion or so users, and publishers get the reach that the social network provides

No! ... Just No!

This is not how Facebook works. Nor is it how any other social network works. Partnering with Facebook Instant Articles does not give you more reach than you already have today. And let me explain why.

There are only two ways content can be seen on Facebook.

One way is if you publish the content on your own Facebook page, from which a small fraction of your audience will see it. How many that is depends on the mood of Facebook Newsfeed algorithm that day.

Take this article posted by The Atlantic:

As you can see, it only attracted 36 likes and 3 shared, which means that the number of people who clicked on it was probably less than 500.

Turning this into a Facebook Instant Article doesn't really change that. Just because an article loads faster and looks prettier once people have already clicked on it, doesn't mean more people will see it.

People still have to decide that they want to click on it. Your lack of reach isn't caused by what happens after people click on a post. It's caused by the decision that happened before people clicked.

And we see this so clearly with brands.

Publishers are amazed that they can now be on Facebook, apparently completely forgetting that this is what brands have been doing for the past 8 years.

Take a huge brand like H&M, who has a staggering 22 million fans on Facebook. Every single day they are posting directly on Facebook, and every single day the result is mediocre at best.

This post is exactly the same as a Facebook Instant Article. It's on Facebook, it has all the social elements you would expect, it can be shared directly from Facebook, and it loads instantly when you click on one of the images.

And yet, this post was only liked by 0.03% of their audience, which means that probably only 0.5% of H&M's audience saw it in their NewsFeeds.

Being on Facebook isn't this magical unicorn that many media people seem to believe. You have to fight for your attention, and only a tiny fraction of your audience is going to see what you post.

When The Atlantic posts something that only gets 3 shares, turning that into a Facebook Instant Article won't really change that in any substantial way. It will just make it load slightly faster and look slightly prettier. Those are important elements as well. But it doesn't change the number of people who click to read it in the first place.

The second way to get noticed on Facebook is when other people share your content. This can be incredibly powerful in some cases, but again, you have to remember what type of behavior people have when they are visiting Facebook.

If you are Buzzfeed, it's remarkable. But, let's look at The Atlantic once more. The article I mentioned before is also on their website. And if we look at the stats. The website version was liked 46 times and shared 15 times.

Will Facebook Instant Articles magically change this? No, of course not. These 15 shares happened outside of Facebook. It happened from their website. How the article looks on Facebook make no difference to those shares.

If 15 shares was what they got last week, 15 shares are likely what they will get next week. You can't get more reach of you are never reaching a bigger audience to begin with.

True, for these 15 shares, the article will now show up as an Instant Article on Facebook. And here the normal Facebook algorithm comes into play. Facebook has said they do not intend to favor Instant Articles over any other form of content, so that too doesn't change how many people you reach.

What it may do is that, for the small percentage who decided to click on it, they will get a slightly better experience, which may cause them to reshare at a slightly higher level than before.

Where is all this fantastic reach going to come from? It sounds to me like the publishers don't have the faintest idea of how Facebook actually works.

Look at brands. They are all complaining about lack of reach and they have been posting directly on Facebook for years.

Mind you, I'm not saying you shouldn't partner with Facebook Instant Articles. It's a beautiful feature, and very user friendly. I'm also not saying that Facebook doesn't work for creating reach. There are plenty of examples where it does. But that has much more to do with the people involved and the inspiration and passion that they influence than the format of how something is posted.

What I am saying is that it's unlikely that Facebook Instant Articles will change your reach in any substantial way.

This leads us to loyalty.

Who gets the loyalty

It is well known that loyalty goes to the one you interact with, and not the providers.

Take Netflix. On Netflix you can find thousands of movies and TV shows, and many love that. But, because people interact with Netflix and not with any specific movie studio directly, people quickly become loyal to Netflix instead of the people who made the movies. People don't say. I want to watch Dreamworks tonight. They say, I want to watch Netflix.

We see the same thing with Spotify. In the past, when people had to go into a music store and specifically chose which artist to buy an album from, people became loyal to the artists. But on Spotify, the behavior we see today is that most people are now loyal to Spotify.

It's the same for brands and fashion sites like ASOS. ASOS sells clothes from hundreds of different brands, and yet most people do not even know that. People become loyal to ASOS and not the individual brands.

And we see it with magazines. Here, for instance, is a page from the March edition of Better Homes & Gardens. It's like a Facebook NewsFeed, where you can find a collection of posts from different brands.

As a magazine reader, this page is wonderful. But a page like this doesn't add any loyalty to the products on it. When people flip the page, they can't even remember that it was a Finnish brand called Marimekko who made that pillow.

You are loyal to the magazine because it is what you interact with, and it's what you choose to see. What's in the magazine merely exists to peak your interest and to serve your need for something nice to look at.

This is an important thing to understand about loyalty. Loyalty is the result of what you choose to interact with. If I choose to interact with a specific brand, I gain loyalty for that brand. But if I choose to interact with a newspaper, who happens to mention a brand, my loyalty goes to the newspaper.

This is why Twitter and Facebook works so differently. On Twitter, my feed is defined by who I follow and it hasn't been ranked or edited. This means that my loyalty goes more to those I follow, and less so to Twitter itself.

But on Facebook, the NewsFeed is a curated and edited view of what Facebook thinks I would like to see, meaning that I'm no longer in control over who and what to see. So the loyalty goes to Facebook because they are the ones I'm now interacting with.

Facebook is doing exactly the same with its NewsFeed as Better Homes & Gardens is doing on the page above. It's giving me a selection of content, based on their view of what I would like to see, and thus I never really made a decision about any of the brands involved.

We see this every single day. How many times, for instance, have you clicked on a link to something, and then completely forgotten what site it was on five minutes later?

This is such an important difference. Loyalty is the result of who you decide to interact with. It's not about what you click on, or what you happen to see.

Of course, this isn't new. This has been the case throughout the history of publishing, for hundreds of years. So how does that relate to Facebook Instant Articles?

Well, it might not make any difference.

For your audience on Facebook, Instant Articles might actually improve loyalty in a small way because of the better user-experience. But the experience is not that different.

Here, for instance, we have the National Geographic as an instant article (which loaded instantly), compared with The Atlantic using its old web links (which took 3 seconds to load on my phone).

Yes, Facebook Instant Articles feel smoother and more refined. But they are not going to dramatically change your business in any way.

But, at the same time, Facebook Instant Articles also gives people yet another reason to never leave their Facebook NewsFeed, which means it is even harder to gain that loyalty in the first place.

My point is that publishers seem to have completely unrealistic expectations as to what Facebook Instant Articles will do for them. As far I can tell, it won't make much difference at all. And the challenges publishers face today, with the largest ones being how to gain people's loyalty, will be same tomorrow.

Just because an article looks slightly better and loads slightly faster on Facebook, doesn't change the dynamics of how the world works.

And if we look at newspapers like the New York Times, who have done such an amazing job at converting more than 900,000 people into digital subscribers. Facebook Instant Articles look more like a distraction.

Remember the behavioral patterns I mentioned before? The main reason why people go to Facebook is not to get the news. It's because they are taking a break and just looking for something to pass the time. It's a behavior that lacks intent.

In the social world, however, we also have the very important concept of nurturing your audience. In fact, this the main reason why you should be engaging with people socially in the first place. And Facebook Instant Articles do nurture people because they give people a smoother and better experience.

But, again, we come back to the question: Who gets the loyalty?

When people click on these Facebook Instant Articles, will they think that it is you, as a publisher, who are nurturing them by creating better looking articles? Or will people see your Instant Articles as just yet another post like all the others, and that it's really Facebook that is nurturing them?

If you look at the history of social media, and how it has evolved so far, you already know the answer to that one.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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