The Future of Facebook Instant Articles

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A few years ago, Facebook set out to become the place where people go to get their news by leveraging its dominance in social publishing. It correctly predicted that people would share news just like they do their personal stories and therefore encouraged publishers to seek and develop their own business pages in order to organically attract these audiences. For a few bonanza years, publishers grew new fans and subscribers by luring readers off of the Facebook news feed and onto their own sites.

This strategy has had a profound impact. Currently, two-thirds of American adults are now finding some, if not most, of their news through social media, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. The same survey says that more than half of adults over the age of 50 now consume news while on social media websites. Although impressive, this shift to social news created new and interesting — yet problematic — dynamics.

First, this practice took users off of Facebook and on to the publishers’ own websites where they controlled the lion’s share of revenue opportunities. By indiscriminately doling out organic reach to publishers, Facebook knew it was foregoing ad revenue and handing key user data to third parties.

Second, Facebook recently revealed their concerns that the more users consumed news from the news feed, the less they tended to engage with the platform overall, a trend which Facebook believes lowers the quality of user experience. Facebook’s ultimate responses to these developments appeared contradictory, sending frustratingly mixed signals to publishers.

The Push For Instant Articles

Facebook moved to address the first problem — people finding content on Facebook but consuming it off-site — by making a play for more native content. Enter Instant Articles: Facebook’s offer to publishers to natively host their content…and control both user experience and monetization. Unsurprisingly, this was met with suspicion and outright anger.

With over 90 percent of users accessing Facebook through mobile devices as of 2016, Facebook considered a better mobile user experience to be vital to its plans. Instant Articles allow users to consume “linked” content directly from the Facebook app instead of loading publishers’ own sites, which often suffer from infuriating lag. The result? Much faster load times — up to ten times than mobile web — since the user is already on and never leaves Facebook, in theory providing a superior user experience.

Building on speed, Instant Articles brings the monetization of third party content under Facebook’s control, further promoting (at least in Facebook’s view) a positive user experience. Unlike many off-app links, Instant Articles are not riddled with ads, pop-ups or potentially malicious redirects and malware, making the format a favorite among large, influential business pages that drive a great amount of traffic to publishers from Facebook. It should come as no surprise that we have measured the average post reach for Instant Articles to be far higher than that of non-Instant Article outbound links.

Given the above, you might think that publishers would rush to configure their content on Instant Articles. But the reality is many publishers remain hesitant. With Instant Articles, Facebook stands between publishers and their respective audiences. Publishers that did start using Instant Articles have been forced to concede what once was a direct relationship with their readers for an interaction confined within and constrained by Facebook. By contrast, when readers are led to outside sites, publishers can track their visits and reading habits, customize experiences and easily retarget them for subscriptions and / or serving targeted ads.

Instant Articles have also proven less lucrative for publishers than direct traffic to their own sites because Facebook retains an eye-popping 30 percent of ad revenue. Moreover, opportunities for sponsored content, traditional campaigns like branded page takeovers — which often represent the most profitable opportunities for publishers — are fewer to non-existent.

Despite these downsides, many publishers felt they simply did not have any choice but to play the Instant Articles game, unable to walk away from the potential audience represented by Facebook’s two billion users. Holding their noses, they adopted the program while, understandably, voicing valid concerns that the lack of direct access to users was strangling growth.

Facebook listened. It opened up Instant Article insights, granting publishers the means to generate data from readers’ visits, going so far as to even allow the use of cookies. Facebook further offered publishers the ability to solicit readers for subscriptions. Coupled with higher organic reach and faster-loading content, Instant Articles began to outpace traditional outbound links in per post performance. Over the last year, publishers and pages within our platform, Contempo, have shifted in large measure over to Instant Articles, boasting a rise in total traffic from roughly 8% in January, 2017, to north of 70% today.

The Case For Facebook Instant Articles

In mid-January, Facebook announced yet another change to its news feed by which it would start to favor posts from friends and families, and more interactive posts from groups and communities over public posts from business pages, such as media publishers.

A week later, it hit publishers with another news feed change, taking on the thorny issue of “fake news” by granting higher ranking to “high quality” sites that the community rates as trustworthy, with news that is informative and deemed relevant to their community. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg also openly stated that the mix of public posts, formerly at an average of 5% of news feed content, would fall to around 4% over the coming months. This represents a dizzying 20% drop in reach for publishers, with many being hit even harder.

But Facebook wasn’t yet done. At the end of January, it announced a third algorithm change which would “promote news from local sources.” With small and large local publishers seeing a lift in their organic reach, publishers deemed non-local took yet another hit to their own.

This drop in non-local publisher organic reach has been painfully noticeable; however, the effects have been less severe for those who’ve already aligned themselves with Facebook’s values and interests, like adopting Instant Articles. To help them make a stronger comeback, we have been encouraging publishers to create stories and features that stimulate authentic audience engagement — with positive reactions and comments, especially — in light of Facebook’s clear indication that posts exhibiting these traits would rank higher in the news feed. Contempo also has been up-recommending stories from higher quality and trustworthy sites offering more informative and relevant, rather than salacious or pointless, material.

And while it is not a panacea, it is already apparent that there is a stark difference between publishers that have adopted an “all-in” policy for publishing in Instant Articles and those who insist on only sending readers to their own sites. Early data since the algo changes went into effect show that the former saw the expected 20% dip in organic post reach, while the latter experienced a much steeper decline to just 30–50% of their previous reach.

In short, Facebook’s news feed changes appear to be far more tolerable where publishers have aligned with Facebook’s interests, including when they adopt the platform’s use of Instant Articles. Just as we have been encouraging the creation of quality, engaging content, we recommend the use of the Instant Article format for publishers that still desire an ongoing, positive relationship with Facebook, and for social media pros that use Contempo to source the best content for their audiences.

Granted, implementing Instant Articles can be frustrating and time-consuming, as is any major systems transition from familiar to unknown territory. But it is time and effort well-spent. After all, while CPM realized by publishers on Instant Articles may not be as high as direct visits to their owned mobile sites, the number of visits is still a critical factor in the revenue equation, and a high CPM multiplied by ever decreasing sessions spells disaster in the long run.

Contempo can help. While it’s generally agnostic about whether an article is an Instant Article, it always measures and recommends what content likely will work best for a given Facebook page. Contempo uses Machine Learning to determine, among other things, which publishers have strong affinity with a page and whether they use Facebook Instant Articles or not.

You’re Either In, Or You’re Out

Facebook has made clear its intent for Instant Articles to be the format of choice for publishers who seek greater organic reach in the news feed, notwithstanding the turbulence of recent announcements and algorithm changes. When the dust settles from downward shifts in reach for publisher and business pages, those left standing — especially among smaller publishers — will have heeded Facebook’s not-so-subtle messaging and made the switch to Instant Articles. Facebook is not forcing anyone down this path per se, but it is without doubt making it very difficult for publishers who refuse to play along to reach their audiences. It’s go Instant, or go home.

If you want to learn more about our story, we invite you to visit our website. If you manage a social media channel, we invite you to try Contempo, the revolutionary service for social content distribution.

The Future of Facebook Instant Articles was originally published in The Contempo Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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