The Future of Facebook Instant Articles

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. Continue reading “The Future of Facebook Instant Articles”

One year in: How publishers are finding wins with Facebook Instant Articles

In her 2017 Internet Trends report, Mary Meeker reported that time spent using the Internet on mobile rose again in 2016 to 3.1 hours per day, up from 2.8 hours per day in 2015. Internet usage on PCs, in contrast, was flat at 2.2 hours per day. Meanwhile, Facebook and Google continue to be the top referrers to publishers, and increasingly consumers’ feeds are the main place media is discovered. With products like Facebook Instant Articles and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, both made generally available last year, the feed is becoming the place where media is actually consumed.

For publishers, getting your mobile strategy right has never been more important — particularly on Facebook, which now has nearly 2 billion users. Facebook, however, is eager to keep users within its walled garden and has devoted armies of engineers to build the most compelling feed in technology. That feed needs content, and publishers have looked to leverage Facebook’s massive scale to boost readership, subscriptions, and traffic back to their sites.

Both Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s AMP offer ways for publishers to form one-on-one relationships with consumers. For publishers wracked by layoffs and falling revenues, this means broad exposure and easier ways to form a direct connection to readers. The approach hasn’t worked for all publishers — a number have dropped out of Facebook’s program following disappointments. But other publishers have found some promising tactics for expanding their readership using Instant Articles:

1. Teasing content. German news tabloid Bild has used IA as a means to tease free content and boost subscriptions. In January, the publisher began using IA ad spots to promote Bild Plus, a premium version of the title that costs $10.58 a month. Bild started out putting just 20 percent of its free content on IA but now puts all of it there as a funnel for Bild Plus subscriptions. Similarly, advertisers can use Canvas – sort of an IA for advertisers – to tease content that users will have to go off Facebook to see. They can link to mobile wallet passes or deep-link to app or web content, driving consumers into owned mobile channels.

Bild isn’t the only publisher to take this approach. Slate has realized Facebook traffic is fickle and has sought to use it as a marketing vehicle for its site. At the same time, the brand has expanded its offering of podcasts, which tends to make readers more loyal and more likely to subscribe to Slate Plus, a similar service to Bild Plus, which costs $5 a month.

2. Reducing friction to access content. Another lesson from Bild is to use as few steps as possible if you’re trying to get a signup. Bild cut the process from nine steps to three. Similarly, The Huffington Post increased email newsletter subscriptions using Facebook’s “call-to-action” feature, which makes it easy for consumers to subscribe with the click of a button — they don’t even have to enter their email addresses since it autopopulates in Facebook. In just three months, IA accounted for 29 percent of HuffPost Morning Email signups.

3. Providing utility. How do you keep readers thumbing through one window after another on Canvas until they are ready to jump off the feed and visit your website? When Business Insider launched Insider, its lifestyle spinoff, the publisher quickly realized that while Facebook gets attention, what really gets readers to stay on the site is a service component. For instance, instead of running a story about a great dish at a restaurant, Insider now features videos on how to make a similar dish at home. The site also houses more long-tail content like Insider Cheese, which features articles about cheese and attracts readers on Facebook.

4. Using calls to action. Beginning in early April of this year, Facebook let publishers put calls to action in Instant Articles. Now publishers can include prompts to join email newsletters, like their Page. One pilot user, Slate, reported that an email signup CTA unit accounted for 41 percent of its total email list growth over the past two months. Other enhancements are on the horizon. Facebook says it is currently testing a free trial CTA unit and a mobile app install CTA unit with a small group of publishers. Publishers can also take advantage of user-level app and website data to target ads to Facebook users that look like their most loyal readers.

5. Experimenting with Messenger bots. Influenced by China’s e-commerce platform WeChat, Facebook is eager to get advertisers to use Messenger. Customers can order a bouquet from 1-800-Flowers or a pie from Pizza Hut directly from Messenger. For publishers, there are few opportunities here so far because Facebook has been stingy with approvals, but The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and weather app Poncho all use Messenger bots to connect with their readers. The WSJ, for instance, uses Messenger to offer a Morning Briefing for readers with the top headlines of the day.

Pragmatic publishers know that Facebook isn’t the ideal place to form a one-to-one connection with consumers. However, they can’t ignore Facebook either. The social network keeps evolving to enable stronger brand-consumer interactions.

Erin Hintz is CMO at Urban Airship.

Publishers suffer in spar between social giants

As competition among social media companies heats up, publishers are being taken for granted. In the past two years, social media platforms rolled out a range of products designed to hook publishers. Snapchat Discover, Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Twitter Moments, and Google AMP all provide a space to publish content directly within platforms. Publishers, which have been losing advertising dollars to companies like Google and Facebook for years, are adopting these tools in the hopes of reaching more readers and pulling in revenue.

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Facebook Instant Articles: ‘The effort-to-revenue ratio wasn’t there’

Welcome to the newly rebranded Digiday+. We’ve changed our identity from Pulse to better reflect the value proposition of our membership program. What’s on offer is Digiday and more — exclusive content, original research and intimate events.

Facebook Instant Articles in the spotlight
I’m spending this week and next in Europe, starting with our Digiday Programmatic Summit in Ireland, moving to London and then to Berlin for our first Digiday Brand Summit Europe. In the first two days of our event here, I asked some European publishers how they’re finding Facebook Instant Articles, particularly after our own Jess Davies broke news on Friday that the Guardian is throwing in the towel on IA and Apple News, saying both don’t fit its strategy. The general consensus on IA: a shrug.

One large scale publisher told me IA is “incremental” audience and barely incremental revenue. Their view: It doesn’t do much but doesn’t hurt much, either. IA is simply not a priority to this publisher. Another big digital publisher told me that he’s pulled back on the amount of content published to IA after an initial six-month test. The test showed that there’s simply not enough revenue opportunities in IA to justify putting more content on the platform, a sentiment we’ve heard in our reporting.

The big question this publisher has is: Why? Facebook could easily solve this issue, in his view, by adding more options around video and better ads. Another publisher said Facebook must open up to non-Facebook demand sources. In a world of header bidding, managing multiple demand sources to drive up yield, IA is simply far behind. “The effort-to-revenue ratio simply wasn’t there,” one publisher told me. “I’m most surprised they haven’t fixed it already.”

Sign of the content apocalypse
Lauren Dick, head of emerging platforms at Mail Online, said at the Digiday Programmatic Summit Europe that the Daily Mail digital brand puts out 1,200 articles a day and 800 videos. The typical reporter is responsible for 20 articles a day. Who said scale is dead?

The YouTube ad boycott aftermath
News coverage tends to go from white-hot intensity to benign neglect of unfolding stories. Take the YouTube ad boycott. Many focused on the bandied-about figure that Google was set to lose $700 million from the brand-safety “crisis” set off by reports that big brands had appeared next to extremist content on YouTube.

One of the brands swept up in furor: InterContinental Hotels. The brand was featured in the Times expose that shined a light on this long-running issue of bad ad placements, often a result of automated advertising platforms. The immediate result: ICH paused all advertising on YouTube and Google Display Network. (It didn’t pause search, of course, because search is too important.) The move came after what ICH estimated to be 25 impressions served as pre-rolls before “some crazy guy saying crazy things,” ICH director of digital marketing for Europe Fabrizio Di Martino told me.

But this is not a long-term issue, Di Martino said. It is working with Google right now on safeguards and expects to be back up and running in the coming months. “The message from Google is, they want to fix it,” he said. “They just need time to do it.”

The Guardian fights back — and the Digiday+ Slack channel

The Guardian has emerged as an outspoken critic of both the duopoly and the status quo in digital media. I’m visiting Hamish Nicklin, the Guardian’s CRO, to record an episode of the Digiday Podcast. We’re going to discuss why the publisher pulled out of IA and Apple News, as well as its move to stop advertising on Google after it too got caught up in appearing next to extremist content. Look for it next week. Also next week look for an email inviting you to the launch of our new Digiday+ members-only Slack channel for off-the-record conversation about industry topics. We’ll host editorial Q&As and more. We believe this is a nice step in building the Digiday+ community. Please join in!

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The Guardian pulls out of Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News

Publishers aren’t happy with the deal platforms are cutting them. Now, the Guardian has dropped both Facebook’s fast-loading Instant Article format and removed its content from Apple News.

The publisher had gone all-in on Instant Articles, running every single Guardian article via the format for the last year. It was one of first U.K. media owners to adopt the Facebook format, alongside BBC News in the spring of 2015. The Guardian was also among the first publishers to join the Apple News app when it launched in the U.K. in October 2015. It ran all its articles in the app.

A Guardian News and Media spokesperson confirmed the removal, and issued the following statement to Digiday: “We have run extensive trials on Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News to assess how they fit with our editorial and commercial objectives. Having evaluated these trials, we have decided to stop publishing in those formats on both platforms. Our primary objective is to bring audiences to the trusted environment of the Guardian to support building deeper relationships with our readers, and growing membership and contributions to fund our world-class journalism.”

The publisher ceased running content through both Apple News and Instant Articles today. The move is a clear sign of displeasure in how these platform-publishing initiatives have treated the business needs of the Guardian. Many publishers have complained the money they make off visits to IA pages, for example, do not measure up to what they get on their own sites.

The Guardian isn’t the only publisher that has lately cooled on Instant Articles, with several publishers are running far fewer articles within that format, according to analysis by NewsWhip. BBC News, National Geographic and The Wall Street Journal barely seem to be using Instant Articles either. The New York Times has pulled out altogether.

Plenty of publishers remain on IA, of course, but the loss of marquee publishers like The New York Times and the Guardian is not exactly a great sign of health. Other publishers are likely to take a hard look at where their interests intersect with Facebook’s. The same goes for Apple News, although signs point to many publishers seeing promise there.

The draw of Instant Articles was that they load much faster than the Facebook links that take readers back to most publishers’ own sites. Engagement is also supposedly higher on those articles than regular Facebook links. But Instant Articles keep people within the Facebook app, rather than sending readers through to a publisher’s own sites, where they can monetize them more effectively, and have better control of reader data.

The Guardian, under pressure to cut costs and boost revenue, is pushing forwards with its paying membership scheme, and for it to keep building that successfully it must prioritize driving readers back to its own site, where it can ask them to donate or become a paying member, as well as serve advertising.

It has notched up 200,000 paying members, and over 100,000 one-off donations in the past year. The goal: to reach 1 million paying subscribers by 2019. Although the Guardian hasn’t confirmed the specific revenue made, 200,000 members paying the minimum price tier of £5 a month (£60/$76 a year), would equate to £1 million ($1.3 million) a month, £12 million ($15 million) a year. If the million paying supporters paid the minimum membership of £60 ($77) a year, that would create £60 million ($77 million) in revenue.

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Facebook’s algorithm isn’t surfacing one-third of Chicago Tribune posts. And it’s getting worse

Starting in January of this year, we at the Chicago Tribune started to anecdotally see a fairly significant change in our post reach.

We weren’t seeing a huge difference in post consumption or daily average reach, but we were just seeing more misses than hits. At the Tribune, we have a fairly stable and predictable audience. We had around a half million fans at the end of March and have seen slow but steady growth in the last year. Most Facebook posts fell into the 25,000 to 50,000 reach range — with a few big successes and few spectacular failures each day, usually based on the quality of the content or the quality and creativity of the share.

But starting earlier this year, we started to see far more misses. And not reaches in the low 20,000’s but 4,000 reach or 6,000 reach. Digital Editor Randi Shaffer was one of the first to notice.

Some of our data looked fairly normal. Our average daily organic reach looks volatile but familiar. We used average daily because Facebook doesn’t give you monthly.

But, our per post metrics were falling. Our average organic post reach was on the decline, but not that far off a prior low of mid-2016.

Still, averages can be strongly affected by outliers. It was our median organic post reach that was far more revealing. Yes, we were on a downward trend — and that trend put us at record lows. The middle was falling precipitously. Our median post was being seen by fewer and fewer people, organically.

To try to get a handle on the nature of the issue, I decided to download 15 months of Facebook post data — no small feat since Insights only lets you grab 500 posts at a time. Then I merged the 30 csv files and sorted the organic post data into four buckets: less than 10,000 reach, 10,001–25,000, 25,001-50,000 and 50,001+. The results literally stunned me. The number of posts that fell into the category of lowest efficacy—the ones seen by the fewest number of people — was skyrocketing.

In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.

What did this mean? In baseball terms, we were hitting far fewer doubles and we were striking out 1 every 3 times at the plate. Four months earlier, we struck out 1 of every 90 at-bats.

And it was happening despite solid growth on our Facebook page — which, logically, would translate to increased reach.

Yet many of our posts were seeing diminished organic reach despite picking up more than 130,000 Facebook fans.

So why could this be happening? Let’s look at some of the possible factors.

Increase in post frequency

One possible explanation is that during this period we slightly increased the number of posts per day. However, the rise was quite small and doesn’t coincide with the recent trend.

We went from roughly 20 posts per day to 24 posts per day. And however small that may look per day, that number adds up over time. In this timeframe, that represented a 25 percent increase in monthly posts.

However, Facebook’s formal guidance is 24 to 48 posts per day. And we looked at the cadence of 23 other newspaper Facebook pages and determined we were in the mid- to low-end. For the last six months, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (661,551 fans) posted 74 times per day and the Houston Chronicle (385,086 fans) 58. Big thanks to Digital Editor Elizabeth Wolfe for crunching these numbers with CrowdTangle to prove our normalcy.

While it may be unlikely that frequency is our culprit, it’s a change in behavior we have to consider.

And moving ahead, this may be more of an issue. NewsWhip in its dive into three years of social data directly recommended quality over quantity in its five primary takeaways: “Post fewer but quality content that delivers value to your audience’s lives.”

Content type mix

In addition to frequency, Facebook also has its optimal content mix — 50 percent links, 25 percent video and 25 percent photos. To be honest, we don’t come close to this. But neither does any media organization comparable to the Chicago Tribune. Of those same 23 newspaper Facebook pages we looked at, most were posting majority link content types in the last 6 months. USA Today had the lowest percentage of links at 78.14% and the Sun-Times the most at 99.28%. But in general, most newspapers were sharing links on their primary Facebook page around 90% to 95% of the time. So the Tribune, at 97.2%, was slightly high but not atypical.

And given that our content mix hasn’t changed substantially in the last 15 months, this would have to be a somewhat remote possibility.

Still, NewsWhip reported last year that links were seeing less engagement even as video was on the rise, however artificial. And we’re posting mostly links.

Facebook Instant Articles

Another factor could be our lack of Instant Article adoption. Our parent company has been circumspect in regards to Instant Articles. We’ve been testing Instant Articles, but we have yet to deploy them in Chicago. Given the changes announced last month, giving publishers a bit more control, I’m hopeful this will change.

But again, since we’ve not changed posting formats, this would seem an unlikely factor … unless the algorithm changed.

So what about that Facebook algorithm …

What I inevitably come back to is that something changed on Facebook’s side of the equation.

The last algo update mentioned in Facebook’s newsroom blog was “New Signals to Show You More Authentic and Timely Stories” on Jan. 31. This is around a month we’ve after identified our shift, but still curiously close. Of course Facebook didn’t foresee any hiccups: “We anticipate that most Pages won’t see any significant changes to their distribution in News Feed.”

Given that I hope the Tribune passes muster for “authentic,” let’s focus on the second half. What exact signals are being used to determine what “timely” means? It purports to favor topics that are being discussed in real time.

For example, if your favorite soccer team just won a game, we might show you posts about the game higher up in News Feed because people are talking about it more broadly on Facebook.

So exactly how much reach lift is conferred by dovetailing with Facebook-defined trending topics? Conversely, does this punish topics not being discussed? Or did the Facebook real-time algorithm become more like Instagram’s, prioritizing content based on the volume of immediate comments, shares, likes and reactions—and squelching posts that are initially ignored? That could be “timely.”

Beyond that, the usual sites that track Facebook changes haven’t noted anything else that would account for our massive shifts in audience.

The Friends and Family newsfeed change in mid-2016 didn’t seem to strongly affect the Tribune. And Nieman reported in mid-August that the Friends and Family change seemed to have little impact on all publishers. Ephemeral also is months late. Maybe it’s a little of everything.

So here we are. The data show that we are having the fewest number of our most successful posts and the most of our least successful at a time when our strategy hasn’t significantly changed and our fans have grown.

So, is anyone else experiencing this situation, and if so, does anyone know why and how to compensate? Because if 1 of 3 Facebook posts isn’t going to be surfaced by the algorithm to a significant degree, that would change how we play the game.

Facebook faces increased publisher resistance to Instant Articles

Facebook’s Instant Article push is in danger of fizzling.

Many publishers are deeply unhappy  with the monetization on these pages, with major partners like The New York Times throwing in the towel and many others cutting back the amount of content pushed to the IA platform. In response, Facebook is making concessions to publishers, including new subscription options, in a rare show of weakness for the platform juggernaut.

The Times is among an elite group of publishers that’s regularly tapped by Facebook to launch new products, and as such, it was one of the first batch of publishers to pilot Instant. But it stopped using Instant Articles after a test last fall that found that links back to the Times’ own site monetized better than Instant Articles, said Kinsey Wilson, evp of product and technology at the Times. People were also more likely to subscribe to the Times if they came directly to the site rather than through Facebook, he said. Thus, for the Times, IA simply isn’t worth it. Even a Facebook-dependent publisher like LittleThings, which depends on Facebook for 80 percent of its visitors, is only pushing 20 percent of its content to IA.

Enthusiasm has cooled elsewhere. It’s an about-face from two years ago, when publishers were champing at the bit to join the party. “It’s just a matter of time,” Hearst Digital president Troy Young said at the time. Cosmopolitan was the first Hearst brand to launch, in October that year. Now, Hearst is absent from the program, having determined the monetization isn’t paying off. Hearst declined to comment on the record.

Business news sites Forbes and Quartz are also absent from Instant Articles. Forbes experimented with it last year but found monetization lacking, chief product officer Lewis D’Vorkin recently said. “It left a lot to be desired in terms of monetization,” he said. Condé Nast’s priority is to drive readers back to its own sites, which is why its brands use Instant Articles only sparingly.

Instant Articles has been controversial since Facebook launched the fast-loading mobile articles feature in 2015 to keep users on the social platform longer. In Instant, publishers’ articles, signified with a lightning bolt, would load super fast. But many publishers say it doesn’t monetize as well as old-fashioned links that take readers back to the publisher’s own site. It’s also hard to see if there’s an engagement benefit to the program.

Facebook has been trying to be more responsive to publishers’ concerns. It’s launching call-to-action units that let publishers serve messages in Instant Articles stories inviting people to sign up for a newsletter or “like” their Facebook pages, after testing these with about 100 publishers since the beginning of the year. It’s also testing trial subscription signups and mobile app install promos within Instant Articles with The Washington Post, Bild and The Telegraph.

But in the past year, the ad market has become harder, forcing many publishers to look harder at pushing the subscription lever. And that’s an area where Facebook still falls short. Beyond the free digital subscription trial, Facebook hasn’t said it’s committed to letting publishers test paid subscription signups, much less lay out a timeline for doing so. Facebook still doesn’t have a way for publishers to paywalls to Instant Articles. Some would like to be able to regularly test how well Instant Articles are performing compared to old-fashioned links, as the Times did. (The Washington Post is running what it says is the first such test right now with Facebook.)

There are also a lot of details to be worked out when it comes to subscription signups on Instant, such as who owns the customer relationship, what data the publisher gets and how the revenue is shared, Wilson added. “The devil’s in the details.” (A Facebook rep said that for now, with the free digital trials, the publisher owns the relationship once the user signs up.)

For other publishers that aren’t heavily dependent on subscriptions as the Times is, or have lucrative direct ad sales businesses, Facebook Instant may still makes sense, though. The Washington Post is still aggressively trying to grow its subscription signups, so it’s been publishing all its articles as Instant posts because the user experience is better.

And one of Facebook’s call to action testers, Slate, gave enthusiastic testimonials about the product, saying Instant drove 41 percent of new newsletter signups, which is significant for Slate. It’s going to use the same feature for other newsletters and its app. “For us, it gives us a chance to promote other things we produce to new audiences,” said Slate senior product manager Chris Schieffer.

Publishers are still keen to demonstrate goodwill with Facebook. The Times’ experience with Instant aside, Wilson stressed that the decision to pull out isn’t necessarily irreversible.

“We haven’t closed the door on it by any means,” he said. “We’re talking to them on variety of products and found them, particularly of late, to be attentive and responsible to the issues we continue to raise. Ultimately, it’s about being able to demonstrate we can match or better the performance of links back to our site.”

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How Bild uses Facebook Instant Articles to drive subscriptions

Axel Springer’s Bild is looking to use Facebook Instant Articles to drive subscriptions.

The German publisher has reduced the number of steps readers have to take when signing up for a subscription through Instant Articles from nine to three.

The Axel Springer tabloid was among the first wave of publishers using Facebook Instant Articles when it launched in July 2015. Since then, it has dialed up and down the number of its stories it posts, from 20 percent of all published, to all of them, plus a brief stint of abstinence. Currently, all of Bild’s articles are formatted for IA.

“We have several requirements that are fundamental to working with third-party platforms,” said Stefan Betzold, managing director for Bild. “Partner platforms need to support our paid content initiatives and help us track new subscriptions through their platform.”

Bild Plus launched four years ago offering readers access to extra content. It now has 347,000 paying readers, subscriptions usually cost €9.99 ($10.58) a month for access to extra content. Although the majority of Bild’s digital revenue comes still from advertising, driven by its scale of 20 million monthly uniques.

“The best funnel for Bild Plus is our reach and our free articles,” said Betzold.

Facebook’s IA doesn’t have the ecosystem to support payments, unlike Apple News. At the beginning of this year, Bild began using the Instant Articles ad spots to promote two free weeks of Bild Plus, rolled out to a small sample of Instant Article readers. But sign-up was a lengthy process, which included confirming the reader wants the free trial, entering an email address, approving Bild could extract data from Facebook’s platform, then reentering details into Bild’s own platform, as well as agreeing to various privacy requirements.

“By that point, we had lost most of the interested users. Only a very small number would make it through the whole nine steps; it was a nightmare,” said Betzold. “And Facebook is always telling us about great user experience.”

Bild put its own developers on the case with Facebook. By February, it had reduced the process to three steps. Now, connecting with Facebook’s API, the reader’s email address is directly pushed to Bild’s database, pre-activating the reader’s account, and sending out an email from the publisher.

“It’s a first good step in getting [trial users] into our system, but when the two-week period is over, we need to use our CRM system to target them again,” he said. “Is it strong enough to attract to attract subscribers? We want to go further; we need deeper integration.” Now payment integration is the missing link. “Facebook needs to make this a standardized project so it can be used for any publisher.”

In March last year, Facebook introduced a similar, yet less complex, process testing email newsletter sign-ups with publishers like The New York Times and the Washington Post. To continue to have successful partnerships with publishers, Facebook needs to offer more seamless ways for them to connect with readers directly.

“Am I happy? On some requirements, yes. On others, no,” said Betzold. “But I’d rather work with Facebook to improve them. That’s a better position for me than reducing Instant Articles and saying that it’s just not working.”

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Facebook adds call-to-action buttons to Instant Articles

On Friday, the social media company launched call-to-action units with the goal of providing a “more direct line of communication” between the publisher and the reader.

The call-to-action units are being rolled out starting next week to Instant Articles and can be created through what Facebook calls “a simple, self-service creation flow” and also can monitor conversions through a tracking dashboard.

Above: An email signup call-to-action unit within Facebook Instant Articles.

Image Credit: Facebook

Publishers have at least two action items they can choose from, including signing up for email and liking the outlet’s page, but there are others in the works. Facebook teased that in the future, publishers could add free trial or mobile app install call-to-action units.

Read full article.

Two new features let publishers interact with readers through Facebook Instant Articles

Facebook’s relationship with the news industry has been, shall we say, a little one-sided. While the news industry depends on the platform for its growth and distribution, Facebook itself has sometimes downplayed the outsized role it plays in the news industry.

On Friday, though, Facebook announced some new additions to Instant Articles that were developed after direct feedback from publishers: the email sign-up feature, for example, will let readers share their email addresses from within Instant Articles. Similarly, publishers will now be able to offer readers the option to like their pages.

Josh Roberts, a Facebook product manager, wrote in a blog post that the new features are a result of ongoing feedback from news organizations, many of which are looking to “extend the business value of Instant Articles. Across the board, publishers want to have more direct lines of communication with their readers and drive the conversions that matter to their business,” he wrote.

Roberts wrote that Facebook has other similar projects in mind, such as a feature that would let news organizations offer free subscription trials through Instant Articles and one that would drive users to download publishers’ mobile apps.

Facebook’s status as a middleman in publishers’ relationships has been an enduring sticking point over the years. While few publishers have shunned the Facebook traffic referral firehose outright, discontentment over how the company has handled some components of Instant Articles has made some news organizations less gung-ho about publishing on Facebook itself. The New York Times, for instance, has stopped using Instant Articles.

Facebook highlighted some success stories in its Friday blog post. Slate, for example, said that the call-to-action feature helped boost its newsletter signups by 41 percent in two months. The Huffington Post said Instant Articles has become “one of our highest performing acquisition channels for driving email newsletter subscribers” thanks to the feature.

The additions are a product of the ongoing Facebook Journalism Project, which the company announced in January to “establish stronger ties between Facebook and the news industry.” Core to the initiative was the idea that Facebook would directly collaborate with publishers on new news products such as the one Facebook wrote about today.

In other words, while the new features are compelling in their own right, they also serve as vital PR for Facebook’s publishing outreach overall. Facebook’s message: “We’re listening.”

How The New York Times, CNN, and The Huffington Post approach publishing on platforms

Publishing used to be relatively simple. You published a newspaper once a day or produced a nightly newscast. Even with the advent of the Internet things were fairly straightforward: You had a website and posted your coverage there. But as platforms — from Facebook and Snapchat to messaging platforms such as Kik and Line — become more ubiquitous, news organizations now have to decide where they want to publish and how they want to present their coverage on these platforms.

A study out this week from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University examines how platforms have changed journalism, and while the entire 25,455-word report is worth reading, one particularly interesting section looks at how news outlets are choosing to publish (or not publish) across a variety of platforms.

The report compares how The New York Times, CNN, and The Huffington Post utilized platforms during a week in early February. In that span, each outlet posted to about 10 different platforms. The Times and HuffPo each posted about 1,660 times across the various platforms. CNN, however, published more than 2,800 stories, about 40 percent more than the other two.

The Tow report defines two primary different types of platform-based content: native and networked. Native content includes entities such as Snapchat Discover and Stories, Facebook Instant Articles, or Apple News. These formats live entirely within the walled gardens of the platforms. Networked content, meanwhile, links back to the news organizations’ own sites.

The study examined 14 publishers and found that during the week of Feb. 6, they posted 12,341 pieces of networked content and 11,481 pieces of native content.

“While publishers all need to have a presence across a broad range of platforms, how they distribute their content — and, in particular, the amount they ‘give away’ to platforms in the form of native content — differs considerably,” the study said.

During the week of February 6, two-thirds of The Huffington Post’s distributed content was posted in native formats. That includes 695 stories on Apple News and 305 Facebook posts, which include Instant Articles, Live Video, and other formats. “These native Facebook posts also represent 98 percent of Huffington Post’s total Facebook posts,” the study found.

CNN similarly posted 59 percent of its content natively. That included 1,016 Apple News Articles, 948 tweets, and 278 YouTube videos. The report also noted that “CNN’s concerted effort to reach younger audiences is also evident in its Snapchat Discover channel, on which we saw a shift away from scrollable articles repurposed from to more bitesize news cards, and its ongoing commitment to chat app LINE.”

Meanwhile, only 16 percent of the Times’ posts were native. The Times was one of a handful of news organizations that Facebook launched Instant Articles with in 2015, but the paper has since stopped publishing on Instant Articles. During the week that Tow measured the posts, just 19 percent of the Times’ 406 Facebook posts were native to the platform. The paper also posted 74 stories on Apple News.

Unlike The Huffington Post and CNN, the Times is focused on digital subscriptions and its main goal is to drive users back to its own platforms, which explains its reluctance to use native posts.

In a speech at a conference last year, Lydia Polgreen, who was then the editorial director of the Times’ global expansion effort and is now the editor of The Huffington Post, explained how the Times’ approach to platforms is different than other publishers.

Social platforms, especially Facebook, allow us to target our journalism to those most likely to want to pay for it. I believe that we are better off as Facebook’s happy customer than as its outgunned competitor in a David and Goliath fight for advertising dollars.

Yes, Facebook will try mightily to keep news consumers inside its platforms, via features like Instant Articles. Our job is to create experiences that will draw our most loyal users back, again and again, to our own products. So far, we seem to be succeeding at this. We will never be as big or financially successful as Facebook, but I believe we can run a thriving media company that can afford a lavishly funded news operation, as well as return value to our shareholders.

Many of the people the study’s authors — Emily Bell and Taylor Owen — interviewed reiterated that business models often determine how news organizations approach publishing on the platforms:

Jim Brady, founder and CEO of Billy Penn, a Philadelphia mobile news platform, said that when it came to Instant Articles, “I can afford to be a little bit more agnostic about it than someone whose revenue is tied to where the page view lies.” Gabe Dance, former managing editor of the not-for-profit news organization the Marshall Project said their resources were focused on “impact” because that’s what funders care about. And, after an unsuccessful experiment with NPR to host audio natively on the platform, Wright Bryan, senior editor for engagement, walked away wondering, “Does audio really fit a format like Facebook?”

One example of this is that the study showed that publishers’ attitudes toward Instant Articles in particular varied greatly. Outlets such as The Washington Post, Vox, and BuzzFeed News all posted more than 90 percent of their links as Instant Articles during the week of February 6. Meanwhile, Vice, Vice News, and Tronc papers the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times aren’t using Instant Articles at all.

“I think because there’s a continuous debate as to the very question: ‘What do you need to control, and what things do you not,’” Sterling Proffer, head of business strategy and development at Vice, told the study’s authors. “Going all in, solely on the platform to support your entire ecosystem in every way, is a big gamble.”

The Future of News Is Not An Article


In May of this year, Facebook announced Facebook Instant Articles, its foray into innovating the Facebook user experience around news reading. A month later, Apple introduced their own take with their Apple News app, which allows “stories to be specially formatted to look and feel like articles taken from publishers’ websites while still living inside Apple’s app”. There has been plenty of discussion about what these moves mean for the future of platforms and their relationship with publishers. But platform discussions aside, let’s examine a fundamental assumption being made here: both Facebook and Apple, who arguably have a huge amount of power to shape what the future of news looks like, have chosen to focus on a future that takes the shape of an article. The form and structure of how news is distributed hasn’t been questioned, even though that form was largely developed in response to the constraints of print (and early web) media.

Rather than look to large tech platforms to propose the future of news, perhaps there is a great opportunity for news organizations themselves to rethink those assumptions. After all, it is publishers who have the most to gain from innovation around their core products. So what might news look like if we start to rethink the way we conceive of articles? Continue reading “The Future of News Is Not An Article”

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