By: Piet van Niekerk
It might be bluntly stated but these days there are three types of digital publishers: those who love Facebook’s Instant Articles, those who don't, and those who simply have no idea. Whichever camp you fall into, it is dividing opinion in the digital publishing landscape despite coming with a warning: if you turn your back on the masses, they might just trample you to death.
Facebook claims it has 9,000 publishers currently using Instant Articles, a publishing tool that enables media companies to distribute their content on the Facebook platform itself.
Those who love it point out that it loads as much as 10 times faster than standard links out to branded sites and has the potential to earn them some income. Those who hate it, say handing power to Facebook to control and prioritise the use of content is of journalistic concern, while proper monetisation through Instant Articles is hard. They fear the pitfalls of relinquishing reams of content to a third party without (1) control over its use, (2) owning direct audience relationships (think data), and/or (3) guarantees that it will boost income.
There are those who loved it and now hate it, most notably the New York Times and the UK’s The Guardian (more on this later). These two publications were among the first to start using Instant Articles back in May 2015 when Facebook started with nine major publishers to trial the platform. Less than a year later, in April 2016, Facebook opened their “immersive reading experience” to “publishers of any type, anywhere in the world”.
Since then, publishers have fallen in or out of love.
Instant Articles in developing markets
One train of thought is that Instant Articles is a boon particularly to those brands in developing markets, where data speeds and costs can present challenges.
One such recent love story is Onedio, a Turkish website that publishes listicles, quizzes and articles about entertainment and culture. Ömer Özener, chief operating officer, says they began publishing 90 per cent of their content onto Instant Articles in August last year and has seen a 75 per cent rise in click through rates (CTR) on branded content measured up to December and a 50 per cent drop in cost per click (CPC) over the same period. The site also credits Instant Articles for expanding its readership into other countries - specifically their English language version - and now derives 90 per cent of overall income from branded content.
In India, similar relationships are blossoming with 11 Indian publishers attesting to how Instant Articles has helped them to reach new audiences. Publishers being quoted by Varun Gupta of the News Partnership in Mumbai include some of the country’s biggest: India Times, Dainik Jagran, Hindustan Times, Sandesh and NDTV.
They claim Instant Articles has improved the way they are engaging with their readers. The statistics - taken from their own internal analytics - reads like a fairytale:
• 30 per cent better scroll depth in Instant Articles compared to mobile web;
• 40 per cent higher clickthrough rates in direct-sold ads compared to mobile web; and
• 30 per cent higher effective cost per thousand impression (eCPMs) using Facebook’s Audience Network
One Instant Articles user, NDTV Convergence, which runs NDTV television stations and ndtv.com, says its unique users increased by 211 per cent, traffic increased by 343 per cent and new users by 240 per cent between April 2016 and April this year.
But not everyone in India is as positive. Nikhil Premanandan, head of marketing at SMhack, a social media management software startup in Chennai, India, says Instant Articles does not deliver on “one primal need of publishers - control… Instant Articles restricted readers to Facebook. Publishers were bound by Facebook's rules and algorithms, which they reluctantly obliged to”.
Premanandan’s prediction is that Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages Project (AMP), an online publishing format developed to compete with Instant Articles, will eventually rule supreme “because it actually hands control back to the publishers. Google AMP gives publishers their freedom. All the effort that a publisher puts into making those mobile pages faster through Google will ultimately help their brand. Unlike Facebook Instant Articles, it doesn't just provide value in the interaction phase, Google AMP delivers value throughout the discovery-interaction-purchase journey.”
Tim Kollmann, managing director at Ringier Africa Digital Publishing, agrees. “I rather see Google AMP as a game changer in this field.” He also rubbishes the argument that Instant Articles are more popular and fare better in developing markets because it overcomes the problem of slow loading times in environments with less or slower internet connections. “We simply do not see Instant Articles doing better in our (developing) markets than in more developed ones. The reason is that Facebook still have low penetration and that people have a limited knowledge of Instant Articles’ functionalities.”
While Kollmann agrees that Instant Articles could play a significant role in bringing content “to where the people are” their overall focus at Ringier Africa Digital is integrated content distribution whereby they can use “different kind of platforms… Higher CTRs don’t come from Instant Articles but rather from standard posts. We also see good traction on news aggregator apps such as Flipboard and Google News”.
Their sentiments are echoed in The Guardian's official explanation on why they pulled out of Instant Articles. “Our primary objective is to bring audiences to the trusted environment of the Guardian to support building deeper relationships with our readers...”
Right on cue Facebook responded. Late in May it announced that it updated its software developer kit (SDK) to allow publishers to design articles that can now work across Instant Articles, Google AMP and (soon) Apple News. Or in the words of Piyush Mangalick, partner engineering director at Facebook: “This new flexibility with Instant Articles is part of our commitment to open standards of collaboration with the community. Our goal is to give publishers control over extending and modifying the Instant Articles building blocks to be the best storytellers on every platform.” Gone is the argument the likes of The New York Times used to turn their back on Instant Articles saying Facebook forced them to operate within a walled garden.
In addition to concerns over control of audience data, another argument that could still stand is large publishers’ concerns about monetisation. They say the money they make from visits to Instant Articles is not as lucrative as from their own sites.
Currently publishers retain 100 per cent of revenue from ads they sell and serve with their Instant Articles and 70 per cent if Facebook sell ads on their behalf through its mobile ad network. Other advertising format restrictions are also likely to change soon. Facebook says it is working on adding more ad formats. And it is reportedly building the functionality for publishers to drive subscriptions directly from Instant Articles.
Where does it leave publishers?
So where does all of this leave those who have no idea whether a first date with Instant Articles will end in tears? Despite Facebook putting an effort into collaborating with publishers to address concerns, no-one can be blamed for continuing to be wary and/or harbor concern.
At the outset two years ago, Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, told The Times: “We’re starting with something that we think is going to work for some publishers for some articles and for some business models…We’re not trying to go, like, suck in and devour everything.”
For publishers, developing and controlling relationships with their audiences are vital. With nearly 2 billion monthly active users Facebook cannot be ignored, but it is understandable why publishers will have continued concern that giving up control could end up doing exactly that – being sucked in and devoured on the way.
It’s a conversation set to continue for some time to come, irrespective of the market publishers operate in.