With Facebook’s Instant Articles, Publishers Contemplate a Social-First World

New feature could alter the industry

Reports from the last few weeks hinted it was coming, but the debut of Facebook's Instant Articles made plenty of publishers' hair stand on end this morning anyway. And why wouldn't they react in that fashion? One of their chief traffic drivers could suddenly siphon away audiences and ad sales, the lifebloods of a publisher's existence.  

"To avoid losing their own audience–and ad dollars–they will need to make sure the reader experience on their own site is just as dynamic and engaging as the articles hosted on Facebook," proclaimed Yaniv Makover, CEO of software maker Keywee. "It is way too early to make conclusions, but the industry will be watching to see if the Instant Article opportunity becomes a growth play or a major revenue risk."

To part of Makover's point, ad sales opportunities are afoot, although how profitable remains a question. Instant Articles offers publishers the chance to publish content only on Facebook, and they can keep 100 percent of the revenue for ads they sell on Facebook. In turn, the social site will take a 30 percent cut if it sells the inventory.

Publishers can get data about the content through Facebook's analytics in addition to comScore, Omniture and Google Analytics. Generally, Facebook has grown in importance during recent years as an audience generator—particularly among smartphone-toting viewers—and it's now leveraging that hard fact.

"In the modern world, it's more and more important to take your content to where your audience wants it," said Jason Kint, CEO, Digital ContentNext (formerly the Online Publishers Association). "And the three most important things for any great publisher are to maintain the relationship with the customer, the monetization of the content, and being able to measure it. In ideal terms, as they've been reported, Facebook has given all three of those things to publishers."

Facebook's launch partners include The New York Times, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, National Geographic, NBC News, The Guardian, BBC News and Germany's Bild and Der Spiegel. James Bennet, president and editor in chief at The Atlantic, admitted skepticism arose when Facebook first approached his team. 

"But once we sat down with them and they told us the terms they envisioned, we became enthusiastic about participating," he explained. An initial concern hinged on whether his publication "would be able to create a distinctively Atlantic-y experience. Our articles would be able to have the design cues that we think are important to identify a story is coming from The Atlantic."

How will it impact The Atlantic's ad strategy? "It's early days," he answered. "We have an advertiser [Seagate Technology] in the story that went live today, which we were happy about. We will be offering clients the opportunity to sell in this environment. We do see a lot of opportunity here."

Makover of Keywee added, "It looks as if publishers will be able to include ads within an Instant Article just like they do within articles that are displayed on their own site—so it is just a slightly different take of something they do today."

Brian Selander is evp of Whistle Sports, which daily publishes video content from its creator roster that includes Dude Perfect and Indi Cowie on Facebook. He suggested that a sales staff with a social-media mindset would help Facebook's launch partners monetize Instant Articles. "Each person we've hired for our sales team and each of the prospective hires in our pipeline have demonstrated an ability to understand and sell an entire social community, not just pre-roll ad space," he said.

Not everyone shares either the wait-and-see or positive attitudes shared above. Publishers who have genuflected at the alter of Facebook and YouTube in recent years have paid a price and will continue to do so, suggested Brian Fitzgerald, CEO of Evolve Media. 

"To think that Facebook is going to reasonably share in the profits from such a venture with publishers is short sighted," he said. "They will use premium publisher content to reposition their brand among advertisers and then share an increasingly smaller percentage with publishers as their reliance on any one publisher diminishes over time. This is the same thing that happened with YouTube."

Fitzgerald continued, "To participate is to be part of the problem, not the solution. One of the things publishers have done a poor job of is convincing the market—advertisers—that quality publishers are social networks."

In other words, make your publishing site a newsfeed worth visiting on its own for mobile and desktop consumption.  

Though Casey Newton, senior reporter at The Verge, said publishing on social sites like Facebook "feels inevitable."

"Content hosted on apps isn't the future of news," he said. "It's the present. In another sense, I do have some fears. Facebook's approach is much different than a news organization. Facebook wants to get people to spend the maximum amount of time in the newsfeed. The motives aren't exactly aligned."

What the ramifications are will likely soon be clearer.