Are Facebook’s Instant Articles Actually Beneficial to Publishers?

Leading publishers like The New York Times, National Geographic, HuffPo, BuzzFeed and many, many more have jumped onboard, or at least “giving it a try.”

For most of their history, media companies have controlled the two great pillars of publishing success: production and delivery. They owned the content we wanted and the the means of delivering it — and therefore monetizing it.

But that’s changing rapidly. Distribution is no longer a competitive advantage: content isn’t constrained to any one time, place or screen, but rather parceled out to inboxes, apps and social feeds. Because content is now so easy to access, relevance has replaced distribution as the second pillar of publishing success.

In today’s online, on-demand world, greater relevance drives sustained consumer preference, which marketing analysts label “engagement.” To keep up, publishers face increasing pressure to distribute content through platforms like Facebook; with their deep understanding of their users, they’re to deliver content to the right people.

The problem is, when you cede control of your distribution, the biggest causality is the data associated with it. Without data, you’re left leaning on one pillar: your content.

Yet, publishers continue to subscribe to this model day after day, month after month, year after year. To understand this phenomenon, let’s look back at how Facebook has influenced media consumption over the past decade.

The new walled gardens

People like to say that the internet freed us from the monopolistic control of media companies who liked to own not only the proverbial movies, but all the proverbial projectors as well. But in this bastion of media liberty, new walled gardens are emerging: social feeds.

Facebook recently launched Instant Articles, the latest in a series of moves aimed at creating a more “vertically integrated” content feed. (Twitter made a similar move with Twitter Moments.) Publishers who opt into Instant Articles will have their content served up, in its entirety, right within the Facebook app. Facebook promises that the cleaner experience will result in more shares, and will make up for the fact that Instant Articles don’t send readers to publishers’ sites.

What’s in it for Facebook?

If Facebook can get users to spend more time inside the walled garden of their app, the business will grow.

Before we go any farther, let’s be clear: Facebook is not the Galactic Empire, and this is not rebel propaganda. Facebook has 3 main reasons, all perfectly logical and ultimately user-oriented, for creating Instant Articles:

Better user experience

Opening an article instantly is decidedly better dropping out of the app, launching a browser window and waiting for it to load — especially if you’re on your phone.

New revenue

Facebook offers a (currently optional) service that sells programmatic ads on your Instant Articles for 30% of the revenue generated. If history is any guide, we can expect that cut to get deeper as time goes on.

More data

Mountains of it. Facebook gets to see not only who clicks on what, but how long she spends reading it, what ads she engages with, what she reads next, and who she shares it with. Facebook then gets to map that against their own user interest graph to learn how to better engage and monetize their users (see “new revenue”).

What’s in it for publishers?

Leading publishers like The New York Times, National Geographic, HuffPo, BuzzFeed and many, many more have jumped onboard, or at least “giving it a try.” The reasons are pretty simple:

1.5 billion pairs of eyes and ears

Even with organic reach at an all-time low, Facebook is an incredibly powerful and cost-effective user acquisition channel. You can count on Facebook to deliver your content to your existing audience in a relevant way, while also targeting a new audience in a non-invasive, friendly way. Their interest-driven delivery does work. Studies suggest that Facebook now drives more traffic to news sites than Google, which means publishers can’t afford to not be there.