Facebook appears to be steadily eating the internet and, in August this year, it took over from Google as the biggest driver of web traffic to news sites. It’s a bit of a love/hate relationship, however, with many publishers relying on the network for traffic, ad revenue and validation/stimulation, but also fearing that they are vulnerable to a tweak of the algorithm or demands for more money to reach its audience. Earlier this year, Facebook announced the arrival of Instant Articles, which let selected media brands publish content directly to Facebook and display it in newsfeeds without requiring users to leave. And, as part of a regional deal with Fairfax, stuff.co.nz will be the first local brand that gets to play with it in New Zealand.
Facebook and Fairfax said in a joint release that Instant Articles features new interactive tools, including auto-play videos, interactive maps, audio captions, the ability to like and comment in-line on individual elements of an article and tilt the screen to view photos. Importantly, it also "improves the speed at which news stories can be viewed by as much as ten times compared to standard mobile web articles”. And in an era where expectations are very high on mobile around loading times—and in an era where social audiences are extremely fickle due to the sheer amount of content on offer—Facebook’s Mark D’Arcy said during his recent trip that this delay, which is, on average, eight seconds, was one of the biggest frustrations with the mobile user experience.
We weren't able to talk with Fairfax New Zealand group executive editor Sinead Boucher, but she said in the release: “With rapidly growing audiences on mobile, we’re excited – not just about a faster mobile experience – but by being able to bring Stuff’s stories to life in new ways using the mobile-driven suite of Instant Articles interactive features.”
Fairfax says it will put a “significant number” of articles on the platform. Overseas, The Washington Post, which recently claimed it was "the paper of record" after its online traffic topped that of The New York Times for the first time, said it will publish all its articles there. And according to a story in the Wall St Journal, around "100 publishers are now using Instant Articles on a daily basis to distribute content, while about 300 are enrolled”.
Introducing Instant Articles, a new tool for publishers to create fast, interactive articles on Facebook. Learn more at instantarticles.fb.com.Posted by Facebook Media on Tuesday, 19 May 2015
Facebook says Instant Articles, which are available to iPhone users and will launch in Android later this year (a small public beta is available now), is about improving the user experience and making posts more beautiful, but, after publishers said they weren’t making enough money from the scheme, Facebook recently “allowed publishers to include more advertising in each article, and to sell Facebook-only ad campaigns to marketers if they wish”. The original restrictions were one ad per 500 words, but that has been reduced to 350 words, so some users may feel it's slightly less beautiful than before.
Fairfax says its mastheads—The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and stuff.co.nz—remain in control of the content published to Instant Articles (via an RSS feed) and it is “exploring opportunities to monetise Instant Articles display and pre-roll advertising".
As far as the revenue model goes, a Facebook spokesperson says the publishers can sell ads themselves, let Facebook sell them on their behalf, or use a combination of the two models. The spokesperson wouldn't confirm how much of a cut Facebook takes and would only say it's an industry standard, but when it launched, Slate’s Will Oremus wrote that “any unsold ad slots in a story will be filled by Facebook, with Facebook keeping a 30 percent cut of those revenues. That’s a remarkably generous arrangement".
Some believe that generosity could be short-lived, however, and that media companies should be wary of big global juggernauts who come bearing gifts. In the past, Facebook got brands and publishers hooked on the idea of ‘likes’ and organic reach. But, like any good drug dealer, once they were hooked, they eventually made those brands and publishers pay to reach all of the audience they had built up. And, judging by its recent revenue figures, that seems to be working pretty damn well.
Publishers are also hooked on social traffic, most of it coming from Facebook but, as Time Inc's Mel Deziel said when she spoke at NZME's launch of the Branded Content Hub last week, relying on 'borrowed' media platforms puts you at their mercy and, as Digiday reported recently, referral traffic to the top 30 publishers fell 32 percent from January to October. When we talked to some local media companies about the launch of Instant Articles in May, none of them would provide figures on how much of their traffic comes from Facebook, but data from similarweb.com provides some useful insights, although this is only desktop traffic and does not apply to mobile, which is where Facebook dominates, where Instant Articles exists and where a big chunk of the audience for news publishers is now coming from (it’s thought more than 50 percent of stuff.co.nz and nzherald.co.nz's audience now comes via mobile).
Over the past six months, 15 percent of stuff.co.nz's traffic came through social media, with 70 percent of that from Facebook; 24 percent of nzherald.co.nz's traffic came via social, with 76 percent from Facebook; and 38 percent of TVNZ's traffic came via social, with 94 percent from Facebook.
Added to that, Nielsen statistics show that 81 percent of New Zealanders over 18 use their mobiles when accessing Facebook, 91 percent of 25-34 year old access Facebook via mobile and 87 percent of 35-44 year olds access Facebook via mobile, so most publishers can't ignore such a powerful distribution platform and it makes sense to try and speed things up for users on mobile. But, as Bernard Hickey—and many others—have argued, "you’re essentially handing your IP over to a network that controls the relationship between the advertiser and the publisher. And as we saw with the programmatic networks that transfers market power to the network".
All media companies in the modern, targeted age need data to attract advertisers. Fairfax says "existing analytics tools will be used to measure audience data and traffic". Facebook also has access to user data and it obviously benefits by giving them more engaging content that might keep them coming back—and staying for longer. The spokesperson was unsure whether publishers were able to use Facebook's analytics tools.
When asked whether Instant Articles are prioritised over the links of other publishers, the spokesperson said a firm no, numerous times. And a follow-up question about whether the algorithm could potentially reward Instant Articles because their new features made them more engaging and potentially more shareable led to a very circuitous discussion about the intricacies of the newsfeed. In the Wall St Journal, Facebook Instant Articles product manager Michael Reckhow said that Instant Articles are "ranked by the same criteria as other content in the newsfeed, including how long users spend with it and how often it’s shared". He said it has had good results in terms of engagement with Instant Articles so far, especially with the number of shares, so they could be prioritised over links to publishers’ sites because they "earn distribution based on providing a really good experience".
Facebook sent a quote through to clarify: "Instant Articles launch partners do not get any preferential treatment as a part of their participation in Instant Articles. We have onboarded dozens of partners over the past few months and we are working to open up the programme to more partners in the future. Our intention is to make this programme available to any publisher who wants to participate in the programme."
The algorithm has basically become the new frontpage editor, Hickey says, and Facebook offers personalisation at a scale not seen before. D'arcy said he often gets asked who uses Facebook well and his response is always "which Facebook?" because it's different for everybody and tailored to their interests and behaviour. And while that relevance certainly appeals to advertisers, Hickey believes there are some other potential dangers in relying too heavily on the machines to make sense of the world.
"The advent of algorithmic newsfeeds creates filter bubbles that essentially destroy serendipity or the ability for a human to set the news agenda. You end up with situations like election results where the reality punctures your filter bubble. And everyone goes, ‘I can’t believe that everyone voted for the other guy, because all the people I’ve been speaking to and all the news that I’ve read said the other guy was going to lose. How did that happen?’ Well, that’s because you’ve created a filter bubble that’s disconnected from reality. Sometimes a news editor of a newspaper, TV bulletin or radio programme puts uncomfortable news in front of you that you don’t necessarily agree with."
And as Matt Taibbi argued in this piece in Rolling Stone, the insatiable desire for clicks seems to be giving "junk news" the fuel it needs to flourish.
"It's our fault. We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that's basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games. You want bigger margins, you just cram the product full of more fat and sugar and violence and wait for your obese, over-stimulated customer to come waddling forth. The old Edward R. Murrow, eat-your-broccoli version of the news was banished long ago. Once such whiny purists were driven from editorial posts and the ad people over the last four or five decades got invited in, things changed. Then it was nothing but murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.”
Sounds like a great newsfeed. And with Facebook now counting one video view as three seconds, we wait for that attention span to get even shorter.