Eating media lunch? How Kiwi companies have responded to Facebook’s Instant Articles

Facebook has become a hugely important traffic source for many publishers. And last week Facebook announced the launch of a new feature called Instant Articles, which allows users to view articles from other websites (particularly enhancing mobile experience) without leaving the site. This is hoped to make for a faster loading time, more data about what users like to consume and therefore an enhanced overall user experience. And there are also benefits for the publishers. It’s very early days for the scheme, but we thought we’d find out a bit about the initiative and whether New Zealand’s main media outfits are keen on the idea. 

Facebook product manager Michael Reckhow gives a description and explains the impetus behind Instant Articles in a release, saying the site wants to make user experience faster and richer.

“People share a lot of articles on Facebook, particularly on our mobile app,” he says. “To date, however, these stories take an average of eight seconds to load, by far the slowest single content type on Facebook. Instant Articles makes the reading experience as much as ten times faster than standard mobile web articles.”

Along with a faster experience for users, Reckhow says Instant Articles introduces a suite of interactive features that allow publishers to bring their stories to life in new ways, “Zoom in and explore high-resolution photos by tilting your phone. Watch auto-play videos come alive as you scroll through stories. Explore interactive maps, listen to audio captions, and even like and comment on individual parts of an article in-line.”

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

In one of the best run-downs of the technology, Slate writer Will Oremus says Facebook allows publishers to display their own ads inside their Instant Articles, with all the revenues from those ads going back to the publishers. “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.”

At the moment the feature allows Facebook users to read full interactive stories from the New York Times, BuzzFeed, National Geographic, and others without leaving Facebook, according to Oremus.

“You can see the inaugural batch of Instant Articles today by logging into the Facebook mobile app on an iOS device (an Android version is reportedly in the works). If your friends happen to be sharing them, they’ll appear in your News Feed just like any other Facebook post would.”

StopPress contacted Facebook but was told by Pursuit Public Relations senior account manager Gavin Ogden: “I’m afraid it’s a bit early to get anymore information above what has been announced already”, however it is understood Facebook has already been approached by several New Zealand media companies.

Given the importance of Facebook traffic, there’s a high likelihood that most, if not all of New Zealand’s main media companies and many smaller ones will be interested. None of the media companies we spoke with would provide figures on how much of their traffic comes from Facebook, but data from similarweb.com provides some useful insights into website traffic flow through Facebook. It should be noted that this is only desktop traffic and does not apply to mobile. 

According to similarweb’s data, in April this year 22.89 percent of the Herald’s online audience was referred through social media, a decent 56.23 percent of this came from referrals through Facebook. For Stuff.co.nz in April there was a total of 16 percent of referrals through social media, with 58.67 percent of referrals from Facebook. TVNZ’s figure was even higher, with a total of 33.03 percent of its online audience referred through social media, and 81.68 percent of it referred through Facebook.

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. 

TVNZ spokesperson Lenska Papich says “TVNZ has been using social for several years and we will be watching Facebook’s new Instant Article initiative with interest,” she says. “…We will continue to use Facebook and other social channels to engage with our audiences to deliver the stories that really matter to New Zealanders.”

Fairfax communications manager Emma Carter says Fairfax has nothing to add or share at this stage in terms of their involvement with Instant Articles, but says “we’re watching the Facebook Instant Articles developments with interest…”

NZME was a bit more forthcoming with its answers, with NZME group director of digital media Laura Maxwell-Hansen saying the Herald is open to exploring any channel that connects audiences “…and if there is innovation with delivery and audience engagement, then we’re interested. The key ingredient to the success of this product is still publishing great content and that’s our core competency.”

While she wouldn’t share how much of the Herald’s total traffic is driven through Facebook, she says “Facebook is one of our channels to distribute and acquire and that’s working successfully for us right now,” she says. “It makes sense for publishers to connect with audiences. If local audiences are reading the publication, then it makes sense to be there, just as we all are now. Any syndication of content is only as successful as the brand equity that travels with it. For credible and authentic brands like the New Zealand Herald, it’s simply another place to put our content. That’s how we view it anyway.”

And while there has been skepticism towards the initiative, with Oremus saying the initial broad consensus upon the announcement seemed to be “No, it’s terrible for online media, which are now ceding control of their journalistic content to a predatory tech company bent on global domination”, he says Facebook already had the industry by the tail “…this just happens to be the first time Facebook has really pulled on that tail. And the good news is that it’s a pretty gentle tug”. Maxwell-Hansen went on to say she isn’t concerned. “The publisher controls the content, the publication and how that resonates in news feeds. It’s simply a content distribution platform and it’s delivered in a native way.” 

However, Oremus says the media should still be wary, saying the deal looks great now but there’s little to stop Facebook from changing them once the Instant Articles format has caught on and everyone has bought in. He points to a quote that the Verge’s Casey Newton wrote in an article about the deal:

“I asked Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s vice president of media partnerships, whether [the revenue-sharing arrangement]was a limited-time offer that would change over time. “We’re committed to working with publishers in a way that gives them tools to build their business,” he said. So eventually you’ll take, what, 20, 30 percent? I asked. “We’re going to work with publishers to give them tools that build their business,” he repeated, unblinking.”

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