Facebook's media ambitions still on track despite initial setback with Instant Articles

Facebook launched Instant Articles back in mid-2015 to ensure that Facebook users get a rich, but bandwidth-friendly view of the news story or feature article within the app itself. It brought with it a new magazine-style formatting and improved loading times for the articles (as opposed to the time it would take for the article to open in a separate browser). The idea, 'noble' as it seemed, keeps users within the Facebook app. And according to reports, it looks like it didn't really do much for the publishers after all.

Publishers pulling out 

According to a report in DigiDay, major publications, including one of the first on the Instant Articles platform — The New York Times — are deciding to pull out of this Facebook feature. The reason? Well, as was always being debated, the monetisation on Instant Articles is nowhere close to what these publishers get if the article were linked back to their own site. Apart from NYT, other publishers such as Quartz, Hearst Digital (publisher of Cosmopolitan), Bloomberg, ESPN, and many more have either pulled out completely or are pushing only a fraction of their stories as Instant Articles.

According to Times' EVP of product and technology, Kinsey Wilson, Times' own site offers better monetisation than Instant Articles and people are more likely to subscribe to the Times if they directly come to the site. Facebook, in its attempt to ensure that more publishers use Instant Articles, has started a new subscription option, wherein you can enter your email ID to get updates from the publisher in your mailbox. It looks like this isn't working either.

With no incentives for publishers, it is a little surprising that they are pulling out of the Instant Articles platform in droves. The only beneficiary seems to be Facebook in this case, as users end up spending more time inside the Facebook ecosystem when using Instant Articles. Facebook is trying very hard to keep publishers on its Instant Article platform.

Facebook as a primary news source

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Facebook started off as a social network where you could share your life updates with your social circles. This was the early, post-Orkut days, pre-2010. But then came the NewsFeed algorithms and things changed. Since the last 3-4 years, Facebook has transformed into quite the news platform as well. If Twitter is where news breaks, Facebook, with its sheer number of active users, can help in building traction around a news event and amplify it.

Yes, Facebook still calls itself a platform and not a publisher. This despite the fact that it is one of the major sources of news for a lot of people. According to a Pew Research Centre report, around 62 percent of US adults get their news from social media. And of this, around 67 percent get it on Facebook. That's a significant portion of the news audience.

Pew

Newspaper subscriptions are falling and advertising revenues generated through them are on a decline. According to this Financial Times report, print ad revenues are on a decline since 2016 and the only areas of improvement seem to be online subscriptions — but that's also not a very rosy picture.

In the 2014 national elections, we have seen how social media was used by leading Indian political parties to amplify its messaging. US Elections in 2016 played out similarly across multiple platforms online. Social Media platforms such as Twitter, Google and Facebook were used by both the Republican and Democrats to their advantage.

In India, the trends are different, but with the rise in mobile phone usage and dropping data charges, it is only a matter of time before we also start using online platforms as the primary news source. And considering Facebook already has around 166mn users with over 95 percent of those on mobile, there is only scope for these numbers to go up.

How Facebook moved into the news space

Facebook's user base of 2bn users may put the population of many countries to shame. In a way, it is a platform that has a quick recall value, is global in nature and has the true advantage of the 'network effect.'

Image: Reuters

Image: Reuters

In countries where free speech is stifled or mainstream media is not highlighting all aspects of a story, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been at the forefront to spread the message. We have seen this on many occasions — Tahrir Square or the Egyptian revolution of 2011, the Ukraine protests in 2013 and the Jallikattu protests earlier this year in South India. Yes, one can debate on whether social media helped or not, but the role of social media in giving these events a global platform cannot be overlooked. And when one says social media, Facebook is a major component.

Facebook has been used as a tool to mobilise the demonstrations. Facebook was used as a medium by the actors in these protests to ensure that these issues get global attention simply because there isn't a distribution platform with as many users as Facebook.

Facebook Live, a property which Facebook started without any delay after live streaming apps such as Meerkat and Periscope came on to the scene, is used by pretty much all of the media organisations as another distribution platform. And it has also been used by individuals to highlight injustice — as was seen in the Falcon Heights shooting incident. Citizen Journalism will only rise with tools such as Facebook Live, effectively making Facebook a news source!

Building up on the success of Facebook Live, is Live 360 — which will be a platform to let you stream 360-degree content live on Facebook. With improved data connectivity speeds, being right in the middle of the action virtually using 360-degree feed would be any news enthusiast's dream come true. And with the kind of plans that Facebook has around VR, the Live 360 seems like a platform with a huge potential to propel Facebook into a news publisher's realm.

How Facebook is trying to keep publishers happy

Facebook Instant Articles makes sense for a publisher who is not heavily dependent on subscriptions or is behind paywalls. There is little incentive for such publishers to share content on Instant Articles, unless there is a guaranteed conversion trend in the offing. For websites who want to increase their reach, Instant Articles is just another distribution platform, if looked at purely from that perspective. But unlike other distribution platforms, which link back to the actual website, Instant Articles keeps the users within the Facebook ecosystem. A miniscule percentage of that audience may actually bother checking out the source site.

There are ads which show up in Instant Articles. Now these are generated through Facebook's ad network — and revenue generated from this can be shared with the publisher or the publisher can put up their own ads and keep 100 percent of the revenue. This is where major publishers are facing issues.

But then there are success stories such as Slate, which claims that Instant Articles have driven around 41 percent of newsletter signups.

Call to action1

Facebook has also been pro-active in terms of ensuring publishers get value out of its Instant Articles platform. To that effect, Facebook recently launched Call-to-Action units for Instant Articles as part of its Facebook Journalism Project. These call-to-action features include 'Page Like' and 'Email sign-up' units, which are buttons that appear at the end of the Instant Articles. Around 100 publishers had come on the beta platform for the call-to-action feature, which is now open to all publishers.

  • Email Sign-up call-to-action unit: Readers share their email address and agree to receive email newsletter updates from a publisher. Flexible design options allow publishers to customize messaging and clearly represent their brand.
  • Page Like call-to-action unit: Readers that Like the publisher’s Page are eligible to receive updates and posts from that publisher in News Feed.

Facebook's initiative to 'train' journalists

Facebook is even going to the extent of training journalists how to use its platform. Facebook has partnered with Poynter Institute for Media Studies to come up with a three-course certification for journalists called 'Facebook for Journalists Certification'. The idea behind this is to train journalists to leverage Facebook and Instagram platforms "for news gathering to storytelling to engaging with their followers." Real journalists who've tried the course think it's hilarious, and possibly pointless.

Image: Facebook

Image: Facebook

Since the US Elections last year, Facebook has been caught up in quite the backlash as the platform was exploited by those spreading fake news. Facebook was even accused of influencing the results of the US Presidential elections, which was denied by Mark Zuckerberg. But since then, Facebook has taken steps (pro-active or reactive, depending on your perspective) to ensure that its platform is not used to spread fake news.

Earlier this year, Facebook introduced the Facebook Journalism Project. Later in February, Zuckerberg sent out a 6,000 word manifesto, which also touched upon educating people about fake news, saying, "The two most discussed concerns this past year were about diversity of viewpoints we see (filter bubbles) and the accuracy of information (fake news). I worry about these and we have studied them extensively." But he went on to say that social media provides a lot more variety in terms of opinions as compared to mainstream news media.

So, is Facebook still a platform or is there a concerted effort to become a publisher?

Post-US Elections, we have seen many instances of Facebook finally taking steps to mitigate the spread of falsities on its platform. At the same time, it's working with media organisations to create a symbiotic relationship between the two.

While the publisher exodus on Instant Articles may be a reason for alarm, the fact that Facebook's media juggernaut is halting anytime soon is a myth.