Instant Articles present new opportunities and challenges for publishers

Facebook Instant Articles
Instant Articles are a fast and beautiful way for readers to access content directly from their Facebook Newsfeed.

Debuting in May of 2015, Facebook Instant Articles are nearing their first birthday, and in that time marketers and large publishers have had a chance to experiment with publishing full articles directly to the newsfeed without redirecting users to an external site.

When the project was first proposed to publishers, one of the major advantages was that hosting the content on Facebook’s servers dramatically reduced load times. As the name implies, Instant Articles found articles loading nearly instantly within the app.  External links took 5-10 seconds by the time the browser would launch and the page could load. The purported benefit was that users would click on an article more readily as they could more immediately determine if the content was of interest. The goal for many publishers is for pages to launch in under two seconds.

In a move that surprised many, the terms of these partnerships were surprisingly favorable for publishers, allowing them to sell and embed their own ads and receive 100% of the revenue, or use Facebook’s in-house advertising services, surrendering 30% of the profits in the revenue sharing deal. Facebook also provides advanced reporting metric courtesy of Google Analytics and Adobe Omniture to ensure publishers could continue to monitor performance.

But while the initial impressions seemed mutually beneficial, there are areas where publishers have cause for concern both in the near-term and in the big picture when considering the service’s viability.

Allowing Facebook to become the new “gate keeper”

With great power comes great responsibility and Facebook is increasingly becoming the primary traffic source for many publishers. As this dynamic and the percentage of readers continues to increase, it’s possible that publishers will stand to lose leverage in the relationship if they’re beholden to a channel providing such a large percentage of viewers.

Advertising Limitations

At present, Facebook limits the number of advertisements (two) that publishers can run within an Instant Article, and currently doesn’t allow native ads to run. While the rationale is to boost of the value of the content in the eyes of the reader by preventing content from being over-stuffed with promotional material, it’s an element of control that many publishers and advertisers are finding themselves reluctant to give up.

Traffic Inconsistencies

Since Instant Article content is hosted on Facebook’s servers rather than the publisher’s, it stands to reason that traffic volume may shift from one source to the next when implementing the strategy. But while a reader going from column A to column B is fine, publishers are concerned with the ability for the reader to continue their journey. Since the reader never leaves the app they’re unable to fully explore the publisher’s site without a navigation bar or quality calls to action, no matter how helpful your hyperlinks, effectively limiting the time spent consuming conduct or finding other material.

Many publishers view the service with cautious optimism, but Facebook’s terms of service will be the pivotal point in the success of the program and its publishers. As we’ve seen with video, and then again with live video, Facebook’s newsfeed algorithms are subject to constant changes, so while the current environment is favorable, the company’s history of rapid change is worries some as the next algorithmic iteration may devalue a publisher’s heavy investment in instant articles.

Retaliation from Google or Twitter

To ignore the other titans of the internet is to turn a blind eye to competition. Facebook’s Instant Articles have seen momentum in partner acquisition, but the rollout to users was relatively slow, giving competitors ample time to respond. Google’s own “Accelerated Mobile Pages” (AMP) also dramatically reduces load times on mobile by leveraging simplified HTML code and the search engine’s page caching technique. Twitter seems to be aligning with the search giant and collaborated in the development of AMP, making an attractive alternative for publishers who want viewers to remain within their site’s ecosystem while maintaining total control over advertising.

Instant Articles: Still a fledgling offering

The potential red flags were evident this past March, when some publishers saw traffic decrease 20-25%, with no obvious explanations offered by either party. Like all innovation, Instant Articles are a work in progress. Facebook will continue to refine the offering, but emerging technology is often rough around the edges or even prone to unforeseen threats in the form of bugs, or shifting behavioral changes. The abnormality in March’s traffic might just be a blip on the radar, but some are concerned that it may be indicative of potential broader instability that needs attention.

Ultimately, this battle for viewer attention is far from over, and publishers would always be wise to continue monitoring their individual performance but keep tabs on the industry as a whole to take the market’s pulse and identify trends signaling an opportunity to employ new techniques rather than go with the flow.

Here at Intermarkets, we will be testing out Facebook Instant Articles in the upcoming weeks.  We will be monitoring performance results closely to ensure that our users are getting the best user experience, distribution is consistent, and monetization remains strong.

 

Written by Vipul Mistry | @mrmistry

crystal ball
2015 was a busy year for us digital media folks.  Expect 2016 to be more of the same—with new opportunities and challenges discovered across technologies, platforms, and experiences.  I’ve highlighted a few things I’m sure that we’ll be watching in 2016.

HEADER BIDDING

Along with programmatic and private marketplace, header bidding was one of the top buzzwords in digital in 2015. For those that don’t know, header bidding is an advanced programmatic technique where publishers offer inventory to multiple ad exchanges simultaneously prior to making calls to their ad server.  This implementation allows quality advertisers to better compete for valuable impressions, thus driving up the bid. Expect the discussion around header bidding to continue to be at the forefront for publishers, not solely for its potential impacts to yield, but for the quality advertisers it brings to market.  For many pubs, 2015 was spent understanding the dynamics of header bidding, and initial testing.  Header bidding is still a work in progress for many publishers. At the Appnexus Summit in November, it was mentioned that only about a quarter of the largest publishers have implemented a header bidding solution. For 2016, expect more testing, implementing solutions with the hopes of opening the door to more programmatic opportunities.  With so much to be gained by implementing programmatic solutions, you can count on publishers considering header bidding their top priority for the year.

MOBILE

Mobile phone usage will decline in 2016—Kidding! Over 92% of Americans currently own a cell phone, with 68% of the population owning a smartphone, and they are keeping that device within arms-reach at all times. That in mind, it’s no surprise that mobile traffic continues to outpace desktop traffic.  It’s not just millennials who are using mobile devices more, it’s older consumers with buying power and it’s also folks like my 70+ year old dad who don’t leave home without their iPhone and iPad.  Smartphone users are consuming and creating content at an unprecedented pace; mobile has revolutionized how people follow breaking news, make purchases, research health information, and navigate. Given the importance of the mobile platform, it is imperative that publishers optimize experiences to best suit the mobile format, tailoring content to a smaller screen and for the on-the-go consumer.  Given the quick hit visits and inherent bounce rate of social media links, optimizing content and advertising on this small screen format is crucial to maximizing revenue.  There will be additional focus on optimizing experiences for speed.  Facebook introduced Instant Articles and Google announced Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)—all in an effort to reduce slow load times and getting these hyper-connected consumers information faster.

ad block

AD BLOCKING

The $10.7B that ad blocking cost publishers in 2015 could double in 2016, as the 18% of U.S. Internet users using ad blocking services grow. Users are pushing back against poor experiences.  To combat the clutter, the industry is shifting towards better experiences such as native advertising. Consumers are demanding content, experiences, and ads that are timely, relevant, useful, contextual, minimally invasive, and clearly identified; otherwise they are completely dismissing it.  No longer are ads just ineffective if done incorrectly, but now they can also be damaging. However, don’t expect the banner ad to die; just evolve.  So many brands, agencies and publishers live in the environment. In the upcoming year, expect more messaging to be embedded into content, interactive experiences and paid sponsorship to combat ad blocking.

personalization

PERSONALIZATION

The days of “Dear [first name], we have an exclusive deal just for you!” are fading as the concept of mass personalization evolves in sophistication. Advertisers are continuing to experiment with how to scale customized ads with big data to deliver the right message at the right time to the right person. Like advertisers, publishers must take a renewed interest in predictive and deterministic analytics that allow them to push out content that is more custom by nature. Publishers will lean more heavily on real-time data to help create the right content experiences at the right time.  2016 will be a year of discovering how to simplify analytics and use the resulting data to effectively engage the reader to read more and stay on page longer.

POLITICAL SPENDING

One Presidential race, 34 Senate races, 12 governorships, 435 U.S. House seats, and up to 29,000 local elections. That’s a whole lot of politics for a year (too much, some may argue). Experts predict unprecedented political spending in the range of $6-$10B. A whopping 80% of that spend will go straight to advertising. While the bulk will remain allocated to traditional television spots, 2016 will bring an uptick in digital ad spend.  Campaigns no longer limited to a few platforms (i.e. Google, Facebook), can reach voters at the most opportune times using mobile, tablet, or laptop. Everyone will be especially interested in seeing new innovations in reaching the voter, particularly via mobile for this election cycle. This trend ties in closely with personalization trends, as campaigns know they must break through the clutter to reach the voters most likely to engage with them and advocate on their behalf.   Publishers with the right demographics of audiences will benefit from the onslaught of additional advertising.

Vipul Mistry is the Business Development Manager at Intermarkets, a digital marketing firm that connects advertisers and publishers with the most powerful tools in the media space.

Reach me on Twitter @mrmistry