IMAGE: Facebook

Facebook’s Instant Articles: the way forward for web content

Facebook has launched Instant Articles, a service offering a few chosen content creators access to more than 1.2 billion users on the Facebook app. The initial offer includes articles top quality journalism from The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, and The Atlantic; soon The Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel, and Bild and many other leading titles will join them. The idea is for users to be able to access content on their smartphones more quickly by using the Facebook app: slow downloads are apparently one of the main reasons many people give up on some news sites.

The initiative is a good example of how today’s web works. Independently of what we might think about the company using its dominant position and its consequences for the future, this illustrates some of the most important aspects of the open web:

  • Total freedom: content creators can provide as much or as little material as they wish, and can leave at any time. Some have clearly committed themselves, others are testing the waters, trying to measure the impact. We will see a lot of this, with different adoption levels as Facebook allows other publications to join the scheme. But the moment, what makes this interesting is that it has managed to combine traditional publications with net natives. The important thing here isn’t who has joined now, but who will join in the future, a future that Face, providing access to more than 1.5 billion users will be the gatekeeper of.
  • Economic freedom: Facebook keeps its traditional 30 percent commission on the advertising its inserts into the articles, but will do so only if the publication has empty inventory to sell. Otherwise, the company will place its own advertising. Facebook allows content creators to monetize their articles as they see fit, and keeping 100 percent of what they make. Basically, Facebook is telling content creators that it is here, it has all these potential readers, and that it is going to allow content creators access to them and to keep their earnings, but if they want advertising, they can have it, as long as Facebook takes its 30 percent cut. This is very much an offer nobody in their right mind would turn down, especially given the market today.
  • Format freedom: content creators can keep the design that gives their publication its identity. If they wish, they can use Facebook’s own formats used on its networks, available through Paper.
  • Total integration of data architecture: content creators can integrate their analytics systems, their Google Analytics, their Omniture, or their ComScore without problems, and traffic generated through Facebook will be audited in its accounts.
  • As we have commented on many occasions, it’s not the masthead that counts anymore; it’s the news. Mastheads who insist on holding onto their identity in this way, in forcing access only through their channels, rather than embracing the principle of the open web, will be the losers. But those who accept conditions that appear to be at the expense of their masthead, of the brand they have taken many years to build up, will see that they become more relevant as readers, attracted by their news stories, begin to recognize the tone and style, authors, or other aspects that might appeal to them, and given them preference.
  • All the major publications are currently debating about whether to continue clinging to their brand identity. The decisions they reach will affect their future. Some will consign themselves to the margins, and some will even be signing their death sentences by refusing to join the open web.
  • User experience is always a key factor, but is even more so on smartphones. Facebook’s optimization is based on a series of open protocols, some of them developed by Facebook itself, and we are fast reaching the point whereby these will be the benchmark for content creators. The importance of rapid downloading of articles cannot be overstated, and will be hugely influential in deciding what we read and simply give up on. Furthermore, we will have to hope that content creators can resist the temptation to use excessively intrusive or bothersome formats that could slow things down. In this kind of environment, some kinds of formats are dead in the water and publications that refuse to change will be left behind. So, brands, beware: if you stick with certain formats you will find that there are publications that will just turn you down.

Facebook’s Instant Articles is set to become one of the key elements in Facebook’s future strategy, and needs to be seen as a call to arms: “We have the attention of 1.5 billion people and you can reach them through us.” As we said not long ago, we are witnessing the great battle for the customer interface has begun, and Facebook, the world’s most popular place to consume content, doesn’t actually produce content. And it doesn’t need to.

(En español, aquí)

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