What it’s like to set up Facebook Instant Articles

TL;DR: It sucks, but we’ll help you get through it.

For someone with only a basic understanding of computer logic, setting up Facebook Instant Articles for an indie publication is a pain in the ass. It’s tedious, buggy, and it comes with that familiar feeling of pending judgment as you submit your 10 sample articles for review.

Which is exactly why I’m doing it. I’m going through the motions of converting my old digital news startup, Muckgers, into a Facebook-first publication as we prepare it for a possible revitalization (more on this to come). Muckgers co-founder Simon Galperin and I will document our progress along the way, letting you know what works, what doesn’t, and what’s next. Think of Muckgers as a canary in the digital coal mine that is Facebook-first publishing. Our plan is to create useful walkthroughs and video tutorials along the way to help you navigate through the weeds.

What are Instant Articles?

For the uninitiated, Instant Articles are pieces of content that media organizations publish directly to Facebook. They boast up to 10x faster load times, allow you to sell your own ads against them or take advantage of the Facebook Audience Network, and IA content shows up higher and more frequently in readers’ timelines. Click here for a more detailed description.

When IAs first came out, they were only available to nine big media players — outlets like the New York Times, National Geographic, The Guardian, and so on. Instant Articles just appeared in our Facebook newsfeeds one day. Nobody on Main Street really knew how they worked or what the back-end looked like.

Fast forward to April 2016, almost a year later. Facebook announced last month that it will now allow media shops of all shapes and sizes to use Instant Articles — if you can figure out how to set them up, that is.

How do I get started?

Theoretically, all you have to do is install a plugin, insert a few lines of code into the HTML of your website, connect your RSS feed to your publication’s Facebook page, submit 10 sample Instant Articles for review and, pending Facebook’s approval, you’re on your way.

In reality, it’s a little more complicated than that — especially if you don’t have any experience with HTML.

If you have the time and the tech chops, it shouldn’t take more than a few hours of grinding and Googling to work it out. But if you don’t have at least a functional understanding of how to write and read HTML, good luck finding anything short of a few CodeAcademy classes to get you though it.

Editing the original header.php file of Muckgers’ WordPress theme. I suggest creating a copy of the original to avoid crashing your entire site if you break something and can’t figure out how to fix it.

Let’s assume you’re using WordPress, for example. In some themes, you have to edit your theme’s original header.php file and figure out how properly to add <meta> tags, all without accidentally crashing your site. Your content is automatically delivered to Facebook via RSS feed, but first you have to update the articles in your WordPress backend as if you were publishing changes to your site. Then you have to go through and individually clean up the HTML code for each of the 10 sample articles you’ve chosen to submit to Facebook for review.

By the way, you can’t actually view any of the IA content on a desktop browser. If you want to preview any of the changes you make to your articles, you have to use the Facebook Pages Manager app on your smartphone. The Pages Manager app, however, doesn’t always reflect changes or updates you made to the code on your computer. I only found this out because Simon was in the room helping me. His phone (Samsung S7 Edge) worked fine, while mine (Samsung S6) kept showing an empty article.

Left: Once you clean them up, your articles should appear in the Pages Manager app. Middle: Sometimes featured images didn’t show up on my phone but were visible on Simon’s. Right: It took more than a day for the Pages Manager app to correctly display this video post.

Now what?

Once you’ve cleaned up the remaining articles and submitted them for review, you have to wait the stated 24–48 hours for a response from the almighty Book of Faces.

That’s it. That’s as far as I’ve gotten at this point. I’ll be sure to let you know what happens next.

In the meantime, I’m going to starting making chunks of HTML for various types of content that you can cut-and-paste into your publication’s IA source code. That way, you just have to fill in the blanks with links to your own content. Facebook actually provides something similar to this, but some of it needs to be accompanied by more explicit instructions.

Eventually, I’ll start making a few step-by-step video tutorials on how to set up and complete various parts of the process as a whole. Let me know if there are any specific issues or steps you need help with and I’ll put those at the top of my list.

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UPDATE on 5/4/16: This is one of the most comprehensive walkthroughs of the IA setup process I’ve found so far. Thanks to Simon for sending me the link, and thanks to Buffer for putting it together.

UPDATE on 5/10/16: I’ve made the first of many simple video tutorials on how to set up Facebook Instant Articles for your publication. This video shows you how to edit the WordPress theme header and add the necessary <meta> tag so Facebook will recognize your domain. Thanks to Warren Tabachnick for the feedback and suggestions.

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