Are Facebook Instant Articles a faustian pact for publishers?

Matt RowleyFacebook has launched its Instant Articles product to encourage publishers to post articles to the site. Matt Rowley looks at what it means, and asks whether it is a ‘faustian pact’.  

This week Facebook and nine of the world’s top publishers including The New York Times, Buzzfeed, the BBC and The Guardian launched Instant Articles.

I believe they have the power to be a user experience breakthrough for Facebook and to transform publishing – for better or eventually for worse.

First, here are three things you need to know about instant articles.

1. They are are beautiful.

They are multi media rich and interactive, using video text and images to create an excellent user experience. Think of NYT’s ‘Snowfall’ made specifically for mobile. For example, in Buzzfeed’s first IA you tilt your phone to the right to reveal a second half of a photo (seeing a groom’s first view of his bride), eliciting an emotion in the reader.If you don’t believe me, watch this video.

2. Instant Articles are native in the Facebook app.

Up until now publishers had two options when it came to Facebook. You either posted a link to your articles on your website which is a clunky user experience and Facebook could simply decide not to show, or stuck in some text with an image or video, giving away your content for free

This is a whole new user experience. When you click on an IA it opens instantly within Facebook (no waiting to be taken to publisher site) and plays within the app (IA’s are only on mobile, along with more than half of the web now). This means you can swipe left, right, up, down, tilt, autoplay video and anything else a native app can do that a mobile website can’t.

In short, it’s a far better user experience than most of these publishers can offer. It has long been Facebook’s goal to keep users from straying outside of it and this is a great reason to actively want to stay, or even increase their usage.

facebook instant articles3. Instant articles are a new twist on the revenue model.

Publishers can place ad units in Instant Articles. The revenue model for now is that if the ads served are from the publishers they get 100% of the revenue. If the ads served are from Facebook, Zuck gets a 30% cut. IA’s can also be sponsored content, suiting Buzzfeed’s commercial model.

But what are the implications As it stands, this adds up to a great deal for publishers. Around 16% of the NYT’s traffic currently comes through Facebook via the clunky old link mechanism. What might that explode to with this slick new user experience, a built in engagement, commenting and sharing mechanism, and no doubt some favourable timeline juice from Facebook?

With the current financial state of publishing, who could say no?

At launch, Instant Articles have been long reads to show off their capability, but with the commercial terms above it’s only logical that all content types – short or long – would find their way into this format. Publishers will have two digital publications – one on Facebook and then their own site.

Which leads us to the potential faustian pact this deal represents. The New York Times owns its own website and email lists which operate through a free internet. The New York Times only rents its space in Facebook.

That space is currently free in this deal, but there is absolutely nothing stopping Facebook from raising the rent or changing the terms down the track. A very scary prospect if up to 50 per cent of your business were to rely upon it and your readers expect it.

If this turns out to be a deal with the devil, that deal’s been done.

Matt Rowley is head of content marketing at Cirrus Media


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