Opinion

Quitting Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News: unravelling a Faustian pact

Two years ago, publishers fell into Faustian pacts with Facebook and Apple, with the promises of better traffic and ad dollars through off-platform distribution such as Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News. Now as publishers are starting to retreat, Mumbrella’s Miranda Ward asks what have they learnt from jumping in with the tech giants?

Social media was once thought to be the key to distributing online content, but the missing piece of the puzzle has always been how to actually monetise it. So when Facebook launched its Instant Articles and Apple provided Apple News, it looked like a solution.

But clearly it has not.

Last week the industry saw The Guardian pull out of both while this week News Corp’s The Australian has called it quits on Apple News (it has never tried Facebook Instant Articles).

Both publishing companies blamed the poor revenue generated from the platforms.

Entering into a deal with Facebook to share content, and Apple to do the same, was the signing of a Faustian pact for publishers: handing complete control of their content to an external party in the desperate hopes for some sort of return through traffic numbers and ad dollars.

The decision to jump on board with Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News echoed the excitement and lack of foresight that accompanied the dotcom boom – when publishers threw up websites without any real long-term plans around how the internet might impact their business models.

Of course, all of that is said with the benefit of hindsight – but publishers should have learnt from the ongoing problems stemming from giving away news for free online and started thinking more long-term when it comes to distribution strategies.

When publishers handed over their content to an external player, Facebook especially, they lost control over who got to see that content.

They accepted without a fight that users would no longer come directly to them for news.

For Facebook, news is just more content to feed its ever-hungry algorithm.

It doesn’t necessarily value it any more than it does that baby video posted by someone you went to high school with, or a cat video your colleague shared. It’s all just content to be consumed, liked and shared.

Who sees that content is decided by Facebook and its ever-changing algorithm – once a publisher has posted content to the platform using Instant Articles, Facebook will determine who will see it and when, based on that secret sauce recipe.

All publishers can do is hope their content will gain traction and deliver audience figures (and ad clicks).

Two years ago this is exactly what Australian futurist Ross Dawson warned publishers about.

Ross Dawson: You are essentially giving them your future

Delivering the opening keynote at International News Media Association (INMA) World Congress in New York, Dawson said of Facebook Instant Articles: “It is an individual decision but it is a critical decision. So in this case the platform strategy is central to the organisation strategy. If they do this, the upside is you have an extraordinary boost – in some cases they are offering 100% of revenue – but for how long we don’t know. But in this case, you are essentially giving them your future.”

Two years ago the warning might have seemed a little extreme – but now it feels like a premonition, as it’s almost exactly how it has played out.

For while The Guardian has pulled out of Facebook Instant Articles, and The Australian has quit Apple News – that doesn’t mean the reader is instantly going to return to the news site or start using a new app in order to continue consuming that content.

Just like when publishers threw up websites and didn’t think about charging for content, there was no apparent long-term plan in place for how utilising these platforms might change or impact reader habits.

And readers most surely have formed habits, or expectations at the very least.

When it comes to Facebook, publishers can still share content on the platform that links back to their own site, however, loading speeds may irk audiences used to the faster times of Instant Articles.

It doesn’t feel surprising that this tryst with Facebook and Apple has burnt publishers.

The sting will continue to be felt as publishers attempt to unwind the Faustian pact they entered around two years ago. It’s going to be hard to convince audiences to start accessing a new app or waiting while web pages, loaded up with ad inventory, slowly load.

Audiences want fast-loading content, they want to be able to access it directly out of their social network feeds, they want to be able to read a variety of content uninhibited by advertising (I’m looking at you, pop-ups) and ultimately, a lot of them, want it to be free.

Two years ago, publishers were warned about handing their future over to the tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Google.

If two years ago publishers had started to invest in building their own platforms or means of delivering content to audiences in a fast, reliable way in the environments they are inhabiting online (yes, Facebook is one of them), then perhaps we’d be further along this path.

Handing all control over to the likes of Facebook and Apple and even Google in the hopes they’ll solve the problems plaguing the news industry was ridiculously optimistic but reflective of this industry’s habit of quickly pouncing on the new shiny thing that will supposedly fix everything.

I’m not saying I have all the answers to the continuing problem of distribution and monetisation. But I am arguing for the need to think long-term, and even to think negative – what will happen to our brand and our audience if this isn’t the answer?

Publishers should not act surprised that it’s not as simple as quitting Instant Articles or Apple News. Audiences will do as they have always done – whatever they want – and you can’t expect them to shift to old habits because it didn’t work for you, the company.

Facebook and Apple don’t care about publishers backing away for a reason – because they now have captured your audience and can start giving them what they want in their own environment. They don’t need the publisher now they’ve trained the audience to come to them for content

Publishers are going to have to work hard to get those audiences back on their own platforms. This is what they should have been thinking about before rushing in desperately to sign a deal blinded by the potential dollar signs.

Deal with the Devil?

Faustus offered to burn his books when his final hour fell upon him and Lucifer came. What will publishers offer Facebook and Apple when it arrives for them in the years to come?

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