Facebook's Instant Articles - a grouchy review for enterprises

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed June 7, 2016
Facebook Instant Articles bring out the grouch in me. Still, we can't afford to ignore what Facebook is plotting. Here's my critique of Facebook's recent advice to publishers - along with my action steps for enterprises.

Facebook's F8 developer show included some useful - and frankly disconcerting - information for publishers. "Instant Articles" have momentum, as Facebook proceeds with its plan to compel publishers to join or wither.

Like all great conquerors, Facebook wraps its pursuits in the language of altruism. It's all in the name of giving global readers better mobile experiences - all inside of Facebook's mobile biodome. C'mon in, it's warm inside. Don't worry about your own home page...

Note: I've written two prior pieces leading up to this one: Facebook Messenger and its AI chatbots – should the enterprise care? and How should enterprises navigate Facebook's Newsfeed algorithm?

Enterprises and Facebook - differing agendas?

Facebook's F8 replays make Facebook's content control agenda explicit. The deepest dive is Creating Value for News Publishers and Readers on Facebook. As of the F8 conference, any publisher, large or small, can now sign up and publish on Instant Articles. But there are different monetization needs:

  1. Pure media publishers like Buzzfeed are primarily in the ads/eyeballs business, perhaps including some sponsored content.
  2. Specialty publishers target narrower audiences, and likely have other components to their business model besides volume advertising.
  3. Enterprises that create content they might want to publish in Instant Article format. For this third group, publishing is often a means to a lead end. Advertising is far less important than acquiring opt-in audience data from content consumers, for the purposes of lead conversion.

Instant Articles weren't the only so-called "innovation" Facebook showcased for publishers at F8. Other biggies were Facebook Live, which Den has covered well on these pages, and Facebook 360 video. While 360 video is in its infancy, the journalistic potential of live views of refugee camps, political protests and ecological habitats is intriguing. For this review, I'll stick with Instant Articles, where the stats are maturing.

Instant Articles - the captive audience is diabolically effective

During the Facebook for publishers session, "Will" and "Josh" shared triumphant data about Instant Articles Will and Josh (both Facebook employee) are jazzed about how Facebook users are turning to Facebook as a news source. As Will says: "When you look at what people come to Facebook to talk about, a lot of what they're coming to talk about is news. They come to Facebook to learn about it and share it with their friends." (I guess they didn't get the memo on news drowning out personal sharing, much to Facebook's consternation).

The stats:

  • Facebook readers click on Instant Articles 20 percent more on average.
  • Once they click, they are over 70 percent less likely to abandon the article.
  • More than 1,000 publishers from around the world are officially part of the program; tens of thousands of instant articles are published every day.
  • Josh modestly states: "Because they are so fascinated and because it is such a better experience, people share instant articles over 30 percent more than mobile web articles on average."

So why are Instant Articles so effective? Will and Josh credit the immersive experience. Whatever you click keeps you on Facebook, allowing Facebook to optimize page and video load times.

Facebook Instant Articles are doing a fine job of justifying the alarm of inbound marketers from a year ago:

What’s most disturbing to inbound marketers, though, is that it’s going to be much more difficult to convert visitors into leads and nurture them if they’re consuming content on someone else’s website. It’s also going to be much harder to get any meaningful data to measure progress and guide future strategy, since a large portion of your traffic is going to be on the other site. And links to Facebook articles won’t contribute to your site’s authority, so you could lose out in the SEO arena as well.

Instant Articles - bringing news to people across the world on crappy networks

With 90 percent of Facebook users visiting on mobile devices daily, mobile bandwidth is an issue. In the developing world, with 2G mobile connection speeds, page loading is a deal breaker (an estimated 40 percent of mobile users access the Internet through a 2G connection). As Josh noted, better page loads mean higher news consumption:

We are seeing tremendous engagement as a result. Around the world in countries like India, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, the Philippines, people on slower connections click on 20 to 40% more instant articles than mobile web articles on average. It means they are reading 20 to 40% more news than they did before through instant articles. If you are on an older phone or a slow connection, it doesn't matter anymore.

To prove their point, Facebook did a demo which compared the load time of an Instant Article on a 2G phone from 2011, with a non-Facebook article on the latest iPhone. The difference: 5/6 of a second on the 2G phone, versus 5 seconds on the latest iPhone.

Facebook also makes a tactical argument: we give you everything you can offer on your own web site, and reach users you don't. The results are mixed:

  • Sponsored content - Facebook is in the early stages of a sponsored content model. They are closing the gap now by adding needed features, like the ability to add sponsored content logos to articles.
  • Analytics - You can integrate third party analytics (including Google Analytics) with Instant Articles, giving you a broader look at content performance across channels.
  • Advertising - If you have an ad model, you can generate revenue from Instant Articles. You can sell ads on Instant Articles, and tap into Facebook's ad network.
  • Lead conversion - Facebook referred vaguely to plans to help companies with lead conversion via newsletter subscriptions, etc, It's hard to imagine how effective that will be.

My grouchy take - and enterprisey advice

Facebook deserves credit for publishing a transparent agenda:

Instant Articles lets people read publishers’ content within the Facebook app. In other words, when people read Instant Articles, they no longer visit publishers’ websites directly

It's lazy to claim that the only way to get good load times is to serve up an insular Facebook experience. The reason so many media sites load so freaking slowly is because web pages suck due to ad tech and video autoplay hell. It's publishers' own ad tech models that result in the terrible load times that Facebook exploits.

The notion that users want to talk about news on Facebook doesn't necessarily extend to nuanced B2B topics. Facebook for Publishers talked about the death of the home page and distributing content where readers live. That's true - to a point.

But companies shouldn't surrender the challenge of luring visitors - not when their own web sites provide much more control. That matters when your goal is to serve up the right content and opt-in choices for users.

It's that exchange of content and data - the foundation of prospect trust - that Facebook Instant Articles has no answer for. My recommendations:

  • For content designed for broad exposure/branding, Instant Articles may be a worthwhile experiment.
  • Instant Articles is not the only Facebook game in town for publishers. There are other ways to earn visibility on individual users' Newsfeeds.
  • Facebook Live video is a much less insular project. You can embed Facebook Live replay video on other channels. For most brands, live events combined with replay potential make Facebook Live a much more intriguing option.
  • Facebook 360 video is still an early play for enterprises, but some 360 cameras are pretty cheap. It might a good time to purchase one and start thinking about how it might be used at events, or perhaps for tours of facilities. YouTube also supports 360 video uploads, so you're not tied to Facebook delivery.

Learn from the success of Instant Articles in terms of mobile-first UX, page load, and intuitive navigation. Apply the same design rigor to your site, and you might be able to save the home page for extinction - while converting more leads than you ever could serving griddle cakes for the Facebook company store.