Can Facebook win back publishers by improving Instant Articles?

Lindsay Bennett
By Lindsay Bennett | 4 May 2017
Lindsay Bennett

With news this week that Fairfax is cooling its usage of Instant Articles (IA) and The Guardian halting completely, the complicated relationship between media companies and Facebook seems to be reaching another crunch point.

IA has been controversial since Facebook launched it nearly two years ago. The format was sold as a way for articles to load faster than other Facebook posts that take readers back to publishers’ own sites.

In return, Facebook receives up to 30% of the ad revenue if it sells the ads in the article and gets to keep users within its ecosystem. Publishers keep 100% of the revenue if they sell their own ads.

But results have been lacklustre and there has been a growing concern from publishers about pushing their content off-platform.

Facebook has a terse relationship with the industry as many publishers feel they are forced into bed with the digital giant or risk losing their audience. Others like BuzzFeed are content with Facebook, pushing 100% of articles through the format.

Another area where publishers say IA falls short is its subscription options. Facebook doesn’t have a way for publishers to paywall IA, which has become more of an issue as more publishers look to a subscription model to compensate a weak ad market.

The Australian told AdNews earlier this week it has never published its content on IA due to lack of support for premium subscription content.

In response, Facebook is making concessions for publishers, admitting there is work to be done to make IA more appealing. Facebook has a vested interest in keeping publishers happy as its main goal is to keep people within its ecosystem.

Earlier this month Facebook launched call-to-action units that let publishers serve messages in IA stories inviting people to sign up for a newsletter or “like” their Facebook pages.

The service was launched in a bid to help publishers have more direct lines of communication with their readers.

It’s also testing trial subscription signups and mobile app install promos within IA with The Washington Post and The Telegraph in the US.

But will it be enough for publishers to pivot back to Instant Articles?

A more advanced subscription product in IA or revenue guarantees per page view could help Facebook win back the trust (and dollars) of publishers.

However, introducing a subscription model raises more questions about revenue sharing and what data the publisher will receive – another bugbear for media companies.

Last year when AdNews dug deeper on the issue, someone in a top ranking commercial role at a publisher in Australia said Facebook is "holding publishers to ransom", but that media companies were helpless in the situation.

The exec went on to say that the digital duopoly demands for content to be given away, referencing the 30% revenue Facebook takes as part of the Instant Article share.

His thoughts were mirrored by The Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner earlier this year who took aim at Facebook pinching publisher's ad dollars.

Her impassioned point-of-view is one shared by many in the industry, however publishing execs are hesitant to speak out against Facebook because it has become such a vital part of distributing content.

Another way Facebook could improve IA is to allow publishers to sell their own IA inventory programmatically rather than making them rely on its Audience Network – a process some have labelled “ineffective”.

The fact that Facebook is launching new IA features and attempting to meet publisher demands is a good sign it’s listening to industry feedback.

But, like we've seen recently with the Audited Media Association of Australia's mass exodus, publishers tend to move in packs and now The Guardian and Fairfax have made the move away, more publishers are likely to question their involvement.

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