Facebook’s Instant Articles May Have More to Do With Advertising Than Journalism

FB Instant Article Map
Speed is said to be the primary reason why Facebook came up with Instant Articles, but perhaps equally significant was the effect that it would have on the readers. Facebook is clearly aiming to keep people to stay on its app or website for as long as it can but this latest move may have more significant and wide ranging side effects.

With Instant Articles, Facebook presents a publishing platform to have news articles served directly on its own service rather than redirecting links to the publishers’ own websites. This actually is reminiscent to what Flipboard does or used to do with many of the articles accessed through its app, except Facebook has 1.4 billion users while Flipboard has yet to break 200 million.

What Facebook is is offering is native content with multimedia elements that load in no time, and a significant amount of potential readership. It wants to reverse the news delivery process towards getting the articles to the readers rather than making the readers go to the articles.

For decades, media companies have been publishing news articles on the web, accessible by readers through web browsers. They tend to present these articles on web pages that contain extraneous elements, many of which will only add to loading times.

With mobile, everything has to be faster because people have far less time to spare than when they’re using a desktop or laptop computer. This means reducing anything that’s not part of the article and making sure the page loads immediately after the reader follows a link.

Facebook is acting as a distribution channel and while a media apocalypse is unlikely, because journalism transcends its medium, it’s certainly going to have a significant effect on media companies.

The role of technology in news presentation and delivery cannot be overstated in this age of internet oriented mobile devices and applications. The existence and structure of traditional media companies are being challenged with the instant availability of news and other stories from multiple sources.

“In facing a changing landscape, like it or not, the institution must also change”, said Wicak Hidayat, editor of Kompas Tekno. “If Facebook is considered a match in terms of business, branding, and long term mission, why not? The question is of course, what is the long term mission? That is what I honestly don’t know”, Wicak said. Media companies, he said, needs to be able to adapt.

BuzzFeed for example, is one of those media companies that do not rely on page views. It’s able to produce native content for any social media networks or platform that it chooses to participate in, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Tumblr, or the “traditional” news site. Its flexibility in the way it creates and presents its content is one of the reasons why it was able to participate as an inaugural Instant Article partner.

Media companies aren’t the only one who might be interested in trying out Instant Articles. Brands today are also publishers and they might see this as an opportunity to be even closer to their consumers. According to Didi Nugrahadi, a co-founder of Detik and Beritagar news websites, “for brands, the ability to easily tell their stories through rich media content about their products must be very appealing especially if it’s packaged neatly and creatively”.

Media owners may consider Facebook as just another distribution channel the way paper and ink have been, but they also can see the company as a competitor. For Wicak, this is where journalists can take an opportunity to shine. “Journalists may even replace the role of media companies”.

“The media companies are being dethroned as we speak but who will replace it? I know Facebook and Google would like to sit on that throne, but they’re not the only ones”, Wicak said.

Wiku Baskoro, co-founder and chief editor of technology blog Trenologi, is equally pragmatic about what Instant Article brings to the table.

“If the readership trend is through Facebook, and not to visit news websites directly, then media practitioners may have no choice. Facebook as a journalism platform may reduce clicks (to websites) but then again it’s on the way down anyway because people now seek for news through social media”, he said.

FB Instant Article Wave

Because Facebook is able to provide a richer, more immersive, and more focused experience, readers may increasingly prefer to read articles on Facebook.

Wiku thinks that this isn’t just about journalism. Facebook after all, lives on advertising revenue, and it is increasingly reliant on mobile readership than the traditional desktop users. “If content is already on Facebook, not just being shared on it, then the company can develop its search and advertising services much better”.

In its latest earnings report in April, Facebook announced that it has 1.44 billion monthly active users while 1.25 billion of them are on mobile. Compared to a year ago, its revenue from mobile advertising went up from 59% to 73%. In real terms, mobile advertising generated $2.5 billion out of a total revenue of $3.45 billion in the first quarter of 2015. And Instant Articles, at least today, is only available on the mobile app, specifically the iPhone version, with Android launch coming later. It remains to be seen whether it will make the transition to the web version.

If Facebook can determine its readership profile much more accurately by serving better content as an incentive for its readers, then it will be able to deliver better results to advertisers. It’s worth noting though, that until today there hasn’t been a flood of Instant Articles on Facebook aside from the initial few on launch day.

[images courtesy of Facebook]