By publishing content directly to Facebook publishers are essentially turning over ownership of their audience to the social network, argues Tom Herman, CEO of DashBid.
Facebook’s Instant Articles came onto the scene back in May backed by heavy-hitting names such as The Atlantic, National Geographic, and Buzzfeed. Facebook promised faster content load times as well as advanced features and tools to help publishers increase engagement and improve the user experience. The timing of the solution couldn’t have been more perfect, as publishers continue to get hammered by lackluster revenue, ad blockers and stagnant growth.
Facebook, knowing full well of this struggle, packaged its network, with over one billion users worldwide, and offered publishers what at first glance seems like a golden goose but in reality is really a Trojan horse. Facebook pitched Instant Articles as a platform with a built-in highly engaged audience and unsurpassed segmentation and targeting tools. Publishers would get access to Facebook’s network and generate advertising revenue that they would otherwise be unable to generate on their own, at least not without having to deal head-on with the challenges of dwindling audiences and a complicated ad tech landscape.
What appears to be a “win, win,” though, is masking the real implication of Instant Articles. In reality, it is merely a power play. Facebook is flexing its muscles to cross over into the publishing space and latch onto revenue streams that were once owned by media.
The most obvious deficit caused by this relationship is the shift in ownership of data. Where publishers once had direct access to data on the readers of their content, Instant Articles migrates these capabilities to Facebook’s walled garden. Publishers can no longer access this first-party data, and as a result, have less information on their audience to source. Deals that they could do direct with a brand in the past will now have to be done with a revenue share to Facebook. What this shift in data ownership signifies is a clear transfer in ownership of the reader relationship.
By publishing content directly to Facebook publishers are essentially turning over ownership of their audience. If consumers rely on Facebook to read the news, rather than CNN.com for example, they will never have any reason to leave any of Facebook’s properties and go elsewhere for content. If you need proof, just look at the drop in referral traffic from top publishers. According to SimpleReach and SimilarWeb, referral traffic to the top 30 Facebook publishers plunged 32% from January to October. Huffington Post’s Facebook traffic fell 60.1% and BuzzFeed’s Facebook traffic fell 40.8%. While traffic fluctuations are common, encouraging publishers to upload content directly to the social network means fewer links, more users staying within the Facebook ecosystem, and fewer users visiting your site.
In this scenario, Facebook is left with all of the chips. Not only do they own the audience, they own the means in which that audience obtains content. With consumers highly-concentrated on Facebook, advertisers will have little need to look elsewhere. What is today a symbiotic relationship between Instant Articles and publishers, will evolve into a relationship where Facebook holds all the power and the revenue that comes along with it.
Once this line is severed, and publishers look to outside sources to own reader relations, the media industry will never be able to recover. Publishers will lose control over terms of doing business, and it will be dictated by someone like Facebook. If one platform can engage millions of people around the world, then publishers certainly have the opportunity to maintain an audience worthy of strong advertising revenue. While this process may be challenging, the publishers are the one that have the content that consumers want to read and are willing to pay for. In the end, the hard work of figuring out the data science required by publishers will prove much more beneficial than the alternative, which is handing the reigns of control over to Facebook.
By Tom Herman