Instant Articles failed to save the news business. Now what?

The Guardian is out. The NYT is also out. Many publishers are ‘cooling off‘, among them BBC News, National Geographic and The Wall Street Journal. By some accounts they are fleeing.

But why?

Quite simply, placing your content on another’s platform is an investment—the desired return being more eyeballs, more engagement (however you measure that), and more revenue (if that is your business model)—and that investment is not paying off.

When Facebook announced the format back in May 2015 there were six main benefits: faster load times, monetisation, discovery, branding, metrics, and a full screen experience. The main driver for media companies, initially, seems to have been the lure of more revenue, revenue that was needed to ‘fund journalism’. In theory, if more people read an article, and there are ads in it, there is more money to be made.

However, the Verge reported:

“The revenue in no way backed up the amount of time that was being spent on it,” says Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next. DCN is a trade group that represents many large publishers, including NBC, The New York Times, Conde Nast, ESPN, Slate, Business Insider, and Vox Media. (Vox Media owns The Verge.)

What publishers have seen is a drop in revenue – they get less money from Facebook advertisements than from those on their own site, and the increase in page views is not offsetting that drop. The effort to revenue ratio just isn’t there.

Fortune reported similarly:

…the bottom line was to get media companies to hand over their content, not to make money for them.

In response to negative feedback Facebook promised publishers more revenue, but this does not appear to have been enough for some.

While revenue has not met expectations, engagement levels have, at least on the surface. Instant articles get shared more, liked more and get more comments. But this is only on the Facebook platform, and they don’t go on to consume more content from the same provider.

Fortune again:

Facebook has one over-riding mandate, and that is to buy, borrow, or create content that will generate more engagement and time spent on its service. And that takes precedence over just about anything.

This shift of readers away from media websites and onto Facebook has been a problem for many. Media companies need a core of committed readers, and building this core is the strategy now being pursued by the NYT, The Guardian and others.

Alexandra MacCallum of the NYT said, “It isn’t chasing clicks; it’s making people loyal to the Times specifically,” while the The Guardian, when asked about their withdrawal from instant articles, said that they want to, “…bring audiences to the trusted environment of the Guardian to support building deeper relationships with our readers…”.

In a blog post John Battelle, a media industry veteran asked, “Do you have any proof that publishers using another company’s proprietary platform have ever created a lasting and sustainable business?” Good question.

The main problem with instant articles is that by using them you are working to build Facebook’s platform not your own, and fuelling Facebook’s stranglehold on consumers. For that reason alone I think all the major publishers will withdraw from instant articles, in full or in part.

What can we do instead?

Work needs to be done to close the gap between the promoted advantages of instant articles, and the functionality and features of media company sites.

Speed was the most heavily promoted features, so start improving the performance of your site on all devices. All the research says that this improves engagement, revenue, conversions, everything. It’s not that hard; I did it for RNZ. The Financial Times did it. So did Bloomberg, GQ, and the NYT.

Doing that will reduce the gap between instant articles and embedded story links. (I will do a future ‘how to’ post on website performance.)

Another area to work on is making discovery of your content on your own platform better. Tagging is a great start, but make sure you have a sensible taxonomy, and your team know how to use it. Recommendation engines are good too, if you have the capacity to write one yourself. Third-party engines tend to promote ‘bottom-dwelling’ content, and don’t do much for your brand.

While we are in the subject of brand, the design and user experience of the site should reflect your brand values. Smarter people than me have written screeds on this. Google it.

You’ll also want to collect decent metrics, but make sure your team know how to correctly analyse the data you do collect. Just chasing raw numbers (page impressions) is no longer going to cut it. As an aside, this was one of the problems with instant articles. Each read counted as one click, but it was not possible to get a good understanding of the performance within the Facebook ecosystem. On your own platform you can track behaviour, and draw inferences based on a deep knowledge of your content and longer term data trends.

Running a successful site is multi-facetted, from overall strategy, to content strategy, to design, to user experience, to performance, to marketing and social media. All these need to be managed as a suite, and not outsourced to other platforms.

Facebook is eating the internet, and bleeding us dry, and media companies were happy to feed its insatiable appetite for content, believing that Facebook was their saviour. But they are now stepping back, and they are not going quietly, openly sharing their experiences, and doing that on an on-going basis.

Amongst all this mess is a golden opportunity. Media companies used to think that they were competing against each other—to be first, to be best, to have the most readers, the highest ad rates, the broadest coverage—and in competing failed to see the chance to collaborate to develop new business models, new technology, new advertising models, and new story-telling. Instead, they tried to prop up print operations by using essentially the same (failing) business model for digital: selling ads around the stories. As we know now, that doesn’t scale.

Now that new business models are being tried, and are showing some success, it’s time for media companies to rethink the go-it-alone strategy of the past, and instead adopt an approach where they collaborate, focussing on continual improvement and increasing the demand for their products. It is only when this takes place that they will be able to reshape and realign the digital value chain to meet their own needs, and ensure the future of this very important estate.



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