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 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 traditional 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 directly with a brand in the past will now have to be done with a revenue share to Facebook.
This shift in data ownership signifies the clear transfer of
ownership of the reader relationship. Of course,
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 of this shift, 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 referral traffic from Facebook fell 60.1%, and BuzzFeed’s 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 does it own the audience,it owns w 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.
If more 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, which 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, publishers 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 publishers require will prove much more beneficial than the alternative: handing the reigns of control over to Facebook.