Who Needs 'Friends' Like Facebook?

Talk about showing your true colours. Just a couple of weeks ago, publishers were rejoicing in the news that Facebook had decided to play the nice guy. When launched, its news aggregation service would do something completely unexpected -- allow publishers to win new subscribers without taking a cut.

It seemed like a great deal, and regular readers will know that personally, I was urging caution. Facebook could still be seen as "doing an Uber" by running an unbelievable offer to drive competition out of town, make itself indispensable and then -- who knows what they might do to prices next. What the drivers of London's iconic black cabs fear with the new app that is fighting for its licence in the capital, publishers have every right to fear about Facebook's future intentions.

And lo, it came to pass. Facebook has been revealed as testing out a twin track approach to timelines. The idea is pretty simple, although it's not clear exactly how it would work in practice. Essentially, users would have a prime timeline reserved for friends and family, then a second where publishers could seek to reach out to readers with their latest stories. In my mind, I'm thinking of it in the same way as the outlook app on my iPhone has a "focused" and "other" feed. One is usually pretty accurate at including the important conversations, while the "other" view is for the rest of my email. To get into the main view, Facebook is suggesting that publishers (and presumably brands too?) will need to pay, through boosting posts.

Facebook had appeared as the good guy to publishers before this trail was uncovered. In contrast, Google has also been in the headlines for suggesting that it is considering a revenue share with publishers for any news subscribers it passes their way. Facebook's position seems to be that it will build a news aggregation service that will pass new traffic to publishers for free and not expect a share of any subscription revenue. However, rather like Google, it is keeping its powder dry and is testing a means to make them pay to reach new audiences after all.

It is hugely important because, as Press Gazette reports, two-thirds of a national newspaper's audience comes through Google or Facebook. Facebook is the real shining star here. Google has been massive for years, but just four years ago, Enders Analysis figures reveal, Facebook only accounted for 5% of newspaper traffic. Last year, this had leapt to 22%. Over the same period, Google has also increased its share from 36% to 43%. 

With the duopoly so firmly ensconced and due to account for 71% of all the UK's digital advertising revenue by 2020, it is clear why publishers have a love-hate relationship with the pair. They are just too powerful to ignore, and too powerful to consider a friend.

So that's why I would put down the latest revelation of a dual feed from Facebook as a real area of concern. Mark these words -- the news aggregation service expected to be launched in this quarter will be positioned as the publisher's friend. It will allow publishers to keep subscription revenue as well as the ad revenue they generate themselves. It will seem like a great deal because it is. 

The question, however, is -- this an introductory offer? Will the dual-feed approach to timelines be lurking in the background as a way to claw back money from publishers who have become over-reliant on Facebook's massive distribution potential?

For some publishers, this will not be so much of an issue. If they charge a subscription fee for access to content, they will have an idea of how much they are prepared to pay for a new customer and will decide if Facebook, and Google, represent good value. For those publishers reliant on advertising revenue alone and who are expecting a bonanza through free additional reach, there just might be a shock in the post. 

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