What’s the Catch with Facebook Instant Articles?

When Facebook first rolled out its Instant Articles feature, it was billed as a way for publishers to reach readers within their newsfeed more easily. The rationale went like this: instead of enticing readers to click on articles via a publication’s homepage, publishers could provide access to their latest headlines and features by sandwiching them between pictures of their cousin’s baby and a snapshot of a friend’s new apartment.
But there was a catch: because Instant Articles loaded without a user having to leave Facebook.com, the publishers didn’t get the traffic directed to their website. Facebook’s rationale for this was that if the article loads faster and without redirecting the user to another site, it would lead to a more seamless experience, thereby resulting in more clicks and engagement. But was this really a win for publishers?
Increasingly, it appears that no, it was not. The Guardian is the latest publication to announce it’s moving away not just from using Facebook Instant Articles, but Apple News as well. About the decision, the paper told DigiDay: “We have run extensive trials on Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News to assess how they fit with our editorial and commercial objectives. Having evaluated these trials, we have decided to stop publishing in those formats on both platforms. Our primary objective is to bring audiences to the trusted environment of the Guardian to support building deeper relationships with our readers, and growing membership and contributions to fund our world-class journalism.”
This move comes after other publications including The New York Times, Vice News, Forbes, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune have either ended their use of the feature or at majorly scaled back. The reason these publications want to end use of the feature may simply be economic. In other words, they want to benefit from the website traffic and reader data their articles give them—rather than allowing Facebook to benefit from it. As DigiDay wrote, “Many publishers have complained the money they make off visits to IA pages, for example, do not measure up to what they get on their own sites.”
However, there might be more at play as well. In a post-truth world where people are beginning to see real value in honest and truthful reporting, more and more publishers are pushing the subscription model as a way to boost revenue. The logic states that reading an article on Guardian.com makes a reader more likely to connect with the brand, reputation, and gravitas of that publication than if they are reading it on a social network. On Facebook, the article might simply get lost in the morass of so-called “fake news”
In addition, Facebook’s constant tweaks to the algorithm don’t help matters, as publishers can’t ascertain from one month to the next whether its breaking news articles or viral cat memes are being favored by Facebook’s algorithm. As DigiDay went on to say, while other publications continue to use Instant Articles, “the loss of marquee publishers like The New York Times and the Guardian is not exactly a great sign of health. Other publishers are likely to take a hard look at where their interests intersect with Facebook’s.”
If Facebook wants the feature to continue, it needs to act quickly. There are several things it could do to restore faith in the feature. For example, adding a call to action in the form of a “subscribe” button could direct more traffic to the publications’ websites when a reader feels compelled to provide monetary support after reading an Instant Article. In addition, Facebook could be more transparent about the weight it’s giving to these Instant Articles in the newsfeed, so that publishers can see a more tangible benefit of using them.