Speed wins online. But speed is tricky – especially on mobile, where you’re dealing with potential connectivity issues and limited processing power (compared to desktop). The average time it takes pages to load is around five seconds according to Facebook. That’s not .”, considering 74% of your traffic already bounced within five seconds.
Facebook’s Instant Articles feature was released to combat this problem, giving publishers a fast and easy way to quickly publish fast articles to get more engagement.
However, since an early honeymoon period, reports are that some publishers are cooling. Media titans like the Atlantic, National Geographic, NBC News and Business Insider, who all helped launch the program initially, have been pulling back their use of it now. Why?
Are Facebook Instant Articles worthless? Or are there a few specific circumstances where they perform better than others? Let’s take a look.
How Facebook Instant Articles Works
Websites commonly slooooooooow to a crawl when things like high-quality images and video are used excessively.
Especially if you don’t take painstaking efforts – like cropping and compressing images, setting up content delivery networks (CDNs), caching pages or hosting these files externally.
Which is a problem, considering social media channels like Facebook heavily preference images and video over text. Because who reads, these days? You’re probably already skipping ahead and ignoring this sentence right now because it’s inconveniently located at the end of a long paragraph.
For example, videos on Facebook are shared 7 times more than video-less content with links.
Google discovered this years ago, when a seemingly minuscule 0.5-second delay caused a 20% traffic drop. It’s no surprise that they then just went on to introduce the AMP project whose aims are similar to Facebook Instant Articles.
The way it works is actually pretty simple.
Instead of using your own predictably slow-ass website to deliver high-quality content (and files), you can leverage Facebook’s blazing fast architecture (and servers) so that your content and pages load instantly (up to 10x quicker according to some reports).
Facebook’s technology does the heavy lifting, delivering content faster and easier than yours probably ever could, thereby increasing content engagement and consumption.
You also get the added benefit of new interactive elements within your content, so you can embed audio, allow users to zoom in-and-out of high-res images, and autoplay videos based on scrolling.
But there’s a problem.
Because you’re leveraging Facebook’s architecture, that content technically ceases to exist on your own website.
Which can pose problems for companies like Business Insider, which make a living off pageviews.
What are the Downsides of Facebook Instant Articles?
Your Facebook Fans are not yours. They’re Facebooks.
The same thing happens when you post content on Facebook. Technically speaking, it ain’t yours anymore.
If you use Instant Articles, you have to be comfortable with the tradeoff that while you’re going to get blazing fast articles, you’re also running the risk of losing that precious Facebook referral traffic back to your site.
For some businesses, that’s ain’t no thang (as we’ll explore in a second). But for others, like media giants who generate the bulk of their online revenue from ad-supported methods like display ads (yuck) and sponsored posts (bore), that’s an issue.
When Facebook Instant Articles first launched, they managed to snare massive media companies like The New York Times, The Atlantic, and more.
Some, like Boston Globe, went ‘all in’ and published all of their articles to the platform. But after a few weeks, they started pulling back. Today, the Globe posts 0.0% of its content using Facebook Instant Articles. Their social media director, Matt Karolian, told Digiday: “We didn’t see a lift in engagement, at least not materially.”
Other early adopters have also been “cooling” over the past few months. Business Insider’s posting frequency has dropped from around 10% to barely 2%. The Atlantic said it was going to post as much as 85%, only to now post around 10%.
According to Digiday and the NewsWhip analysis, the early Facebook Instant Articles adopters like BBC News, National Geographic, and The Wall Street Journal have all been “barely using the platform” recently.
So what gives? Should we be surprised that large media companies are pulling back on Facebook Instant Articles? No. If anything, you could question their original decision making in putting so much of their content onto the platform in the first place.
Anyone’s who’s worked on websites for a few years can tell you that when you remove or reduce referral traffic back to your website, especially visitors from a typically high-engagement platform like Facebook, your vanity metrics like visits/sessions and pageviews will fall.
For most directly monetizing businesses, that’s OK.
For indirectly monetizing ones like large media platforms, that’s NOT OK. As they haven’t really figured out a better or more useful way to monetize audiences in most cases.
So the higher engagement from Facebook Instant Articles doesn’t (can’t ever really) offset the literal opportunity cost of hosting that content on their original site and bringing as many users back as possible to drive up visits, pageviews, and therefore CPMs.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
Facebook’s early results showed 20% CTR on mobile, 30% more shares, and a 70% decrease in the abandonment of Facebook Instant Articles.
And some publishers are still finding success with the platform (albeit on a smaller, more modest scale than originally predicted).
NBC News, for example, has found that people prefer to read ‘breaking stories’ on their website, so they’ve pulled back on using Facebook Instant Articles to deliver those. Instead, their spokesperson told Digiday that they’re “posting more feature-type content.”
Ah. There it is. The silver lining.
Think more Medium, less BuzzFeed.
Here’s Why You SHOULD Use Instant Articles
Everything we’re doing here, even this article you’re reading, is for one purpose: attention.
We’re knee deep in the trenches, battling it out hand-to-hand in this bloody “war for attention.”
Medium’s success as an online publishing tool (and alternative) is due to a laser-focus on one metric: Total Time Reading.
Odd. Not follower counts. Social shares. Inbound upvotes. Signups. Active users. Nor sessions and pageviews.
The TL;DR version is a push for measuring the quality of content (and its readership) than quantity (and lack thereof).
In other words, the longer people read something – in this ever-increasing ADHD world – the more valuable it is (and the more that engagement matters for the publisher).
There’s a reason news stories and clickbaity stuff doesn’t do well on Medium. Most of their (admittedly niche) audience has been trained to prefer (or expect) thought-provoking pieces over listicles.
For them (and the publishers that use it), total reading time represents influence. Increased influence through increased consumption and engagement then is worth the hassle and decrease in giving up some referral traffic.
For your sacrifice, you stand to gain…
Speed. Which has been beaten to a bloody pulp already. But speed helps make sure people don’t bounce, and keeps them around long enough to discover and begin messing with all the new interactive elements that (most likely) don’t exist in your website.
You also get the benefit of syndicating content to a new audience, thereby lowering the requirement for new content creation. Their platform helps you quickly find, collect, and repurpose existing stuff so that you can gain greater leverage from stuff you’ve already got that’s lying around and collecting dust.
Sure, you might give up some referral traffic in the process. But if your business relies more on generating influence and engagement with people (you know, to eventually sign up them or sell them something), Facebook Instant Articles is a gamble worth taking.
Recent reports that usage of Facebook Instant Articles is on the decline are misleading. And overblown.
Large media companies might be decreasing their usage. But if you thought about it logically, their usage should have been in question from day one.
The major drawback of Facebook Instant Articles is that you’re sacrificing referral traffic – giving up visits and pageviews that would have happened on your own site over to Facebook.
For ad-supported businesses, that’s obviously not a great idea.
However, for others that sell things to people directly, it’s not a deal breaker.
In fact, that drawback can be eclipsed by the platform’s Medium-like ability to deliver more engagement on a notoriously fickle consumption channel (where people are normally accustomed to jumping to the next shiny thing).
That has the power to increase brand awareness, visibility, and most importantly – influence.
Which is an essential ingredient to winning the war of attention we’re stuck in.