Facebook's ongoing courtship of news, media and entertainment companies has had its ups and downs, but partnerships always seemed inevitable. Today's Internet users spend less time on walled-off websites and in apps with narrow focuses, and Facebook has become a default distributor -- some might say gatekeeper -- of all things media. Publishers might be concerned about ceding too much control to Facebook, but the concept of users consuming more and more news through Facebook seems like another inevitability.
The awkward dance between Facebook and media organizations reached a crescendo last week when the company introduced Instant Articles, its long-anticipated plan to deliver news articles and media in a more polished and streamlined manner directly to users' News Feeds. Articles are filled with rich, interactive media that loads up to 10 times faster than standard mobile Web articles, according to Facebook. User can explore photos and interactive maps in articles by tilting their phones, and they can watch auto-play videos or listen to audio captions in story streams.
Facebook Instant Articles a significant opportunity for publishers
Facebook's scale and investments in video and mobile represent a solid foundation, and an opportunity, that media companies simply can't ignore, according to Forrester analyst Erna Alfred Liousas. "On the other hand, since Facebook isn't in the business of producing content, it needs ... media companies to keep producing content to keep audience interest levels high."
[Related Feature: Is Facebook still an innovative company?]
The introduction of Instant Articles probably won't change the reasons why people use Facebook, but it will change how users interact with content from large media brands. Getting content in front of as many eyeballs as possible is every publisher's goal, so they can't overlook Facebook, the biggest eyeball emporium in cyberspace.
Standard news stories take an average of eight seconds to load on mobile devices, which makes them by far the slowest single content type on Facebook, according to the company. With Instant Articles, publishers can choose to sell ads and keep the revenue or use Facebook's Audience Network to fill ad inventory. Publishers also get access to traffic data and analytics, but they give up control over other media that runs alongside their featured articles.
"Facebook is, first and foremost, a place for people to connect with family, friends and to stay up to date on what is most important to them," says Tania Yuki, founder and CEO of Shareablee. "Any surrounding content on the platform needs to add value to that experience, not detract from it."
[Related New Analysis: Facebook's future could include app consolidation]
Articles on Facebook need to be engaging and entertaining, and they should enhance the overall user experience, according to Yuki. By streamlining that experience, Facebook encourages users to spend more time on its site and less time waiting for stories to load or searching for content elsewhere. The leading social platforms of tomorrow will be those that make it easier and faster for friends and family to share and interact around meaningful content, Yuki says.
Facebook users are the winners in Instant Articles
Both Yuki and Paul Zwillenberg, senior partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, say the shift in media consumption and delivery is a symbiotic relationship for Facebook and media publishers. "The platforms need quality content to attract and retain users and the content owners need distribution," says Zwillenberg.
There is no general consensus around which party needs the other more, or whether Instant Articles really are mutually beneficial, but it's a foregone conclusion that users gain much more than they lose in the deal. Facebook users already expect a seamless experience in the News Feed, and slow-loading links just don't fit that equation.
Instant Articles should increase the amount of time users spend on Facebook and significantly improve the user experience, according to Michael Dub, partner at Dxagency. "It is the first step toward Facebook truly competing with Google News as a core destination for users to get their news."
Publishers at the mercy of Facebook's algorithm
Facebook's new editorial product follows recent updates to the company's algorithm that determine the specific content that gets served to individual users in their News Feeds. Facebook says it is delivering more relevant and enjoyable content to users, but Forrester's Alfred Liousas says it is unclear exactly how the algorithm will weight Instant Articles.
"News sites ... have always been at the mercy of Facebook's algorithms, and Facebook has no obligation to let us in on those," says Ken Wisnefski, CEO of the digital marketing agency WebiMax. Facebook could provide more value to media publishers if it offers a guarantee that articles will reach desired demographics or certain amounts of users, he says.
[Related Feature: IT execs on Facebook at Work strengths and weaknesses]
It's tough to estimate the potential influence Facebook will wield as the distribution hub for articles, but content from select publishers will presumably be seen more often than it might otherwise, according to Wisnefski. Instant Articles could also eventually replace social shares from less reputable online sources, and that could help publishers increase their authority by drowning out hoaxes and clickbait from the content farms that have flooded Facebook for years.
"This is not a zero-sum game at this stage in the evolution of media consumption," says Shareablee's Yuki. Audiences are more fragmented than ever, so diversifying presence across multiple platforms can represent a publisher's best chance at achieving the reach and coverage they need to survive, she says.