Everybody’s talking about how distributing content through third-party organizations such as Facebook or Twitter could hurt digital publishers, but there is one group of stakeholders that seem to be continuously left out of the conversation: readers.
Do readers want to find their content in one place? If you produce content and want to be “audience-first,” does exclusively distributing your content on a platform like Facebook Instant Articles make more sense for your readers?
(Let’s leave revenue out of the conversation for the sake of discussion...)
FOR Facebook Instant Articles for readers
Here are the facts: Facebook serves as a sort of home base for many users -- who depart to read other content from the social network, and not from Google -- for all of their daily activities. As a matter of fact, Facebook has surpassed Google as the top source of referral traffic for Parse.ly’s network of more than 400 digital publishers.
Two of the main selling points for Instant Articles from a reader perspective are speed and convenience. Instant Articles load quickly and don’t require a user to leave the app. As a matter of fact, a majority of readers now access their news on mobile, upon which Instant Articles works seamlessly.
Additionally, Facebook is familiar. Some readers find it slightly more convenient to interact with content directly from a platform with which they are already familiar. Because they are already spending time on the platform, it simply feels easier for them to meaningfully engage with interesting content -- through comments, shares, likes and more.
AGAINST Facebook Instant Articles for readers
But for many readers, personalization of content means that they are losing important context. Modern distribution models, including algorithms proprietary to Facebook, Google, Twitter and other third-party platforms, are taking away readers’ choice by serving them up the type of content that they want to see, or that they’ve seen in the past-- and not a full spectrum of news and information being published by the media. Are we doing readers a disservice by giving them what they want?
Ultimately, the end-goal of a third-party platform is to grow its own user base, and not necessarily to inform an audience or the public.
“The idea that Facebook and its ilk could act as information gatekeepers is also a bleak prospect. Note, for example, how Facebook wouldn’t allow The New Republic to create an ad for an innocuous piece on medical marijuana (Facebook later changed its mind -- without explanation). If Facebook is squeamish about medical marijuana now, imagine the state of the fourth estate once controversy-avoidant platforms take a more direct role in the production and distribution of news,” said John West for Quartz.
What Happens Next?
The bottom line is that news outlets and other content sites have to experiment with and invest in new technology to develop new business models better adapted to competing in the rapidly developing digital market. Many big-name publishers have already signed on to Instant Articles, including the New York Times, Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC News, Huffington Post and Buzzfeed.
(You can view a more complete list of publishing partners via AdWeek.)
These content providers are betting that Instant Articles, and others, will become the best way to reach their audience—and judging from the statistics collected by Pew Research and Parse.ly, they may very well be right. But, whether Instant Articles or other third-party distribution platforms will turn out to be a boon or bust for digital publishers remains to be seen.
One thing is certain: Readers will play a major role in helping to figure this out. Facebook has an incredibly wide reach, allowing digital publishers to access a vast and content-hungry audience. For this audience, there are many benefits when a publisher relies on Facebook to distribute the news – many related to ease-of-consumption and interaction.
On the other hand, going “all in” with Instant Articles, or another content distribution tool, may not be the best choice for digital publishers who want to maintain their independence and control their own analytics information. Instant Articles may prevent readers from seeing certain content that would be useful for them.
As Instant Articles and services like it proliferate on the mobile Web, it remains to be seen what will work best for readers -- but digital publishers and social media platforms are in it for the long haul.
Instant Articles is currently available only to iOS users via the Facebook app.
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