Does Facebook instant articles risk undermining publisher digital model?

Big online publishers like the Guardian, BBC, the New York Times and National Geographic have recently announced that they will be publishing content directly onto Facebook, so users don’t need to click a link to go to a separate website when a friend shares a headline – they can read the full article within the Facebook mobile app.

Now this seems like quite a small step, solving a user journey problem – having to wait for a second site to load when following a link from a friend.  But could it have longer-term repercussions for the currently accepted publisher model?

Social media drives traffic

Already many news media and other online publishers obtain up to a third of their traffic from social sources – so Facebook. LinkedIn and twitter are as important as Google as a source of traffic.  Users from social sources are a valuable slice of overall traffic, and it’s a good way to get new audiences to sample your content and explore your site, plus it strengthens your ad proposition.  And the intelligence on who reads what, when, and where they go next helps improve site content and navigation.

But if the Facebook user never leaves the Facebook mobile app they don’t get the opportunity to browse the publishers’ site, follow up other content, and the publisher has no way to track who they are, or importantly sell advertising against those eyeballs.

Losing control of ad revenue

Facebook have offered to share the advertising revenue that they receive for the audience reading the article – and to share data – but this immediately puts the publisher at a disadvantage.  At its most extreme, this transforms the publisher into a mere freelance journalist, with revenues dependent on the audience achieved by a single article.

It’s not surprising that the BBC have signed up for this offer, as they are not dependent on advertising, and maybe The Guardian is large enough and still gains enough circulation on its print edition to experiment, but this could be a dangerous path for smaller online, ad-funded publishers.  Rather like tablet magazines that are only distributed by the Apple Newsstand, it is risky to be so reliant on one outlet for one’s revenue, especially when you don’t own the data.

Where Facebook goes, other social channels will likely follow.  Already LinkedIn is promoting its proprietary publishing platform – which is a very tempting option for B2B publishers looking for a targeted audience with a built-in commenting infrastructure.

Rethinking the online publishing business model

But as a higher proportion of content gets published directly on social platforms rather than publishers’ own sites then traditional online business models perhaps need to be rethought.

A metered model which encourages on-site registration, building up an email database and gradually encouraging paid subscription, will be harder to implement if some of the content is published externally on social platforms.  Instead publishers will need to embed some sort of enticement into their free “social” content that encourages users to click through to their proprietary site and sample the quality stuff.

If advertising revenue gets partially disintermediated by social giants like Facebook, then the smart digital publisher needs to diversify and develop additional revenue streams direct from the user – whether subscription or micro-payments for digital content or selling event tickets or research reports.  But to build their own user database to sell these other services they need a critical mass of content on their proprietary site.

So perhaps this new distribution channel will prompt the development of a more complex freemium model, with a tier of “social” content that is really about building awareness of a media brand and a reputation for quality journalism.  This social channel could also be used to disseminate native advertising – at least then the publisher will get to keep the revenues.

But the publisher will need to lay a trail of links to get a newly engaged reader to visit their own site, explore their content and ideally register to find out more.

A mixed reaction from publishers

I’ll be following the Facebook announcements with interest – and please feel free to share your own views on how social distribution could affect online publishers.

I published this article on Linked In last week – I fully appreciate the irony of using a third party platform! – and it gathered a good mix of comments.  Some small publishers felt it could potentially be a threat; others welcomed it as an opportunity to reach a larger audience.

My view is that so long as publishers don’t give away their best content – and carefully include incentives to entice new readers to their own site – it could be a useful marketing channel.  It does also underline the importance of having multiple revenue streams – including subs, events, report sales, consultancy, training – and not being reliant on advertising.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events.  Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on the topic of digital publishing strategy for media industry publishers and events. Follow Carolyn on twitter @carolynrmorgan

About the agile publisher project

The agile publisher is a research project dedicated to identifying examples of agile publishing and sharing best practice among specialist media businesses.  If you have an interesting story to share please get in touch – or follow @agilepublisheron twitter.