Why Facebook's Instant Article Initiative Has Hit Snags in First Year

After a relatively short period of time, a number of publishers are dissatisfied with the payback from Facebook Instant Articles pages. In other words, the Instant Articles idea isn't producing instant income.

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Only a year or so ago, online publishers of news, features and other valuable information were waiting in line for a chance to connect with Facebook's huge worldwide network in order to get their work in front of a billion more eyes.

Facebook's Instant Articles initiative promised to cast a wide net that would attract many new readers of these publishers' works and steer them to signing up for news delivery by The New York Times, Washington Post, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and many other valuable publications.

It sure seemed a lot better than having high school kids going door-to-door selling subscriptions.

However, after a relatively short period of time, most of those publishers are now dissatisfied with the payback from Facebook Instant Articles pages. In other words, the Instant Articles idea isn't producing instant income.

For one major example, The New York Times, which has had a close relationship with Facebook, has decided to exit the program; naturally, others followed its lead and are either doing the same or trimming back the amount of content they are moving to the IA platform.

As a result, Facebook, in an effort to stop this trend, is offering some concessions, such as placing more frequent and better-targeted ads at no extra cost.

"Monetization solutions are not one size fits all," Product Manager Harshit Agarwal wrote in a blogpost. "Publishers have told us that different ads experiences, particularly the number of ads in an article, may be right for different audiences or pieces of content."

The social network, watching developments carefully, offered an end-of-the-year assessment of the program and listed all the changes that had been made since its inception in 2015.

The Times stopped using Instant Articles last fall when it determined that links back to its own site were being monetized better than from Instant Articles. People were also more likely to subscribe to the Times if they came directly to the site rather than through Facebook, the company said. Thus, for the Times, IA simply isn't worth it.

At the F8 2016 developer conference, Facebook opened up its Instant Articles offering to all publishers, allowing anyone to import their content into the social network and add it directly to a user's News Feed. Previously, the feature had been open only to vetted journalists and other Facebook users.

At the time, the social network said that adoption had been excellent, with more than 1,000 publishers worldwide. "We see clear evidence that Instant Articles provides a better reading experience for people and a significant boost for publishers looking to reach their audiences on Facebook," product manager Josh Roberts wrote in a blog.

Facebook also said at the time that it had added a list of new partners and tools for Instant Articles, including integrations with Medium, Nielsen, WordPress, RebelMouse, ShareThis, Sovrn, Tempest, Adobe Analytics, Chartbeast, and SimpleReach.

But things have changed since then. The reader-engagement factor hasn't played out the way it was intended. After a time, publishers reported that IA doesn't monetize as well as conventional links that take readers back to the publisher's own site.

Cosmopolitan was the first Hearst publication to launch in IA in October 2015. But Hearst publications now are all absent from the program because the monetization arrangement wasn't working for them.

Meanwhile, the online ad market has become more granular and more targeted than ever. While Facebook is pretty well known for effective analytics that present ads that follow users through their news feed and status sessions, the social network still has work to do when presenting content from outside publishers.

For example, Facebook hasn't yet said it will allow publishers to test paid subscription signups, something all publishers would dearly like to see. The network also doesn't have a way for publishers to use paywalls inside Instant Articles.

Not all of the social network's publishing partners are unhappy. For example, Slate reported enthusiastic testimonials about the product, contending that IA drove 41 percent of its new newsletter signups. So perhaps certain types of publications fit the IA model a better than others; Slate, for example, has a much younger median-age reader than the Times.

Nonetheless, news and feature publishers do not want to junk their relationships and potential relationships with Facebook, which has 1.8 billion monthly users.

For that reason, and despite the recent bumpy road it has traveled, Instant Articles isn't going away anytime soon.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in large part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 12 years and more than 3,900 stories at eWEEK, he...