Facebook and major publishers have a love-hate relationship. The question is, should they take that relationship to the next level? The Wall Street Journal reported in early May that Facebook is launching an “Instant Articles” initiative in which publishers would let Facebook host their news and video directly; to date publishers have just shared links to their content on Facebook, forcing mobile users to click through and wait for that content to load. BuzzFeed, The New York Times, and National Geographic are among the first to sign up for the program.
The Journal reported that, as of March, big publishers are receiving as much as 60 percent of their referral traffic from Facebook. And according to the Reuters Institute’s 2014 Digital News Report, 44 percent of Facebook users click on news stories in their feed. So publishing on Facebook seems like an organic evolution to adapt to consumer behavior. It presents a huge opportunity for publishers — and an enormous threat to their own business models.
Facebook makes mobile easier for publishers. Mobile has already overtaken desktop as the dominant means of accessing the Internet; eMarketer predicts it will be responsible for 80 percent of Internet activity by 2019. Today, most major publishers struggle to deliver and monetize their content on mobile. Facebook has proven it can sell mobile ads, and publishers can leverage that expertise to monetize their own content. For resource-strapped publications without the internal expertise to develop mobile solutions and sell mobile ads, Facebook presents a viable alternative.
Publishers can fish where the fish are. Facebook’s audience dwarfs even the biggest news publishers. Now publishers can go direct to a massive readership in a single place instead of cobbling together an audience from organic reach, social platforms, paid search, and content amplification services.
[Disclosure: My company, Jun Group, has an interest in this area as we also work with publishers to place ads.]
By publishing on Facebook, publishers may cannibalize their in-house ad sales teams. Facebook says publishers keep 100 percent of directly sold ads, and it will keep 30 percent of any ad revenue it generates against the content.
Direct pageviews will decline for these publishers, making it harder to sell campaigns looking for large audiences. And publishers won’t be able to use their own tools like Omniture or Google Analytics to track readership on Facebook. Publishers’ competitive advantages come from their content and coveted audiences; when Facebook becomes the content aggregator and de facto publisher, that advantage is commoditized.
There’s also the issue of future uncertainty. We’ve seen Facebook alter its relationship with brands from free and open to pay-for-play. Publishers must be careful to not become overly dependent on Facebook or any single partner for a significant share of revenues. If Facebook becomes the de facto solution for publishers’ mobile challenges, publishers effectively limit their business to content creation and become dependent on others to deliver their audience.
And there’s no guarantee Facebook will treat all publisher content equally; publishers with more favorable revenue splits may get priority. Despite these concerns, many publishers are already considering Facebook partnerships out of fear of being “left out.”
A Testing Period
Publishers need to find a way to partner with Facebook without being dependent. Before jumping in and committing, publishers can test with a small percentage of their content. At the same time, they should invest heavily in their own capabilities — training sales teams to sell cross-device campaigns and exploring other partnerships to increase their mobile CPMs. If that testing period reveals that Facebook can help publishers grow their overall revenues — rather than shift them — the partnership might actually be a significant victory for the news industry.
Corey Weiner is chief operating officer of Jun Group, an advertising platform for video and branded content.