In her 2017 Internet Trends report, Mary Meeker reported that time spent using the Internet on mobile rose again in 2016 to 3.1 hours per day, up from 2.8 hours per day in 2015. Internet usage on PCs, in contrast, was flat at 2.2 hours per day. Meanwhile, Facebook and Google continue to be the top referrers to publishers, and increasingly consumers’ feeds are the main place media is discovered. With products like Facebook Instant Articles and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, both made generally available last year, the feed is becoming the place where media is actually consumed.
For publishers, getting your mobile strategy right has never been more important — particularly on Facebook, which now has nearly 2 billion users. Facebook, however, is eager to keep users within its walled garden and has devoted armies of engineers to build the most compelling feed in technology. That feed needs content, and publishers have looked to leverage Facebook’s massive scale to boost readership, subscriptions, and traffic back to their sites.
Both Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s AMP offer ways for publishers to form one-on-one relationships with consumers. For publishers wracked by layoffs and falling revenues, this means broad exposure and easier ways to form a direct connection to readers. The approach hasn’t worked for all publishers — a number have dropped out of Facebook’s program following disappointments. But other publishers have found some promising tactics for expanding their readership using Instant Articles:
1. Teasing content. German news tabloid Bild has used IA as a means to tease free content and boost subscriptions. In January, the publisher began using IA ad spots to promote Bild Plus, a premium version of the title that costs $10.58 a month. Bild started out putting just 20 percent of its free content on IA but now puts all of it there as a funnel for Bild Plus subscriptions. Similarly, advertisers can use Canvas – sort of an IA for advertisers – to tease content that users will have to go off Facebook to see. They can link to mobile wallet passes or deep-link to app or web content, driving consumers into owned mobile channels.
Bild isn’t the only publisher to take this approach. Slate has realized Facebook traffic is fickle and has sought to use it as a marketing vehicle for its site. At the same time, the brand has expanded its offering of podcasts, which tends to make readers more loyal and more likely to subscribe to Slate Plus, a similar service to Bild Plus, which costs $5 a month.
2. Reducing friction to access content. Another lesson from Bild is to use as few steps as possible if you’re trying to get a signup. Bild cut the process from nine steps to three. Similarly, The Huffington Post increased email newsletter subscriptions using Facebook’s “call-to-action” feature, which makes it easy for consumers to subscribe with the click of a button — they don’t even have to enter their email addresses since it autopopulates in Facebook. In just three months, IA accounted for 29 percent of HuffPost Morning Email signups.
3. Providing utility. How do you keep readers thumbing through one window after another on Canvas until they are ready to jump off the feed and visit your website? When Business Insider launched Insider, its lifestyle spinoff, the publisher quickly realized that while Facebook gets attention, what really gets readers to stay on the site is a service component. For instance, instead of running a story about a great dish at a restaurant, Insider now features videos on how to make a similar dish at home. The site also houses more long-tail content like Insider Cheese, which features articles about cheese and attracts readers on Facebook.
4. Using calls to action. Beginning in early April of this year, Facebook let publishers put calls to action in Instant Articles. Now publishers can include prompts to join email newsletters, like their Page. One pilot user, Slate, reported that an email signup CTA unit accounted for 41 percent of its total email list growth over the past two months. Other enhancements are on the horizon. Facebook says it is currently testing a free trial CTA unit and a mobile app install CTA unit with a small group of publishers. Publishers can also take advantage of user-level app and website data to target ads to Facebook users that look like their most loyal readers.
5. Experimenting with Messenger bots. Influenced by China’s e-commerce platform WeChat, Facebook is eager to get advertisers to use Messenger. Customers can order a bouquet from 1-800-Flowers or a pie from Pizza Hut directly from Messenger. For publishers, there are few opportunities here so far because Facebook has been stingy with approvals, but The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and weather app Poncho all use Messenger bots to connect with their readers. The WSJ, for instance, uses Messenger to offer a Morning Briefing for readers with the top headlines of the day.
Pragmatic publishers know that Facebook isn’t the ideal place to form a one-to-one connection with consumers. However, they can’t ignore Facebook either. The social network keeps evolving to enable stronger brand-consumer interactions.
Erin Hintz is CMO at Urban Airship.