Marry, kill, avoid: What does Instant Articles mean for marketers?
It’s been a week since Facebook announced its plan to launch Instant Articles - a new publishing platform that audiences can use to read and share content in a matter of seconds.
This undeniably beautiful hub of articles, blogs, and tantalising videos has generated plenty of buzz in the digital community. And it’s not difficult to see why, either. Just take a look at this video released by Facebook:
The key attraction of Instant Articles (as the name suggests) is that users don’t have to wait 8 seconds for an article to load. Instead, the platform loads every article as the user scrolls down the page - and only presents content that he/she is likely to read.
Instant Articles certainly looks stunning. And 9 prominent publishers, including the New York Times and The Guardian, have already signed the dotted line.
So why are some marketers shunning Instant Articles altogether?
Well, Mark Zuckerberg’s exciting venture into the world of content distribution has been met with some serious controversy. Even Kipp Bodnar, the Vice President of Marketing at Hubspot, has argued in his blog that this move will merely give more power to Facebook at the expense of marketers (however, the Vice President of Hubspot very quickly wrote a blog telling marketers ‘not to worry’ about Instant Articles).
This scepticism has also been shared across Twitter, with a number of prominent digital junkies sharing their concern.
But the key question for marketers, and indeed publishers, is whether or not this ill-feeling is actually justified.
From a user perspective, Instant Articles represents a landmark moment in the way digital audiences access and consume content. The platform will provide an app-like experience, free from the distractions and slow process speeds of in-content advertisements.
But if you think this is going to be a one-dimensional and basic platform, then think again.
Instant Articles will include many of the user-friendly features that audiences expect from reading digital content. Each article page will include the publisher’s logo, author’s name (with a handy link to their Facebook profile page), and lots of other media - such as embedded tweets, videos, and photos.
Overall, Facebook Articles aims to simplify the way we read our content. Something which is particularly welcome to marketers who know full-well that the majority of digital content is accessed through a mobile device.
The concern, however, remains whether or not handing over publication rights to Facebook will be good for business.
At this moment in time, Facebook isn’t actually a news platform - despite the fact it has a business partnership with Buzzfeed. Users simply read as much (or as little) content as they like and Facebook will recommend more articles if the user shows an interest in reading more.
Instant Articles changes all of this.
The move raises concerns that Facebook could have an increased monopoly over which content it chooses to show audiences. There is also a fear that Facebook could eventually begin charging publications and hold them to ransom if the platform proves necessary for business success.
Both of these concerns are seemingly unfounded. There isn’t any reason to believe that Facebook would exploit this power anymore than Youtube currently does with its own content.
From the perspective of marketers, however, Instant Articles poses another set of problems altogether.
The main issue surrounds referral traffic. At this moment in time, ‘dark social’ traffic only makes up about 17% of website visits - based on research from conductor.com. It’s entirely possible that Instant Articles, by making content easier to consume, will actually drive more dark social traffic to these domains. But what happens to the inbound links?
Rather going back to the publisher’s website, they’ll go directly Facebook - bypassing Google’s search algorithm.
This makes it very difficult for marketers to accurately calculate the success of their marketing efforts. And thus determine customer conversion rates and forecast accurate business growth.
Whether or not you like the idea of Instant Articles, then, depends if you’re a consumer or a marketer. Or perhaps more accurately, which role you prioritise over the other.
In theory, any marketer (or indeed publisher) should welcome a platform that provides better customer experience and improved user-friendliness.
But the key issue is whether or not this enhanced user experience actually converts into tangible business.
B2B organisations, for example, could see an immediate benefit in using Instant Articles to promote their client’s content. Facebook currently has strict rules over advertising. It’s not possible to create an advert visual that exceeds 20% in text. There is also a character limit in the amount of text too - making it sometimes difficult to promote a brand and engage with audiences in such a short space.
Instant Articles, on the other hand, could completely transform native advertising. The much-loved approach of storytelling in marketing could be made even easier due to the lack of word limit. Furthermore, the very fact that Facebook has a thorough understanding its audience - and what they want to read - could prove immensely powerful for content creators. They can leverage this knowledge and be rest assured that their content will be reaching customers who actually want to read it.
As an added bonus, these publishers also have the chance to communicate with an enormous audience reach - over 1 billion users.
With all these benefits in mind, you might be wondering why Facebook has the incentive to create Instant Articles in the first place.
The glass half-full approach would state that Facebook benefits enormously from providing users with a better digital experience. After all, slow loading times also mean high bounce rates. And Facebook has no desire to encourage audiences to leave its website because other businesses can’t keep up.
However, there’s also a temptation to suggest that Facebook could be using this opportunity to bypass the need for publishers altogether. In theory, digital audiences would never have a need to go beyond Facebook again for their content demands.
The same logic would suggest that Facebook could become the de-facto content publisher on the internet.
Still, perhaps this line of thought needs to take a step back.
At a basic level, Instant Articles will provide digital audiences with an easy platform to enjoy content they want to read and share. There’ll be no need to waste time waiting for articles and blogs to load - meaning that customers will probably consume more content in the long run.
But more than that, Instant Articles should be a platform for further engagement - a stepping stone where customers can see something they like and actively pursue more information as a result of it.
The idea that Instant Articles devalues the content publisher is an argument not dissimilar to one that suggests Google Books makes authors irrelevant.
Rather than making consumers lazy, Instant Articles could actually be the very opposite. It could entice. Excite.
Instant Articles could make audiences want to read more.
And don’t businesses want customers who are willing to go the extra step?
There is every reason for marketers to feel apprehensive about the launch of Instant Articles.
On the surface of things, publishers would seem to have far less control over their content distribution and audience reach. So far, there is no plan to give marketers the opportunity to target their articles to specific customer segments. They will be reliant entirely on Facebook’s audience research.
There is also the problem that inbound links will be redirected from the publisher’s website straight to Facebook - a penalty that is only worthwhile if the ‘dark social’ referral traffic picks up.
But maybe these arguments are actually missing the point.
The purpose of Instant Articles is to provide a simpler and better user experience for customers. It means that they don’t need to waste their time waiting for content to load - potentially giving them opportunities to consume more articles and blogs.
It’s also entirely possible that Instant Articles will act as a dangling carrot, encouraging audiences to seek out more information and be a better educated, more intelligent consumer.
The reality is that we won’t know until Instant Articles really kicks off.
You might not be marrying Instant Articles anytime soon. But you certainly can’t afford to avoid it either.
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