What Facebook’s Instant Articles means to publishers

As you may have heard, Facebook finally rolled out the first wave of its ‘Instant Articles’ system on mobile. In case you haven’t, I’ll explain briefly what it is and why it exists.

iLike therefore iShare

Instant Articles is currently iPhone only – but expect this to change fairly soon.

What it is

Essentially, it’s a system that enables publishers to have their content served from Facebook’s own servers in order to have the articles load quicker and benefit from a standardised set of rich-media storytelling tools. Remember Paper? The wonderful looking Facebook app that let you browse articles – imagine something along those lines but within Facebook and using the same Facebook UI we all know so well. It’s iPhone only right now and there are currently 9 publishers in the first wave of Instant Article adopters. They are: Buzzfeed, The New York Times, NBC News, National Geographic, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel and Bild.

It's long

The first article published using the Instant Articles system


Facebook usage is increasingly mobile these days – at least 70%. And on top of being a social network, people use Facebook as a content referral tool. What that means is that Facebook has ushered in the age of portals once more – but this time the content on display is tailored to each user.

So you like bikes? You might follow a couple of pages, Cycling Weekly or maybe a couple of bike brands. As such you’ll get served articles from these publishers and you’ll click them to go off and read articles, before finally hitting that back button until you’re safely back in the loving arms of Facebook. Because you interacted with those articles, maybe liked or commented on a few too, you’ll get served more of them and related articles in future, especially if they are picking up engagement across the rest of Facebook.

Unlike on desktop, page-load times are critical on mobile. Publishers have at best a few seconds to get their entire article loaded and served to the reader. If this part of delayed, people won’t stick around and they’ll hit ‘back’ and move on to the next piece of content vying for their attention. This technical hurdle affects a great deal of publishers and if one of the key improvements that ‘Instant Articles’ hopes to rectify. Here Facebook offers the opportunity for publishers to directly place their content on Facebook’s servers, eliminating page-load delays and ensuring a slick, interruption free experience for users.

Here’s a polished video from FB directly that explains it from their point of view.

Something tells me I'm gonna regret this


Obviously, handing content directly over to Facebook triggers spider-sense type warnings in any publisher relying on serving ads (so, all of them except Buzzfeed). Facebook hopes to alleviate these fears by offering publishers 100% of all ad revenue for ads sold by the publisher, as well as a 70/30 split on ads Facebook serves. However this comes with some caveats, that favour overall user experience with ad quantity.

“there are business rules. For example only one ad per page or at least very few. No take overs are allowed. Stickies are probably also forbidden.”

What it means

As well as being a key player in deciding what content gets seen by users, Facebook now wants more control over what that content looks like and how quickly it loads. The quicker you can serve an article, the more articles a person will read, the more ads they’ll see. A better experience means a happy, engaged audience. It’s worth noting that ads in Instant Article do not currently benefit from Facebook’s segmentation options and publishers are not able to see who saw particular ads.

As we’ve seen in the past year, videos uploaded directly to Facebook benefited (and still benefit) from a huge reach boost. Facebook claim that Instant Article content won’t get favoured by the newsfeed algorithm, but they put it in a telling way:

“these articles should have better qualitative metrics than other articles and should therefore see a boost.”

The Instant Article format allows you to interact with individual elements as you do on Facebook. Watch autoplay videos, enlarge photos, the so-called “invisible engagements” that Facebook tracks but doesn’t show you. Then there is the standard visible engagement: likes, comments and shares. Each Instant Article piece can contain multiple pieces of media that can be individually commented upon or liked. This sort of interaction has been employed by other publishers on their own sites, but the absolutely crucial difference here is that none of that data gets fed back to Facebook. With Instant Articles, all of those individual engagements will help push up its importance in the newsfeed algorithm, which means more reach. And of course more reach means more clicks, which means more ads served, which means more money.

All about the Benjamins

So what’s the downside?

There isn’t right? It seems so alluring right now that aside from those alarm bells ringing in your own head, there’s no reason not to get your content on to Instant Articles immediately. Certainly, expect there to be a huge wave of publishers clambering over each other in the quest for an advantage when the service rolls out to European publishers after the Summer.

In the future, if it’s a popular service just remember that Facebook will have all publishers over a barrel and that 100% ad offer might get phased out, and the 70/30 might become 60/40 – or worse. However, from the point of view of an observer – as a publisher you don’t really have much choice. See you on Instant Articles soon then!


Got any questions or thoughts about it? Let us know!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *