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Facebook’s CMS for Instant Articles fuels media owner dreams but publishers wary of lack of clarity

Facebook’s direct publishing deal to get publishers to create native content for its audiences begins in earnest its transformation into a media owner but publishers are wary of the lack of early clarity on its impact on data and the social media fate of those who don’t get with the program.

The content management system (CMS) essentially allows publishers to upload their articles directly to Facebook, which then manages the transition of it people. It hands the social network more control over editorial than ever before and, while a controversial prospect, is being sold to publishers as a way to boost the reach and value of their content.

To date, news stories have taken an average of eight seconds to load according to Facebook and are by far the slowest single content type on the social network. Facebook is hoping that the promise of a reading experience as much as ten times faster than standard mobile web articles and more seamless integration of content keeps people in its digital space for longer rather than having functionality driven by publishers.

The walled garden conundrum for publishers

Facebook recently dismissed rumours it wants publisher content for the so-called walled garden around its services but the secrecy of the deal is causing some nerves in publishing. One concern being talked about in the industry is whether Facebook may essentially penalise publishers who do not sign up, or boost those who do to the detriment of others. For some publishers who rely on social this could result in a big loss in traffic and would also raise questions about net neutrality.

The first wave of publishers to use the CMS are all running either free-to-air, government license funded or metered and freemium models and so there’s no major impact on their business model. Facebook has a major share of mobile display with around 69 per cent of its advertising revenue coming from ads shown on smaller screens, leaving ad-funded publishers like those it has partnered with the question of whether to stick or twist when it comes to getting some of that cash.

The 'Instant Articles' trial is invite only at the moment, with a very small group of publishers involved. Those brands include the Guardian, the New York Times and National Geographic and all can ether embed ads in their articles - taking 100 per cent of the revenue - or let Facebook sell its ads around the content and gain 70 per cent of the revenue.

Blurred lines

Paul Lomax, chief technology officer at Dennis Publishing, said the “ability to sell our own display ad space sounds good in principle but it would want to ensure we can easily and effectively traffic the ads and measure results” alongside the rest of the campaigns on its sites.

The publisher is not as dependent on social, with large volumes of traffic from search, referrals, newsletters and direct traffic, and so it would need to assess the impact on native campaigns, ecommerce, partnerships, etc.

The BBC’s presence on the list is an intriguing one given its scale and the fact that is does not make money from advertising in the UK. The broadcaster said ads will not appear around the stories it publishes on Instant Articles in the UK, ruling out making a profit from advertising in its heartland. It currently makes money from advertising on its website and from its World Service though these are only active outside the UK.

That a public service broadcaster like the BBC is forging closer bonds to Facebook is indicative of the issues media owners face and Facebook wants to exploit. After labouring to reshape their businesses around online, the speed of mobile media fragmentation has left many publishers with the conundrum of whether to outsource the bulk of their technical offering and ad sales so that they can focus on content.

For News UK, its platform independence is too important to use Facebook as primary publishing tool. But the media owner did not rule out potential tests of the service should it choose to push free-to-air content out into the ether. “I can’t believe we would ever adopt [Instant Articles fully]," said News UK’s chief marketing officer Chris Duncan.

“I think this is the start of Facebook seeing themselves as a platform that acts as a native app platform for publishers. I don’t think Facebook wants publishers building apps that take customers away from [its services]. They want to provide app like functionality that enables publishers to share in advertising revenue.”

It could also be a way of making sure that publishers use the service to get their content favoured in News Feeds instead of having to pay directly for that scale, he continued. Though the News Feed’s algorithm will not favour Instant Articles content over publishers, the more eye-catching, native format of the former may mean readers do.

Facebook's transformation into outright media player gathers pace

Media and content agencies such as Gravity Road, Starcom MediaVest Group and Carat acknowledged the platform’s potential to create native Facebook content for its millions of users though warned more clarity would be needed to sell it to publishers, particularly those small to medium sized.

“There is of course a risk that this shifts more power to Facebook, keeping the audience in their ecosystem, said Pippa Glucklich, co-chief executive at Starcom MediaVest Group. “However, publishers will still be able to benefit financially from content monetisation, and, most importantly, the audience will receive a better overall experience.”

Quarters of the industry have also had issue with the quality of data that would flow through the CMS. Those publishers that host articles directly on the social network can track data and traffic through ComScore, and other analytics tools. Whilst Facebook says it shares data with the publishers, publishers would be sharing data with Facebook and the concern stems from potential data leakage of elements highly valuable to them and their advertisers.

Felicity Long, head of digital at Carat, said: "Facebook is saying that it is working with publishers, offering them more insight into what people are reading and ensuring that they will be able to track audience data via ComScore, Google Analytics and Adobe Analytics, but there is a lack of clarity on the depth of data that will be available, which could be an issue.

“The advantage of this tool for publishers is that ultimately they are gaining access to a much broader audience in a place where daily usage is frequent, and in a way that is enjoyable for the user, something that is even more important in the mobile landscape than anywhere else.”

The arrival of Facebook’s CMS brings into sharp focus the issue of how much control of their content publishers should hand over to the likes of Facebook and Google as they become more dependent on social media for traffic. By effectively making editorial decisions about the presentation of content through the CMS, the social network becomes a media owner albeit one that is unregulated and has none of the responsibilities that comes with that status yet.

Seb Joseph

Hi, I'm the news editor at The Drum. Give me a shout if you have any questions about our news coverage or would like to pitch in a story.

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