While Twitter, the original social platform for news, has been keeping busy trying to convince shareholders and the world's press that it has a future, Facebook has been quietly readying Instant Articles, a feature that's been in beta for a while with the usual suspects, and is about to be opened up to all publishers.
Created to address slow loading times for news on mobile, Instant Articles goes a lot further than tackle that. The feature lets publishers provide users with far richer content than a small snippet of copy from longer form material hosted elsewhere.
On tapping an article, users might explore images with the tilt of a handset, see where photos were taken on an interactive map, watch autoplay videos and hear audio captions from authors accompanying their copy. We’re basically talking a stylish webpage within the Facebook app, full screen – not dissimilar to Snapchat’s own attempts at providing higher quality content with its Discover section.
This could be great news for both brands and audiences. Audiences could soon be served content and an experience that exceed the creative limits of a posted meme or clickbait, which could in turn give brands higher levels of a user’s attention and engagement. In some cases, there could also be a little cost saving for publishers who’ll be able to host content within the app, avoiding the need for webpage creation.
The risk of course is that brands rush to use the feature without thinking about their audiences’ interests, using it to deliver low quality content that lacks purpose and value. A social content cynic might argue that if the majority of the world’s brands are failing to excite users with short form copy, there’s the possibility of things getting a whole lot uglier on a bigger stage.
We all know by now that whatever Facebook does isn’t solely rooted in providing a heavenly experience for its users. There’s always additional reasons cha-chinging away in the background. This time round, it seems to be another chapter in the platform’s efforts to keep ahold of the world’s internet traffic as much as possible. By allowing more, better content to be consumed within its app, users will be less likely to click out of Facebook land. The more that users stay on the platform, the more ads they can be served and the more money Mother Nature can inherit from the lovely Zuckerbergs.
Instant Articles is also a play to be the source of news online and in social. Facebook’s had a go at this a little before, introducing hashtags and a trends box on users’ homepages, but more often than not hashtag browsing just surfaces spam and the trends box informs you little beyond whatever Kanye West has ranted about on Twitter the night before.
So how does Facebook Advertising work with Instant Articles? It looks like you’ll be able to promote article posts like any other, and in addition to being compatible with third party content management systems and web analytics, the feature will allow publishers to run their own ads, profiting from users consuming their content. Meanwhile, there’ll surely be lots of clever user tracking and data capture happening in the background to enrich targeting possibilities elsewhere in the Facebook universe – which is rapidly becoming all of the internet.
Tony Wright is a strategist at Lost Boys