Facebook has been the top source of referral traffic for news sites for quite a while now. But it’s more and more becoming a destination on its own right for news consumers around the world.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism examined the media consumption habits of 26 countries and found that close to fifty percent of their web users visit the social media site for news each week.
For many of them, it is the main source of information. Among Millennials Facebook, is already, by far and away, the most common source for news about government and politics in the U.S.
The influence of the social media site is very likely to increase even more in the near future, due to its mobile publishing platform, Instant Articles.
Immersive walled gardens
This new format, allows publishers to optimize the content they share on Facebook for consumption on mobile devices. It has several multimedia options; its users can embed videos, zoomable photos or maps into their articles, which open inside the Facebook app.
The social media site claims, that Instant Articles load 10 times faster than standard mobile web articles. According to Facebook, the format provides an “immersive reading experience, that inspires people to share Instant Articles 30% more often than mobile web articles “.
At launch, the platform was only available to an elite group of publishers, including the Atlantic, BuzzFeed or the New York Times, but now it’s more open and if you use Facebook’s app regularly, you are probably well-aware of how Instant Articles work.
Publishers, who partake in the program can sell advertising space for their Instant Articles themselves, or leave it to Facebook for a 30 percent cut of the revenue the posts generate.
Increased reach, a decline in engagement
Early reactions from publishers are in line with Facebook’s claims about increased sharing. Games and entertainment media company IGN said that it could reach almost double the number of people on the social network with Instant Articles than with other posts. The company also saw a 20 percent increase from ad revenues from posts published in this format, compared to non-Instant Articles.
At the same time readers, who click on Instant Articles, spend less time on the publisher’s sites than the ones, who visit them with a browser.
PopSugar’s product manager told Digiday, that the time their Instant Article readers spend on their site, is lower by half compared to the average session of website visitors.
Many of the popular American news sites experienced a huge drop in their web traffic recently, while they also saw a significant increase in the popularity of their Instant Articles.
Even though it would be too early to draw conclusions, this could indicate that Instant Articles will have a serious impact on the future of online publishing.
If news sites could increase ad revenues from social media with the similar amount that they lose on other channels, it might seem that the recent changes won’t endanger their status. But it’s not so simple.
Online publishers have less information about the readers of their Instant Articles than their website visitors. The app users are less likely to register on their site, click on their recommendations etc.
This makes it harder for them to sell their ads directly, so, in the end, they might have to rely on the platform more heavily to monetize their traffic. And if the current trend continues, and more and more people will see social media as the main source of information, they could become dependent on Facebook.
Which, in this case, is inevitable anyway, they have to be, where their readers are.
But in social media, they don’t only compete which each other for the audience’s attention. Their articles need to stand out among branded messages, updates from upcoming bloggers or professional groups. And this, with the exception of a few prominent sites, could be extremely difficult for them.
Did Facebook just launch the iPod?
By supporting Instant Articles publishers are giving one more reason for their readers to look for news on the social media site. And, up to a certain level, they endanger themselves.
In Japan or South Korea where news aggregators are more popular, the brand of a news site is only noticed by the readers about the quarter of the times, they access a story through them.
The more control Facebook is going have over traffic, the better its position will be to negotiate about advertising revenues. If it becomes our most important news source, sooner or later, publishers will also have to pay for reach on the site.
But this will only happen if the current trend continues. Which is a possible scenario, but far from the only one.
Facebook has its own set of problems. The site has seen a 21 percent decline in original sharing from mid-2014 to mid-2015, and the decline, at a bit slower pace has continued to this year. Even though the overall share levels hasn’t changed much, the users post less about their personal life now.
And this is a serious challenge for Facebook, as the personal updates from friends is still the main reason why people visit the site. Without them, it could become a glorified content recommendation engine.
And on that field, Facebook faces a fierce competition, Google, and Apple are both trying to build platforms for people interested in the latest news.
Our news consumption habits are changing. It’s possible that in the near future we will visit platforms instead of the publishers’ sites if we’d like to stay informed, just like we use Spotify or Apple Music when we’re looking for a new album. But it still remains to be seen, how important role Facebook is going to play in the future of news distribution.