For the past few months, the discussion of Facebook Instant Articles has far outpaced the actual number of Facebook Instant Articles — or the number of Facebook app users who saw them. Now that’s changing: After several months of testing with a limited percentage of users, Facebook rolled out Instant Articles to all of its iPhone users last week. (Instant Articles will launch on Android “later this year.”)
Now that millions of people are seeing Instant Articles in their feeds, it seemed like a good time to talk with Michael Reckhow
, the product manager for Instant Articles, about early usage patterns, publisher feedback, and international expansion — as well as concerns that publishers who use Instant Articles are giving Facebook too much power. Here’s our conversation, lightly condensed and edited.
Laura Hazard Owen: How many publishers are using Instant Articles right now?
Michael Reckhow: We announced several new publishers this week who are publishing every day, including The Huffington Post, Vox, and Slate, for a total of 14. We have several dozen additional publishers who are in the process of onboarding and will be coming online soon. And then we’re working to onboard dozens more. We are in a time of really broad engagement with publishers around the world to get them onto the platform.
Owen: So if, say, Nieman Lab wants to get on Instant Articles, what’s the process? And how do you decide who’s going to come first?
The publisher provides an RSS feed of their stories using HTML. We’ve published a guide
on how to produce that feed. That’s available to anyone. They also configure their style. Publishers get to set their logo, their color scheme, and style, including custom fonts. They set up their ads. Since most of our publishers are bringing their own ad systems, they have to add their ads in, embed their analytics, and get set up with comScore, and then they’re ready to go.
We’re working with some of the most trusted and largest publishers all around the world. We started really small with this, both in terms of publishers and in terms of consumers [who saw Instant Articles], with the goal of getting a lot of feedback early before we opened it up much more broadly.
Now we’re hitting an inflection point where the number of publishers that will be coming on board is growing significantly and we’re growing our capacity to be able to support them.
The first announced Instant Articles partners were large, well known companies, but the most recently announced batch also includes some local news outlets like Billy Penn
. Have you guys thought strategically, in terms of type or topic, how to create a balance or mix of who you’re adding?
There’s a wide cross section coming on over the next couple months. We’re talking not only national but local, a mix of traditional and digital.
It’s about getting the partners on board who people are [already] reading on Facebook. We’re focused on serving people who come to the News Feed every day looking for news. We want to make sure that the publishers they see in their News Feed every day are available as Instant Articles. That means, especially, going international. You’re going to see us announcing, over the coming months, a lot of partners outside of the U.S., in Asia and Latin America.
We want to go slowly and make sure we get that right. We’re providing a container for people to tell stories in dozens of languages around. We have to make sure that container is appropriate in terms of, for example, the date format right at the top of the article — date formats vary around the world. As we expand to languages that are not left-to-right, and other things like that, that is a set of development challenges. But Facebook already serves people and languages all around the world, so we do have some expertise on making sure that [the content] matches the local experience.
Owen: Since the announcement in the spring, are there improvements or tweaks you’ve made to the platform — any publisher feedback that’s led to changes?
We made a number of improvements. A lot of people told us they wanted it to be clear in the News Feed what an Instant Article is. When you’re tapping on a link, you want to know if it’s going to load instantly. So we added this lightning bolt, and when you see your first Instant Article, we say that “articles with this lightning bolt load instantly.” We’ve heard a lot of great feedback from people and publishers that this makes it a lot clearer and helps to educate people.
Inside the article, we’ve done a bunch of optimization. One of the things we’ve learned as we’ve gone through this process is that speed is not only about the initial load; it’s about everything inside the article. If the top of the article loads really fast, but then you scroll down and an image isn’t loaded, or an ad isn’t loaded, that’s a bad experience. So we’ve worked on optimizing both images and ads.
It’s a particular challenge to make sure that those ads served by the publisher are really fast. So we’ve built optimization to load those ads before they come on screen. We’re now seeing that over 90 percent of the ads that people reach in Instant Articles are loaded in before they come on screen, which is a really great number on mobile. We are working to make sure that we optimize every part of the experience, including ads, to make sure it’s instant, because that’s the promise of what we’re trying to deliver here.
Owen: How are Instant Articles performing, compared to non-optimized posts? Are people engaging with them more?
It’s really early in terms of understanding how people interact with Instant Articles, and we’ll continue to learn a lot. But the first thing we’re seeing is that people are more likely to share these articles, compared to articles on the mobile web, because Instant Articles load faster; the majority load in under a second, and that means people are getting to the content immediately.
We believe that sharing is the strongest signal that someone can give that it was a great experience. We’re really happy to see that improving the speed, improving the experience inside the article, is being reflected in more shares.
Owen: I know publishers can use third-party analytics tools on Instant Articles. Are they also getting any additional Facebook-specific data from you?
As you mentioned, there are a few ways that publishers get data from Instant Articles. They can get data from comScore on their overall traffic, and it counts toward their comScore credit. Publishers can embed their analytics, like Google Analytics and Omniture, and track data themselves. We see that publishers are using that as a primary way to understand their Instant Articles traffic.
The third thing that publishers can get is from us: We provide reporting on the article opens, the scroll depth — as in how far people scroll down in the article — and time spent reading the article.
We’re finding that for ads, for analytics, for many of the other things that publishers depend on, they want to just continue to use the tools that they already use.
I just read an interesting post from Alexis Lloyd at The New York Times arguing that the concept of an “article” is outdated
. Do you think about what Instant Articles could become? Could they be broken up, could they be presented differently in a feed?
It’s really great to see leaders like The New York Times thinking along these lines. One of the things that we have done with Instant Articles is start to imagine how the individual pieces of media inside the article can break out and have a life of their own.
Instant Articles supports liking and commenting on photos and videos inside the article. Those photos and videos can then become stories themselves and show up in news feeds. If you go to BuzzFeed articles, for example, you see people are liking and commenting on individual photos there, and mentioning their friends, and talking about the items they see. We think that interaction is something that’s going to be really interesting.
Publishers can turn that feature on and off. There are some pieces of media that might not work well in their own context, but some do. We want to give publishers tools to do this kind of experimentation.
We’re also seeing that a lot of publishers are using Instant Articles to showcase one piece of media, whether it’s a photo, video, or slideshow. An article doesn’t have to be a longform piece.
Owen: The Washington Post had said that it’s putting all of its articles on Instant Articles. What are some other trends you’re seeing in how thoroughly publishers are adopting this?
Most publishers are planning to put their full catalog, or the majority of their catalog, in Instant Articles. As with anything new that they’re trying out, we see that publishers might start testing in one area, just to get a feel for the system, and then turn it on. All of the publishers that we’re working with are asking how they can get to the point where they have all their articles on there.
For example, some publishers want to make sure that their media is really taking advantage of autoplay video or slideshows, and they’ve refined that experience as they roll it out. We work with publishers to make sure that they’re getting the most out of Instant Articles, and we see that if they don’t already have all their content in there, they’re going that way.
A big part is the learning behavior [of users]. When you see an NBC News or a Washington Post article in your feed, and you know it’s going to load instantly, then that muscle memory of not worrying about tapping on it and worrying that it’s going to take a long time to load is really powerful.
Owen: Can you see publishers somehow using this platform to charge for content?
We view the publishers that we work with as customers who we need to serve and support in how they get distribution and how they build their business. We’re always talking to publishers who have subscription models about how we can empower and support them.
I’d say that, specifically, we’re trying to help publishers reach their audience in a broad way, earn ad revenue through that, and then reach the audience in a more detailed way. If you take a look at The New York Times in Instant Articles, they have not only ads, but they also have, in every article, a signup box for an email list. And they also have a box of related articles from The New York Times. You can see, in one Instant Article today, some of the core elements of what a publisher like The New York Times, that has both an ad and subscription model, is trying to do. We worked with them to make sure that these pieces work — the ads, the email signups, the related articles, and redistribution.
There’s a lot of concern out there that by adopting programs like Instant Articles, publishers are just ceding control to giant companies, “feeding the borg
.” How do you respond to those fears?
We talk to publishers a lot about what they want out of Facebook. They tell us they want to reach and engage new audiences. So when you look at The Washington Post, or NBC News, they are now trying to reach an audience on the scale of hundreds of millions, and they see Facebook as a great opportunity to do that. They can use Facebook to engage this really broad audience and, using ads, build a sustainable business.
Additionally, though, we are empowering publishers and supporting them to do things like engage specific audiences, to get them to install apps, to get them to sign up for email lists, to build those direct connections. When we talk to publishers, they want us to support them in both the broad audience and in building dedicated readers. With the products we’re building for them, whether it’s Instant Articles or our other products in news, we’re trying to build products that solve for both of those needs. That’s what we can do, as a platform: be really responsive to what publishers want out of us, and how they want to engage with readers on Facebook.