As soon as Jeff Bezos heard about Facebook Instant Articles, he wanted to participate.“We saw [Bezos] in Sun Valley,” Dan Rose, the VP of partnerships at Facebook, said in a recent panel at the Paley International Council Summit. “He said, ‘Hey, The Washington Post isn’t participating yet. Would you please let us in? I think that we’d be your best partner.'” And, Rose said, Bezos — the CEO of Amazon and, since 2013, the owner of The Washington Post — was true to his word: The Washington Post is putting all of its content on the platform.
It’s been about a month since Facebook rolled out Instant Articles to everybody using its iPhone app, and there are now 18 publishers making their content available in the format, with dozens more to come.
“These platforms can grow the pie,” Rose said. He noted that smartphone users spend over 80 percent of their time on five apps (the five apps differ by person), according to a Forrester survey. “If you’re not finding ways to be in those apps, it’s hard to get in front of people on their phones.”Of course Facebook would stress this — it wants publishers to use Instant Articles, just as Apple wants publishers to use Apple News — but, Rose noted, “we have to think hard about how we can create a value exchange, to encourage companies…to really want to put their content into our system. In order to do that, they obviously have to be able to generate value from it.”
It’s still early (and that was the reason many publishers gave me for declining to participate in this roundup), but I wanted to find out more about the kinds of value that news outlets are deriving from participating in Instant Articles. I spoke with The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Slate about their content strategy and the results they’re seeing. Our conversations (as well as a transcript of Cory Haik’s remarks at the Paley conference), lightly edited and condensed for clarity, are below.
When this opportunity arrived for Instant Articles — we’ve been working on mobile performance for the last year and a half in a really aggressive way, and that’s pretty easy to do, technically easy to do on native platforms that you own. Performance is a silent feature but when it’s not there, users notice. When something doesn’t load, that’s frustrating.
The thing that we’ve really learned with Jeff Bezos is that experimentation at scale is really the right way to do it. There’s not a risk. It’s not a one-way door. Why not be all the way in?…It’s better for users. The risk to us is just dipping our toes in: We don’t think we’d understand it as well.We have a pretty steady line about people coming to The Washington Post. We’re really trying to grow our subscriber business. That’s an important business for us, digital subscriptions, and we feel good about that. We’re trying to do two things: Grow our digital subscriptions — and those are highly engaged users that come back directly to us, create that daily habit that’s important — and the other piece of it is growing new audiences in these really dramatic ways, which is mostly on mobile. And when I say that, there’s a direct correlation to social and these emerging platforms.
So how we’re going to grow this side of the business and dramatically increase that number, as we’ve been doing, is really this distributed platforms piece of it, which is now an official initiative at The Washington Post. All sides of the business work on that; I work in the newsroom proper, but all around the company, with tech and product and design and research and business development, everyone is involved, because all sides of the business have a stake in it in some way…
Consumers win, hands down, in all of this. If we end up making more money as a publisher, that’s fantastic. I don’t think that’s going to be an afterthought or byproduct; I think there is a way to win from the business perspective. It’s a little murky how that plays out on each platform, but I trust that that’s the case, because you grow new audiences. We’re figuring that out. The ad product piece is wide open, which we need that desperately for mobile. So that’s an opportunity.
But what’s happening in the meantime, while we’re figuring all that out, is the consumers are winning. They’re getting more performant experiences. It loads quickly, it looks fantastic, but the native piece of it, I think, is the most exciting. That’s my news nerd: design, UX, all of it coming together to create the experiences that are meant for those platforms. You’re not just porting one-size-fits-all content, which, in cases of scale, you sometimes have to do.But for Facebook Instant, for example, the opportunity to take advantage of the “Ken Turns effect” on the phone, the ability to turn your phone. I don’t know who named that, but it’s brilliant, the ability to turn your phone and see all sides of a photo. So we’ve been producing to that, putting these panoramic photos on Facebook and watching users engage with that. That’s not something we can do currently on the mobile web. That’s new storytelling.
We look at a lot of real-time insights into how our audiences are consuming our content. I’m strictly talking on the newsroom side, because as journalists, we’ve done a lot of work in the newsroom, really paying attention to how users are consuming the content. If something’s doing really well, we want to make sure, not just for recirculation purposes — which of course we care about, that one-more-tap-through kind of thing — but what else can we give them? What other kinds of related content should go in this article, this experience? Is there a video that makes sense?
For storytelling purposes, honestly, it’s just really, really important to us. And so anything we can work with you guys on around those kinds of insights — you know, an API that we can pipe into a dashboard; we’re working on rolling out a dashboard for our whole newsroom so that we can look at these kinds of things together. And I think it makes our storytelling better and our journalism better. So, something like that.
Julia Beizer, director of mobile products:
Facebook allowed us to do analytics tracking of our own, particularly comScore tracking, and they allowed us to do a lot of customizations to the experience so we felt that it adequately represented our brand. So the decision was pretty easy in that regard. What we were trading — since we were retaining, again, that comScore number — was just the ability to make the experience that much better for readers. We figured that we retain our comScore number, and we [already] don’t paywall people who come in through social, so it’s not like we were giving up potential subscribers. So we thought, let’s give this a shot.
I think our best success metric has been around visitors returning within seven days. We’re seeing people who come to our articles come more often within a seven-day period. Whether they know outright or just subconsciously know that the article’s going to load faster, I can’t speak to that. But we certainly are seeing more engagement among the user base that’s clicking through on our articles.
We’re working with Facebook to try to develop even deeper metrics on what we’re seeing on the shares front, what we’re seeing in terms of video views, and all that, and hopefully learning more.
For example, Facebook allows you to look up scroll depth on [individual] articles. That’s something that we’d love to be looking at more broadly across our entire [suite of content]. We’re looking to build really robust ways to suck in all the data we’re seeing from Facebook into our own data systems, so we can track it against our other content. Right now we kind of look at it within the Facebook universe, but we’re looking to build ways where we can talk more directly to those content stores.
Kimberly Lau, VP and general manager of Atlantic Digital:
The only things that don’t end up going in the Instant Article format are things that have coding in them that can’t be translated or aren’t supported — for example, we’ve found that some data wrapper formats don’t work very well. Anything that doesn’t render well automatically gets pulled from the feed, along with anything that we’re not allowed to syndicate. But our strategy has been able to put anything that we can in there.
Also, anything that was published before Instant Articles became a thing is not in the format; archival content’s not in the format.
My own, personal experience is that the pages are much faster. When we were still in the A/B testing phase, Facebook reported to us that we did see an increase in sharing. But one of the things that we’re still working on is getting better access to data so that we can discretely measure that on an ongoing basis. We have several indicators that lead us to believe that there is increased sharing, but I’d say that we’re still in the experimentation phase, and still trying to figure out how exactly to measure that on an ongoing basis.Right now Facebook is giving us [data] article-by-article. It’s not aggregated in any way. So on the individual Instant Articles, they’re giving us information on pageviews and scroll depth. Beyond that, we have tagging from Omniture and comScore, and so we know, in our own analytics, how many pageviews we’re getting. But because of the way the page structure is built — it’s the exact same URL — we can’t, at this point, disaggregate which shares are happening in the Instant Article format versus which shares are happening on our regular mobile website or even our desktop site. I can tell you that an article performed well on Facebook. I can’t necessarily break it down and say, more people were sharing on this versus that.
I would like to be able to aggregate the data, and I’d like to be able to compare the performance of one format versus another more directly. It’s something that we’ve talked extensively with Facebook about, and I think they’re working on ways to do that.
One of the things that’s been hard about this phase is that Facebook traffic and Facebook performance is very volatile. It’s the nature of a viral story, that it’s somewhat volatile. It’s been difficult to actually isolate specific results with one kind of story or format. When you’re looking at Facebook data, you want to look for a trend, and in order to not have that be overwhelmed by any one data point, you need to look at a fairly lengthy period of time.
We have seen increased performance on Facebook in the past few months. But there are a lot of other things we’re doing [on Facebook], too, so it’s tough to tie it back [to Instant Articles].
Dan Check, vice chairman:
The social team picks the things that they want to post to our feed, and if those are in Instant Articles, those will show up as Instant Articles. But there isn’t a lot of coordination there, [which is on purpose]: We wanted to make sure that there wasn’t a strong element of coordination [needed]. Everything would just happen without a lot of additional effort on the part of the social team, the editorial team, or the tech team. We want it to be a system that’s set up and that runs automatically, and that’s basically what we have.
There are ad units on the page, which Facebook supports. For now, though, what we’re really trying to do with Instant Articles is just provide a great user experience, so that’s where our focus has been. We want to see how users are going to react to it and what kind of scale and volume this gets. Once we have a better handle on that, we’ll be in a better position to think about this from the perspective of ad products and ad sales. This has also given us a really good chance to test out Facebook’s Audience Network, and we’ve been really pleased with the performance of Audience Network.
We had one of our best traffic months ever this past month, and we think that Instant Articles played a role in that, either by bringing more people into the Instant Articles or by shares that were generated off of them. We see this as being a really good way to grow the total size of our audience.