When you get to be as big and as dominant as Facebook, it puts you in quite a special position. It leads companies who would probably prefer to have nothing to do with you to partner with you anyway, for fear of missing out if they are not on your platform. So it is, or rather was, with the Guardian, it seems, after it announced earlier this week that it will no longer put its content on Facebook Instant Articles, or on Apple News for that matter.
The Guardian was one of the first publishers on Instant Articles, launching in April 2015, and when I interviewed its then-head of mobile and video Lee Fels about its presence there a few months after the launch, he told me: “We are moving in an exceptionally fast-paced environment where the biggest companies, barely existed 20 years ago. So we are into a world of partnerships, as the connected future will be a world of partnerships. Hence we are experimenting with Instant Articles, and with Apple News. Partnership is not just about the on-Guardian experience; it’s an acknowledgement that there are no walls in this world, particularly as distribution and proliferation increases.”
Now, it would appear, the dalliance with Facebook never got further than the experimentation stage, with the Guardian telling Digiday that its presence on Instant Articles and Apple News were “extensive trials ... to assess how they fit with our editorial and commercial objectives”. Its conclusion, two years on, is that it should focus on bringing audiences to “the trusted environment of the Guardian.”
The Guardian is not the first publisher to express concerns over Instant Articles. The New York Times also recently moved off the platform, while in November last year, Telegraph Media Group commercial product director Paul de la Nougerede told delegates at an industry event: “You do need to be on these platforms, but the monetisation challenge is the bit we all need to crack. We produce fantastic content that Facebook does not have, and they wanted that content on their platform. The commercial terms were pretty rubbish at the start. They have got better, but they are still nowhere near good enough.”
Publishers can sell and serve ads on the content they distribute on the Instant Articles platform and keep all the revenue they make. Or they can leave it to Facebook via the Facebook Audience Network, for which Facebook takes a 30 per cent cut of the income generated. But while Facebook can earn direct revenues from Instant Articles, it is, I imagine, much more interested in their ability to give Facebook users one less reasons to ever look anywhere else for content.
Publishers also face frustrations over the limted amount of data they can access on readers' interactions with their Instant Articles content, compared to that on their owned media. And while the Guardian and the New York Times have beaten a full retreat, other publishers seem to have lost some of their enthusiasm for Instant Articles. Back in September, content marketing firm NewsWhip carried out a study looking at publishers’ use of Instant Articles over five days, from 16 – 20 September. It found that while some publishers, including the Guardian, Daily Mail, The Dodo and Washington Post published all of their links to Facebook as Instant Articles over the five-day window, others, including BBC News, the Wall Street Journal and National Geographic, posted Instant Articles less frequently. Now that the Guardian has withdrawn from the platform, it seems logical to think that those publishers who post to it infrequently may also consider their position.
It may be wrong to think anyone at Facebook will be panicking too much over the loss of the Guardian from the Instant Articles platform, but if other publishers do start to follow suit, it may cause the company to look again at the terms it offers its publisher partners. Who knows, the Telegraph’s de la Nougerede may get those improved commercial terms he’s been asking for after all, but I wouldn't bet too much on it.