More and more TV stations and other news producers are turning to Facebook’s Live and Instant Articles features to deliver their content directly on Facebook’s platform and tap into its huge mobile audience. However, that means ceding a lot of control to Facebook, starting with letting original content live natively on its platform. And it remains to be seen how much ad money publishers will get from the arrangement.
Local News Use Of Facebook Features Grows
News producers in growing numbers are experimenting with Facebook Live and Instant Articles compelled largely by a desire to tap into the social medium’s huge mobile audience, but wary of its propensity for sudden rule changes and an as-yet unproven revenue potential.
The move from using Facebook to direct readers to their own websites to publishing their content directly on Facebook’s platform is in some respects a leap of faith. It requires newsrooms to go even further down the path of relinquishing control over their content, all the while conceivably helping build Facebook’s brand alongside their own.
“It might not be what we’re used to, but if that’s what the audience really wants, we need to be able to play in that world,” says Jeff Zellmer, regional VP of creative services for WAGA Atlanta and other Fox Television Stations.
The Facebook Live and Instant Articles efforts are generating positive responses from audience and staff, he says. “Facebook is where a lot of people are consuming news, and no one wants to be bogged down with too many sites, so we’re excited that Instant Articles can really improve the experience of our end users. That’s a win for us.”
“The reality is that everybody is on Facebook,” says Christopher Penn, author of Leading Innovation and VP of marketing and technology at Shift Communications, a PR agency. “So it’s less a question of reaching the audience and more a question of providing the content that audiences expect in an ecosystem they are comfortable in.”
A Shift Fueled By Mobile
Instant Articles, which allows publishers to deliver their content to Facebook users inside the Facebook interface, was officially launched in May 2015 with a few partner brands. It opened up for general use two months ago. Facebook Live is the version for live video streams. It launched in August 2014 with verified accounts and became generally available in January.
The big attraction for content providers is Facebook’s mobile audience. According to Facebook’s 2015 fourth-quarter report, 823 million users accessed Facebook solely through their mobile app — more than half of the total users that quarter.
The emergence of Facebook as the go-to mobile news platform is significant, says Patrick O’Brien, digital director of editorial and content for Fox Television Stations’ KTTV Los Angeles. “In the past four years, we went from Google as our No. 1 referring traffic source, to Facebook, and a lot of that is because of the growth of the mobile platform.”
Facebook blows past the competition in delivering the mobile users, adds Sara Smith, social media editor at NBC-owned WCAU Philadelphia. “We found that Facebook Live performs better for us than Periscope, with the maps and the searchability and the more targeted audience,” she says. “For a local news channel that’s a more focused demographic and their feedback helps us grow and get better — it’s a quick learning curve.”
The NBC affiliate has demonstrated its commitment to the new live streaming service most recently with its Generation Addicted multi-platform series that included two Facebook Live events.
In covering a kidnapping at the King of Prussia Mall, WCAU’s Jim Rosenfield ran two Live Facebook “broadcasts,” updating the audience on new information over the course of an hour. Those Facebook Live videos got 65,000 views, 1,600 shares and 1,800 comments.
Those are numbers that are hard to compete with at a local news website level, and they give direct audience feedback in a way Nielsen TV ratings can’t, Smith says.
Facebook Makes The Rules
Going native on Facebook is not without its concerns. “The problem with the Facebook ecosystem for someone with high-quality content is that it’s highly snackable, and you can only play with the algorithm so much,” says Bernard Gershon, president of Gershon Media, a digital media consulting firm. “So a Facebook Live video of someone doing something weird or stupid or dangerous is going to get more views than somebody walking around a burned-out building in Syria.”
In an article for Wired, Julia Greenberg describes the relationship between newsrooms and Facebook as one-sided, with the social network dictating the direction. “When Facebook says it will prioritize video in News Feed, every publisher that can afford to do so builds a video team. When Facebook says it will launch Live, publishers suddenly start streaming live. Facebook is setting the rules, and news organizations are following.”
By keeping everyone inside Facebook’s ecosystem, the control extends beyond the algorithms to how the content displays on a user’s screen. And that control is in Facebook’s hands, too. Every time a user’s cover photo or profile image dimensions change, all personal pages need to be updated.
This extends to the new channels as well. When Facebook changes the dimensions for Live or the content rules for Instant Articles, newsrooms will have to adapt. They simply don’t have the control they have over their own websites.
“We try to understand how Facebook is analyzing and valuing our content, and that is something that shifts. There’s not as much transparency in that as we would like,” Greenbaum says. “I still have to believe that good content, trusted content, has got to win out.”
That faith is constantly being tested. Earlier this month, several former Facebook employees came forward admitting that they were selective in ranking news in their trending topic widget. That bias has been talked about for as long as the trending topics have been available, with several large news producers claiming to be blacklisted by the social network, all of which CEO Mark Zuckerberg has denied, and he’s made efforts to smooth over the ensuing tensions.
“There is no doubt that Facebook has built a great user experience and the audience is there,” says Brodie Fenlon, senior director of digital news at the Canadian broadcaster CBC. His reporters are using the tools as well, most recently with a Facebook Live event from correspondent Nahlah Ayed reporting from Brussels.
“But it does pose challenges from a strategic and mandate perspective,” Fenlon says. “Monetization aside, we do a much better job than Facebook of exposing Canadians to all the news that matters to this country at any given moment on our own platforms. Facebook’s algorithm favors a different set of priorities, and they can change at Facebook’s whim.”
Monetizing The Relationship
It leaves news organizations with a last crucial question about revenue. If this is to be a symbiotic relationship between the producers of the news and Facebook — and not a parasitic one where Facebook eats all online traffic using someone else’s content as bait — the ad money must follow.
As of now (and again, things are shifting constantly) Facebook says publishers can bring their own direct-sold ads into Instant Articles, and keep 100% of the revenue from them. Publishers can also display ads from Facebook’s audience network and use their own analytics to track usage. Facebook has responded to publisher feedback, changing the revenue program to open up branded content restrictions and allowing native advertising on Instant Articles.
The potential is great. In a New York Times article in April, Morgan Stanley estimated that in the first quarter of 2016, 85% of online advertising will go directly into the pockets of Google and Facebook. Facebook reported $18 billion in revenue in 2015.
Right now, Facebook’s algorithm seems to be favoring Facebook Live posts. They also have a reach on 40%-50% of followers’ feeds from what Gavin McGarry, president of Jumpwire Media, is seeing. “In my opinion, Facebook’s goal is to keep people in their platform, not to take the revenue streams of content publishers,” he says of Facebook’s endgame.
“Now that more and more people are watching Live videos, we are considering Live Videos as a new content type — different from normal videos — and learning how to rank them for people in News Feed,” said Facebook’s Product Manager Vibhi Kant in a press release. “As a first step, we are making a small update to News Feed so that Facebook Live videos are more likely to appear higher in News Feed when those videos are actually live, compared to after they are no longer live,” he added..
The feedback from publishers falls all along the spectrum. Most say it is too early to measure the monetary success of publishing their content directly to Facebook.
Julie Hansen, COO of The Business Insider, told Digiday last month that she is “seeing the same level of monetization from Instant Articles as it gets on its websites.”
However, Gershon warns that the revenue is still a promise unfulfilled: “Many publishers are addicted to the traffic Facebook can drive, but you or I would be hard-pressed to point out any publisher who is generating any significant revenue off Facebook yet.”
But it is not just money that is driving the Facebook native experimenters.“Digital [at NBC] has increasingly been about audience acquisition,” says Yoni Greenbaum, director of integrated media at NBC. “We are the gateway to TV, so we have the opportunity to introduce the [Facebook] audience to our brand and our personalities and pass them along to the broadcast side.
“We know that we need our content to be wherever the users are, and then really challenge the sales side to monetize that experience,” Greenbaum says of NBC’s strategy.
It’s a tectonic shift, and not a quiet one. Most news organizations are paying attention and many are determined to claim their own piece of Facebook’s new pie.
“We like to control our brand, and, on Facebook, the content is still your content,” says Fox’s Zellmer. “You still get to determine how the story is told; it’s just being told in their ecosystem.”