When Facebook launched the Instant Articles app last week, it hardly seemed significant. Tired of waiting for slow-loading news articles, Facebook developed a technical fix that enabled links to load much more rapidly, then invited premium publishers such as The Atlantic and The New York Times to create content especially for the new system.
Why did this move send industry insiders into a panic? Because after years of hosting external links, Facebook was asking publishers to publish directly to its platform. Now, if you’re The Guardian or the BBC – both of which signed up to the deal – your articles will be hosted on Facebook, so the reader might never see your home site at all.
The reason Instant Articles makes sense now is that it taps into the two big macrotrends shaping the future of media.
First, and by far the biggest – the uber trend, if you like – is mobile. The move from PC to mobile is the biggest since the internet began. We’re increasingly seeing how mobile is a fundamentally different battleground from desktop PCs – so this shift is much more than people using their mobile to view your website in the same way they always did.
One sign of this is the victory of apps over the web browser. According to Forrester, US and UK smartphone users now spend more than 80% of their mobile time in five apps. That statistic is slightly misleading, because it doesn’t account for mobile gaming, but even if we discount that, apps still account for the vast majority of mobile screen time. And in nearly every country in the world, by far the most popular app is Facebook.
The second big macrotrend is the power of social media. Facebook, in particular, is the primary source of traffic for nearly all of the big media companies. As Justin Smith, global CEO of Bloomberg Media Group, told Digiday recently: ‘The list is a lot longer than is publicly known of those that have Facebook delivering half to two-thirds of their traffic right now.’ A site such as BuzzFeed receives 75% of its traffic through social media, and for a story like #thedress, it was even more if you include so-called ‘dark social’, or links in texts, emails and so on.
In one sense these shifts are great news for publishers, because they vastly increase their potential audience. Yet the result is to give Facebook significant power over the media landscape, and for publishers that is extremely scary. At the moment Facebook is playing nice, but what would happen if the social network required media outlets to publish directly? When LinkedIn did that with LinkedIn Pulse traffic from LinkedIn died overnight, according to BuzzFeed.
Will media publishers become like tv production companies, reduced to making content for other people’s platforms? Or will they find a way to wrest back control of their destiny by reducing their dependence on Facebook?
We can get a glimpse of what will happen by looking at the retail sector, where we have seen a similar dynamic as companies fight for space with the all-consuming leviathan of Amazon. It turns out that the best way to do this is by embracing quality, which encourages the kind of engaged users who are more easily sold premium products. Companies such as Lush, Barnes & Noble and Warby Parker have shown that, by focusing on a single niche and, more importantly, standing for something in the market, they can build a fan base that is not wholly dependent on Amazon.
Quality counts, which is why sites such as TechCrunch and Politico have been going high-brow by hiring respected reporters, and why Gawker Media recently shut down the live chart showing how many clicks its articles were getting in real time. This is the reason, too, why Buzzfeed, the site which made its name through social media, is launching dedicated apps for different consumers segments. Will these efforts succeed? In media, the battle is only just starting.