It's been a little more than a week since Facebook began allowing select news organizations to publish stories directly onto its platform through the new Instant Articles program, and as best as anyone can tell, the online media industry has yet to spontaneously combust.
While some in the media industry have expressed grave concern that the program will ultimately put journalism organizations at the mercy of an all-powerful social media network, the longterm effects of Instant Articles will likely be less earth-shattering.
It's still early, but from the looks of things, the new feature will likely amount to not much more than a more seamless mobile reading experience for Facebook’s users and a potentially helpful means of monetizing mobile advertising inventory for its publishing partners.
After all, despite Facebook's massive size and its ability to send loads of traffic publishers' way, it’s not as if it's the only game in town.
With competitors like Snapchat and YouTube also investing in high-quality content to show people who visit their platforms, Digiday president and editor-in-chief Brian Morrissey says it's hard to imagine a scenario where publishers won't have at least some leverage in dictating how their content is distributed and who gets to profit from it.
"I think this is going to be the Y2K of publishing," Morrissey said. "There are some worrying parts of it just because platforms have gained so much power, but unless it's only one platform — and it's not going to be just Facebook — smart media companies are going to be able to play the platforms against each other."
So far, the program has been rolling out fairly slowly, with initial partners The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, National Geographic, and NBC News each running a single Instant Article on May 13 and nothing since.
Nonetheless, it's easy to see why many feel that every major publisher will one day run Instant Articles. In playing with some of the stories on my iPhone (it didn't work when I tried to read them on my iPad mini), I was impressed by how much more attractive they were than that regular stories that show up in the News Feed. The links to all of the stories have motion embedded in their preview images, and the articles themselves load extraordinarily fast despite being full of interactive, multimedia features that give them a truly native feel.
In this sense, it's hard to argue with the idea that people will be more inclined to click on an Instant Article than the other stuff in their News Feed. That publishers will feel compelled to keep up with the native experiences their competitors are offering is a good thing for Facebook's users.
"Instant Articles brings a lot of context and relevance to news, which can be powerful," said Alicia Hatch, a principal at the consulting firm Deloitte Digital.
Dan Greenberg, co-founder and CEO of native advertising company Sharethrough, which owns and operates this publication, said it's about time the mobile reading experience got an upgrade.
"For the mobile web, design and user experience has been long overdue for an overhaul and Facebook has just shown people the future of how they should experience the Internet," said Greenberg, whose company runs this publication. "Which raises the bar for all content websites, web designers, hosting companies and advertising companies."
The deal, at least as presently constructed, is also pretty good for publishers. Right now, publishers get 100% of the revenue for ads they can sell themselves, and 70% of the revenue when Facebook sells their left-over, in-article inventory.
This could be something of a big deal for publishers, since many of them have struggled mightily to sell mobile ads against the content that appears on their websites. Given that Facebook has been extremely successful using its so-called "affinity graph" of user interests to target ads on mobile, people like the Wall Street Journal's Jack Marshall have made the case that Instant Articles could allow publishers to sell way more mobile ads than they otherwise would have.
This is the number one reason that Jason Stein, founder and CEO of the social media agency Laundry Service, says it's inevitable that virtually every big publisher without a hard paywall will wind up publishing directly to Facebook.
Morrissey, on the other hand, is skeptical that Instant Articles can really be that much of a game-changer when it comes to curing publishers' mobile ad woes. From his perspective, news organizations' problems in this department have less to do with their own actions, and more to do with the fact that brands and agencies have been slow to adapt their marketing strategies to mobile.
Indeed, while Facebook does serve a number of big brands, a great deal of its mobile advertising revenues come in the form of app download ads sold to developers who are not a part of, say, The New York Times' typical client base.
Rather than letting Facebook manage their entire mobile businesses, Morrissey thinks smart publishers will continue to invest in a "portfolio strategy" where they are creating content to be distributed across a number of platforms. This way, even if Facebook decides that it wants to try to take a larger split of the Instant Article ad revenues, they will still be just fine in the long run.
“Nobody wants to be the next Zynga that gets crushed by the platform, but those guys were arguably parasites on the platform, they weren't adding real value," Morrissey said. "The New York Times is not going to go down the tubes because of Facebook."
For brands, the promise of Instant Articles lies not in its current format but in what it might evolve to be in the future.
In a way, a banner ad inside an Instant Article is less desirable than one of Facebook's regular News Feed ads because the in-article unit interrupts what the reader is doing as opposed to the News Feed ad, which is designed to blend in with the reader's experience.
However, brands might have an extremely attractive advertising opportunity if Facebook were to make available branded Instant Articles. Already, BuzzFeed’s debut story included a link to a sponsored post on its mobile website, and Re/Code has reported that the publisher will be able to include sponsored posts in the future.
Perhaps eventually, Facebook will mimic its autoplay video product by allowing brands to publish their own stories directly to its platform without needing a media company to serve as an intermediary. Already, Stein says several of his clients have expressed interest in doing this.
"I can't see Facebook rolling this out for publishers and not for brands. If brands want it, you've got to think it will become a unit," Stein said. "If brands are saying, 'We want to put money behind this,' they're going to do it."
For now, though, it’s too early to tell exactly what the future holds. Everyone I spoke with advocated a "test and learn" approach, stressing that both brands and publishers will need to take time to see what does and doesn't work when it comes to Instant Articles.
And when it comes to the longterm effect Facebook’s control of online distribution will have on the journalism industry, well, Morrissey is quick to point out that it wasn't too long ago that Yahoo was the internet's most dominant company.
By the time publishers get really good at publishing Instant Articles, Facebook might not even be a major news destination anymore.
"When you're playing this thing out in five years, we're all assuming that Facebook is going to have the same success that it's had in the past, and I don't understand why that's the case," Morrissey said. "Everyone in this industry says, 'Oh, it's all change, change, change,' but then they always expect that the way the world exists today will be the exact same way the world will exist in five years."