Is Facebook Instant Articles a flop for publishers?

In May 2015, Facebook launched Instant Articles, “a new way for any publisher to create fast, interactive articles on Facebook.” High-profile publishers like the New York Times, The Guardian, National Geographic and NBC were early adopters.

Delivering 10 times faster load times, Facebook says that its users read 20% more Instant Articles on average and are 70% less likely to abandon an Instant Article. To sweeten the deal, Facebook offered publishers the ability to keep 100% of revenue from the ads they sold themselves against their Instant Articles inventory.

But less than two years later, according to a report published by Digital Content Next, some publishers are starting to scale back their use of Instant Articles, citing restrictions on the number and kinds of ads they can incorporate into their content.

That, in turn, is making it much more difficult for them to make money, particularly compared to their own websites, which they of course have full control over.

Digital Content Next says that many publishers “express deep ambivalence” about Facebook’s commitment to helping them maximize their revenue, and are starting to realize that the relationship itself might not be in their best interests:

“On the most basic level, publishers are being disintermediated, losing their relationship with their audiences, and they fear that Facebook will further encroach on their traditional businesses.”

What were publishers thinking?

Of course, that Instant Articles would be a disintermediating force was apparent from Day 1, and despite the fact offered them the ability to retain 100% of revenue from the Instant Articles ads they sell, publishers certainly recognized that that they would have less flexibility in terms of ad volume and placement.

So what were they thinking? One word: audience. With well over a billion users, Facebook is a difficult distribution platform to shun. So despite the loss of control, publishers were willing to play ball.

As James Bennet, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, one of Instant Articles’ first publishers, explained to The New York Times, “we’re trying to get out stories to as many people as possible.”

But not even a couple of years in, the lack of tangible ROI is apparently forcing some publishers to rethink how much they continue invest in Instant Articles, and this isn’t just a Facebook trend.

According to Digital Content Next’s report, Snapchat, which has courted publishers with its Discover platform, is seen as “hold[ing] little to no short-term financial interest” despite the fact that some Discover publishers employ staff dedicated exclusively to creating content for Discover.

The question now: how much longer will publishers continue to dedicate time, energy and money to third-party platforms that appear to be receiving more from publishers than they’re giving to them?

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