7 Things You Need to Know About Facebook Instant Articles

Facebook Instant Articles are here, and it feels like a cross between Christmas and a funeral in the media world. Christmas because everyone gets to write a navel-gazing hot take on what this means for the future of the fourth estate; a funeral because many, including some New York Times newsroom vets, are declaring this the time of death for media as we know it.

Let’s cut through the hot takes and break it all down. Here are seven things you need to know about Instant Articles:

1. Nine major American and British publishers are the first guinea pigs, meaning that we have a ready made title for when this story when it gets made into a bad movie: The Facebook 9.

Here they are, organized in a handy graphic, courtesy of Facebook. Americans on top, Europeans on bottom, like in an especially crass cartoon in a 4th of July issue of The New Yorker.

What stands out is the diversity of these brands—the Times, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic have been mentioned in the same sentence more often the past three days than in the previous decade. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see why taking advantage of this opportunity appealed to each one.

2. Facebook made an offer that publishers couldn’t refuse.

This sounds like a cliché, but Facebook made it pretty impossible to say no by making concessions that assuaged just about every concern a publisher could have.

Ad revenue? Facebook is giving publishers 100 percent of the ad revenue if the publisher sells the ads, and is taking only a 30 percent cut if the ads are sold through the Facebook network.

Content exclusivity? Publishers are in complete control of Instant Articles they post, which can also run on the publisher’s own site without issue. In essence, publishers can use Facebook Instant Articles as an alternative platform to deliver a superior experience for their readers coming from Facebook—all without sacrificing ad revenue.

Visibility? C’mon. If you saw how Facebook juiced autoplay videos when they first rolled out, you know that the network will give Instant Articles the royal treatment in the EdgeRank algorithm.

Technical glitches? While article links to publishers’ mobile sites take an average of eight seconds to load, Instant Articles reportedly load much quicker. And the hype videos for Instant Articles make the medium look absolutely gorgeous.

In world where the average attention span is down to eight seconds, faster loading times (up to 10x as fast, according to Facebook) are huge. The agreement probably won’t stay so peachy forever, but it’s easy to see why these publishers jumped on board.

3. Seriously, Instant Articles are freaking gorgeous, and potentially a game-changing mobile reading experience.

Yesterday, Facebook released its hype video for Instant Articles, filled with dramatic music straight out of a Silicon Valley spoof. But wow—they look amazing. Instant Articles come with a suite of easy-to-use multimedia features that we’ve come to associate with premium, expensive longform projects: cinemagraph covers that are like something out of Harry Potter, autoplay videos that load seamlessly with the text, interactive maps that give you a helicopter view of key points in a story, rich photos that you can explore deeper with a tilt or pinch of the phone, the ability to share or comment specific parts of the article, and audio captions that let you hear the voice of the author as you read.

“This is a living page. This is a living, breathing article that is beyond just words,” said Shezad Morani, creative director for and aspiring mad scientist.

“Being able to watch a video seamlessly—I think it’s actually really refined here and a beautiful experience,” added Summer Anne Burton, editorial director for BuzzFeed Distributed, as the music crescendos.

“It’s really going to solve the problem we’ve had with bringing pictures that work really well in the magazine environment to the phone,” explained John Bennett, editor-in-chief and co-president of The Atlantic.

4. The first Instant Articles are only available on mobile, but they live up to the hype.

Consider me impressed. The first Instant Articles—which you can find on the publishers’ individual pages or on the “Instant Articles” page in the Facebook app—all use Facebook’s technology in inventive ways that suit each publisher’s specific needs:

BuzzFeed’s cover art for “13 Steps to Instantly Improve Your Day” features a sloth climbing on a jungle gym and the goofiest cat you’ve ever seen while instructing you to swipe, scroll, and tilt to interact with videos and pictures of cute animals and newlyweds that’ll put you in a good mood.

The Atlantic‘s first piece, “For the Execution of Clayton Locket,” features a terrifying cinemagraph of a dripping syringe, priming you for a terrifying report on the complications of lethal injection.

National Geographic‘s inaugural effort, “Quest for a Superbee,” is filled with immersive cinemagraphs, videos, photos, and audio narration, creating possibly the most stunning mobile reading experience I’ve ever experienced.

And lastly, leveraging its excellent video team, The New York Times makes great use of autoplay videos to break “A Life in Motion, Stopped Cold,” into five parts.

These first articles are sick and crush everyone’s expectations.

5. Instant Articles will roll out slowly, at least at first.

While the group of publishers with access to Instant Articles is expected to expand quickly, according to the Times, don’t expect the floodgates to open completely. There’s a reason Facebook began the partnership with major news orgs that’ll take advantage of the technology in smart ways–they want the initial rollout to impress. And publishers seem to be keen to publish just a few pieces per week at first.

6. And brands looking to get involved will likely have to start with native advertising.

I don’t see Facebook opening up Instant Articles to brands anytime soon. After all, one of the big selling points here for publishers has to be the ease in creating premium native ad experiences for brands with a built-in distribution mechanism. Instant Article native ads double as an exclusive ad product for these publishers right now, and Facebook wants to keep them happy. They’re likely not going to turn around and give this technology to Uniliver or Virgin Atlantic tomorrow.

“Facebook really understood what would be important to us,” said BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman. “So instead of acting like someone who would dictate, they came to us and asked us what would be great for BuzzFeed.” For example, Coleman said, Facebook will allow BuzzFeed to upload its “sponsored posts” — BuzzFeed stories it creates on behalf of advertisers — into its “Instant Articles” format, and treat it just like any other story from any other publisher.

Also, click here to read 3 ways Facebook Instant Articles will be big for brands in the times to come.

7. But the Trojan Horse potential here is still huge.

Right now, Facebook is playing the part of the good Samaritan as much as possible. “We’re starting with something that we think is going to work for some publishers for some articles and for some business models,” Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, told the Times. “We’re not trying to go, like, suck in and devour everything.”

But consider this: The Times now receives 14 to 16 percent of its traffic from Facebook, which has doubled from a year ago. If Instant Articles live up to their potential, that figure could skyrocket—eviscerating the Times‘ leverage as it becomes more dependent on the social giant. Very quickly, the terms of engagement could change.

But as of right now, this looks like a great deal for publishers. This isn’t just a Trojan horse; this is a Trojan horse draped in gold chains and being ridden by Beyoncé. Even if you can see the outline of the hatch on the wooden belly, it’s hard not to open the gates.

Facebook trojan horse

Comic by Martin Kozlowski


Image by Jeff Chiu

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