Two weeks ago, a select group of media companies started publishing Instant Articles on Facebook, causing an earthquake through the media industry so powerful and catastrophic that the illuminati had to summon The Rock to fight it. (See footage below.)
I’m not going to lie—I contributed a bit to the hysteria when I broke down the 7 things you need to know about Facebook Instant Articles. I believe my exact words were “This isn’t just a Trojan horse; this is a Trojan horse draped in gold chains and being ridden by Beyoncé.” And if that sounds kind of awesome to you, well, that’s because it is. This is a great deal for publishers (for the moment): The early Facebook Instant Articles are gorgeous, interactive pieces of mobile content, and Facebook is handing over all the ad revenue if publishers sell their own ads.
But what’s less clear is what this means for brands. Facebook has only opened up this technology to nine publishers in the world so far; there’s little chance marketers will get access to the technology this year. But that doesn’t mean Instant Articles are irrelevant for brands. Nothing about Facebook is irrelevant for brands, especially when it’s a powerful mobile technology like this.
Now, I don’t like to wildly speculate but… who are we kidding, I love to wildly speculate! Let’s look at three ways Instant Articles will impact the marketing world.
Imminent: Instant Article ad units
Instant Article display ad units are far from sexy, but they could prove important. While publishers can sell their own ads on Instant Articles and keep 100 percent of the revenue, they can also let Facebook sell the ads for them and still take home a 70 percent cut.
But as Jack Marshall detailed in The Wall Street Journal, publishers are notoriously terrible at selling mobile ads; meanwhile, Facebook has an unparalleled (and mildly frightening) prowess in tracking user behavior and interest across devices, as well as ultimately serving the right message to the right people.
“It’s possible Facebook could generate a whole lot more revenue by selling the ads,” writes Marshall, “and 70% of that larger number may wind up the better outcome for publishers.”
If Instant Articles take off and publishers opt to start selling ad space through Facebook, advertisers will find themselves able to not only target Times readers, but a very specific type of Times reader—say, a 35-year-old executive who likes ad tech and kayaking. If that sounds appealing, check out MarketingLand’s great breakdown on the nitty-gritty of the ad units.
Very soon: Native advertising
Facebook had to hustle for darn-near a year to quell publishers’ doubts about publishing on Facebook, and I believe a big selling point was native advertising. Right now, the nine publishers with access to Instant Articles can offer advertisers a powerful mobile branded content experience that no one else can.
If National Geographic, BuzzFeed, and the Times are already charging six figures for native articles, what will they be able to charge for an interactive, gorgeous piece of sponsored content that’s sure to generate tons of press?
In Re/code’s report, BuzzFeed sure sounded pumped about the possibilities:
“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.
Great for BuzzFeed indeed. And great for brands, too—potentially. Even if the price tag for a Sponsored Instant Article is hefty, a supremely strong story on the level of what T Brand Studio has been producing could be worth it when combined with the Instant Articles experience.
2016? Facebook opens the gates
I have a hard time seeing Facebook jeopardize their relationships with publishers in the near future by giving brands access to Instant Articles. But in the longer term, it’s not hard to see Zuckerberg and co. embracing a deep-pocketed brand that doubles as a serious publisher—such as Red Bull, GE, or Marriott—and giving them access to Instant Articles. Of course, this kind of deal would probably require a massive distribution deal, or perhaps a straight tech-licensing arrangement.
(Full disclosure: GE and Marriott are Contently clients.)
Alternatively, if publishers eschew Instant Articles or merely give it a lukewarm response, Facebook could turn Instant Articles into a brand-focused product fairly quickly. But I have a hard time seeing that happening—especially when you consider how much publishers are clamoring to get access to the technology.
Ultimately, it’s the Facebook masses that’ll determine what the future holds. As the timeless wisdom of The Rock tells us: “You’ve got to keep your finger on the pulse of what your audience is thinking, and know what they’ll accept from you.”
Update: GE—or, at least, GE Reports Managing Editor Tomas Kellner—is really into the idea of publishing on Facebook: