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LinkedIn ‘Instant Articles’: Good News or Time for Platform Panic?

This past week brought a piece of news that felt totally inevitable. No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump being crowned the presumptive Republican nominee. I’m talking about LinkedIn launching its own version of Instant Articles.

According to BuzzFeed News, LinkedIn is exploring its own version of Instant Articles that will allow publishers and brands to post content directly on the social network. Trendy! If 2014 was about CrossFit and 2015 was about wearables, 2016 is all about platform consolidation and dominance.

LinkedIn was early to this game in 2012, when it started letting influencers like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, and Contently’s very own Shane Snow publish directly to its platform. These influencers used the exposure to build followings of hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, leaving many publishers wishing that LinkedIn would help them do the same. In that vein, the move would be a win-win. Publishers—desperate to expand their reach—will get another venue to serve up content. LinkedIn, meanwhile, will get free content to keep people on its site and, soon enough, tons of ad revenue from publishers looking to promote their posts.

It’s a no-brainer for LinkedIn, just as auto-play videos and Instant Articles were for Facebook, Discover was for Snapchat, and Google AMP and the recently launched Google Posts were for Google. As much as some publishers want to deny it, people don’t care where they get their content. They just want to get it fast and without the bother of crappy ads.

So hoorah, a new way to get content out there and reach people. Is it time to celebrate? Maybe not.

Platform panic

Understandably, a future in which we spend all our time and consume all of our content on a handful of social platforms makes people really nervous. I was on three panels two weeks ago at Collision, the fast-growing tech conference put on by the folks at WebSummit, and every conversation seemed to naturally gravitate to the reality that these apps are eating the open web, with an emphasis on Facebook.

“I’m a bit concerned about a future that’s completely controlled and dependent on something external,” said Adam Singolda, CEO of Taboola—a content recommendation platform heavily dependent on the open web—during a discussion about the future of content discovery platforms. Still, he admitted: “Media companies cannot completely go against Facebook. There’s a billion people. We have to be there.”

On that last point, media companies definitely agree. Facebook launched Instant Articles one year ago this week, and the product was met with skepticism, rejection, and existential crises. Today, many are going all-in Facebook’s native offerings, posting as many Instant Articles as possible while restructuring their teams so they can hire more people to create Facebook autoplay videos. For instance, Mashable laid off 30 staffers in April as part of a “strategic shift” toward video.

Critics like Digiday’s Lucia Moses have expressed serious doubts that this approach can work, particularly since there’s no clear way to generate significant revenue through Facebook videos yet. And even if Facebook does put ads against these videos in a way that works, Singolda noted that there’s just not enough premium impressions to go around for video to save most publishers. Instant Articles are garnering roughly the same CPMs as most publisher sites, but that alone probably won’t save anyone.

The same goes for LinkedIn. It’s a nice new platform for publishers, but it’s unlikely to change the underlying unit economics.

But brands!

The easiest answer to a lot of these questions go something like this: #brands!

Brands have a far less complex relationship with platforms than publishers do; they don’t want monetization, they just want reach. Brands are used to going through third parties to reach people—it used to be radio and TV, it’s also Facebook and sponsored listicles on BuzzFeed.

I’d wager that most publishers are hoping that if they boost their video operation, they can turn around and make videos for brands while taking home huge margins, thanks to the scale of autoplay video and Facebook ads. With Facebook video, you can easily spend less than $10,000 on production and promotion and still deliver over 200,000 views—which is the kind of package that some brands will pay six figures for. They can do the same thing with native ad Instant Articles. Call it the “Dear Kitten” model.

However, this isn’t a long-term solution. Brands and their agencies are already realizing that it’s cheaper to just create native Facebook content and push it out themselves, rather than go through a publisher as the middleman. That goes for LinkedIn, Google Posts, Instagram, and just about every other native publishing platform you can think of.

Ultimately, this dramatic and unstoppable move to platforms boils down to this: really good for brands that know what they’re doing, but a freaking minefield for publishers. Plan your panic accordingly.

Image by MMroz
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