Back in 2015, Facebook introduced Instant Articles. It was a seminal moment—or at least, it was supposed to be. After years of hot takes and hand-wringing, including from yours truly, what was once supposed to revolutionize digital content has instead been something of a dud.
The Guardian, which used to turn every piece it published into an Instant Article, is now completely abandoning the format. According to Digiday, other publishers such as the BBC, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and National Geographic have also scaled back their efforts.
Instant Articles—and other similar formats such as Apple News, Facebook Video, LinkedIn native publishing, and Google AMP—promise speed and user-friendliness in exchange for hosting the content. The result was meant to benefit both sides: Publishers and brands could create better experiences for their audience (and more engagement), while tech companies could keep users on their platforms.
In some ways, the movement has been successful. Google AMP is widely used, though it has come with a few hitches. Despite some early skepticism, many publishers now tout the benefits of Apple News. And native video formats like Facebook Video are all but required to succeed. (When was the last time you saw a publisher link to an external video service on Facebook?)
But what about brands? We argued in the past that brands had little to lose by embracing native publishing. Most of the hesitation from media companies stemmed from ad load and a lack of options for calls-to-action. Brand publishers don’t have to worry about running ads, and many CTAs (such as subscriptions) have been added. Google AMP, Instant Articles, and their ilk require a bit more up-front work than simply posting links, but the potential for engagement is higher.
Despite these advantages, new original research from a Contently survey shows that brands aren’t rushing to use these new formats.
Overall, 76 percent of brands either don’t use the formats, don’t know what they are, or only use them occasionally. Considering that this includes every major native format, those aren’t great numbers. The usage numbers drop even more when you break down respondents by industry. For example, only 9 percent of senior marketers from more traditional industries (finance, insurance, B2B, healthcare, and energy) use native formats.
That’s not too surprising. Most brands and publishers avoiding native publishing aren’t just producing content for clicks; they want to create loyalty and gather customer data, whether that’s for an eventual subscription or a long sales cycle.
Brands also have another method to getting their content in front of an audience: paid distribution. According to our survey, only 15 percent of senior marketers disagree (or strongly disagree) that paid content distribution is critical to their success.
As platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Google continue to curtail organic reach, and as competition between content producers heats up, many are turning to paid content distribution. Improved targeting features, such as LinkedIn’s new B2B functionality, have also made paid social distribution more effective than ever.
However, brands still don’t have a handle on how to show that this distribution is truly effective.
Even though a number of current martech tools promise to track and optimize content distribution, senior marketers appear to be nonplussed about their effectiveness. In fact, of respondents who have content marketing software, 69 percent use it for content distribution, which was the most popular answer. (“Measuring content” came in second, with 61 percent.)
It’s obvious there’s an opportunity here for martech companies. Thus far, it seems existing tools tend to focus on metrics like shares, clicks, and views, which appeal most to publishers funded by ads. But according to our survey, “lead generation” and “direct revenue” were rated the one and two most important content metrics. So a tool that manages to address those needs would fill a crucial function in most marketing departments.
Native publishing may have cooled off, but the focus on distribution is just starting to heat up.