The only game in town: Why the Washington Post is pushing all its content to Facebook Instant Articles

The Washington Post announced on Tuesday that it will be pushing 100 percent of its content to Facebook Instant Articles, sparking debate about whether it had essentially made a deal with a devil or a sound decision that will speed its growth.

One quote in the accompanying press release from Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan is especially illuminating about why the Post has chosen to go all-in on Instant Articles:

«The Post has seen explosive growth in readership over the past year, particularly on mobile phones and among Millennials.

«Working with partners like Facebook allows us to further attract and engage those readers.»

And writing for re/code Peter Kafka makes plain the extent to which the Post is diving into Instant Articles [emphasis ours]:

«If you wanted to, you could read the Post’s entire output — some 1,200 articles a day, including wire stories — without ever leaving Mark Zuckerberg’s app.

«For context: Up until today, Facebook says, the nine publishers it has already signed on have been publishing “hundreds” of articles daily, a number Facebook says has been left up to the discretion of each publisher.»

As a legacy publisher the Post faces the ubiquitous problem of growing its digital offering til it can compensate for falling print revenues. It’s launched numerous initiatives to that end, from partnerships with local publishers to its six-month trial as an add-on for Amazon Prime which could see it reach an estimated 60 – 80 million additional people.

So it’s certain that the Post’s joining Instant Articles is another attempt to grow its digital audience by reaching an audience it otherwise wouldn’t have. But why post all of its content to Instant Articles?

Does that not devalue the Post’s identity, since readers won’t necessarily associate the content with the brand? And isn’t there the danger that this is a quick fix for publishers’ need for audience growth that could be negated if Facebook were to tweak its algorithms to their detriment?

The answer to the above questions is ‘possibly’. But what is 100 percent, cast-iron certain is that when it comes to making money on mobile Facebook is pretty much the only game in town for publishers – and mobile is where most of us spend our time.
Mobile world

Most of the UK’s biggest news publishers are now seeing the greater proportion of traffic on their sites coming from mobile devices. When we first reported on this in June I noted that while mobile traffic is additive to overall site visits, it’s now clear that people are actually spending more time on mobile – and especially within apps.

Deepa Setharman writing for Wall Street Journal points out [emphasis mine]:

«ComScore said mobile phones now account for 62% of all time spent online. Within that total, the research firm said 44% of time is spent on smartphone apps, up from 33% two years earlier. Mobile users spend more than 70% of their time in smartphone apps, dwarfing time spent on tablet apps and mobile websites.»

And eight out of the ten apps in which people spend most time are Facebook and Google-owned – with Facebook itself absolutely dominating:


Image courtesy of comScore data via Deepa Setharman

And even though there’s variance in how different age groups actually spend that time, whether it’s on the Facebook app itself or a Facebook-owned app like Messenger or Instagram… Facebook wins either way.

And it’s that utter control of where users spend time online that allows Facebook to similarly control a huge amount of mobile ad revenue. In 2014 alone it had around 22 percent of all mobile advertising spend, and as predictions that it seeks to erode Google’s larger proportion to its own benefit seem to be coming true, there’s no reason that proportion couldn’t increase.

Even as the size of Facebook’s slice of the pie grows, mobile ad spend has huge potential to grow too. The medium is critically undervalued when it comes to ad spend vs. time spent at the moment…

Meeker Ad Gap

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…and mobile ad spend is indeed set to grow over a third year-on-year in 2015. Whichever way you slice it, Facebook is going to be raking it in on mobile for some time – and the Washington Post wants a piece of that spend. 70 percent of ad revenue served by Facebook against the Post’s content will go straight into its pocket – or 100 percent if it uses its own ad solution. And the press release notes that «Qualcomm is the first advertiser to buy an advertising package from The Washington Post that includes impressions on Facebook Instant Articles.»

Speaking at the last news:rewired conference in London, Emily Bell, director of Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, said of publishing to Instant Articles:

«We’ll all be able to know are whether we’re making more money. The dilemma of ‘how do we deal with the frenemies’ will devolve into two parts. If it is financially advantageous for publishers they will just do it, I have no doubt about that.»

So Bezos’ Washington Post has presumably decided that all the above factors are worth the loss of control over content that comes with publishing to Instant Articles.

The only truly notable wrinkle about this news is that the Post is putting all its content on Instant Articles. But that, too, makes sense if you look at the trends that have led Facebook to be so dominant in the mobile ad space. More articles published to Instant Articles means – at least in theory – more time spent with the Post’s content overall, and more ad revenue as a result.

In a lot of ways, it’s the natural endpoint to what Emily Bell and many others have been predicting. Publishers are largely dependent on third parties like Facebook to distribute their content now, at least if they want to chase huge audiences as the Post evidently does. There’s no retreating from that position now.

And the Post won’t be alone in that 100 percent commitment to Instant Articles. As Facebook expands the number of publishers with access to the scheme, we’ll more than likely see the majority of newcomers doing just the same.

from @chrismsutcliffe