Up till now, interactive stories like that of The New York Times Snowfall have been out of reach for many publishers and brands, not just because of the usual research and writing time, but the tech it took to develop. For many publishers who felt they needed to justify this sort of spend, it was simply a step too far, nice to look at, but unattainable. Even those who take the hours and effort to produce these stories don’t make too many of them.
It was always going to take a major player to make this kind of interactive story easier to produce and more available to the masses, and so, Facebook’s (who else?) newish feature Instant Articles, has done exactly that…for mobiles.
Mass mobile storytelling
With a little code understandable to most laymen and web managers, articles on your website can be optimised so that, when read through Facebook using a mobile (Facebook for iPhone Version 30.0 and above and iOS 7.0 and above), they provide a beautiful scrolling experience, with features such as videos autoplay, interactive maps, tap to expand and tilt to explore as well as super fast loading time. You don’t have to physically post it either, Instant Articles is essentially a glorified RSS grabber. There’s just one catch. While it’s your article and your branding, your users are actually reading your content from inside Facebook.
Previously taken up by nine publishers, including The National Geographic, Facebook has now partnered up with even more media outlets, such as The Daily Mail and Mashable. Pretty soon, we hope to be able to take advantage of it too. Most users won’t have seen this form of article yet since you need a fairly new iPhone to view. But Facebook has revealed it’ll make Instant Articles compatible with Android shortly.
Facebook has also promised that publishers will still get the traffic metrics they do on their own sites, providing they’re using a third party tracker such as Google Analytics and, crucially, all ad revenue through Instant Article will still go to the publisher. So the benefits for Facebook aren’t clear yet but, as it eyes world domination, you can bet there will be a way of monetising it at some point.
The thing is, none of this matters for brands. Why? Consider the fact that right now, when a user clicks on your article in their newsfeed and goes to your site they can wait up to eight seconds (or more) for your article, your pictures and your videos to load – if they manage it at all. Your user is like a goldfish, as you know, and will likely give up if he or she doesn’t make it to the site on time. And the ones that do? They’ll see the mobile version of your article, if you have one. They make have to click around within the article to look at your picture gallery too, and maybe press play on the video. It’s exhausting, right? It’s exhausting even typing this out, assuming you’ve read this far.
So is winter coming for publishers?
When Instant Article was first revealed, it received mixed reviews, with publishers worrying about their websites becoming graveyards of content. A bit like the old music album and Spotify effect, they worried users would start to consume random articles taken only from Facebook, and never actually visit their website again. This is rubbish. Google searches and other referrals will still take people to websites and websites should still serve those long leads – Instant Articles is just the scenic route. And why not allow people to take it?
You are not King Canute
The truth is, it’s been happening for a while anyway, with or without Facebook taking all the glory. Users typically read one or two of your articles in one go, and quite often drop off and find some other news source to browse. Or Facebook.
But, FYI, mine is already made up for two reasons.
1. As a forward-thinking marketer of new frontiers (OK, maybe I’m overshooting myself, but heck) I’m always thinking about the user. And the user is still on Facebook. As long as your audience is using Facebook, you can’t really afford to boycott it.
2. … Especially as the user experience on Instant Articles is just patently better. If you have a wonderful, interactive story for telling, why wouldn’t you use the best platform available to you? If your website isn’t yet up to the job, then let Facebook do it for you.
There’s a golden rule I like to stick to when considering any disruptive tech or new thing in digital marketing, and that is simply – does it benefit the user? So far, it looks like it does – so you may as well work out how to do it and then make it work for you too. It’s not available yet for everyone, but when it is – we’ll be there.
For more information, check out Facebook’s dev blogs.
And if you can get hold of a new iPhone, check out this page, and scroll down to the the National Geographic’s bee feature. Compare that to the desktop version and weep, my friends. If you can’t do that, just watch this video.