As social networking has taken over the web, and users no longer visit publishers' homepages to find news, Facebook has become a primary funnel for readers, pointing you, your friends, and your family to articles like this one.
Today, Facebook is taking that idea to its next logical conclusion. The company launched Instant Articles, a publishing platform that lives natively on Facebook, and will host stories by an elite group of launch partners: the New York Times, BuzzFeed, National Geographic, NBC and The Atlantic. Facebook will allow these publishers to sell their own ads on the service and to brand their content through typeface, color, and layout. But the stories will live on Facebook.
For publishers, the temptations are clear. Facebook has created a platform of unrivaled multimedia competence at a time when publishers are struggling to keep up as print gives way to GIFs, video, and interactives. (Then of course, there are the financial incentives, or more accurately, the pointlessness of competing with Facebook for readers' eyeballs. How could any publisher compete with the very platform that it has become dependent on for its own revenue?)
Just look at how seamlessly Facebook embedded videos stream in your news feed, luring you to watch without ever clicking play. Facebook is bringing that same sort of approach to Instant Articles. The articles will feature full-bleed videos embedded in articles, the ability to tap and hear audio captions, the option to tilt around images, and a simple way to tap an image to see where it’s from.
Call it the Snowfall effect. The New York Times ran a story you might have seen in 2012, with full-bleed video and animated maps embedded right on the page. It was a gorgeous, watershed moment that teased the future of publishing. But there were two problems. Few publishers could duplicate it if they wanted to because few publishers have the resources to do so. And it was so beautiful that most of us didn’t actually read the story (admit it), and instead chose to scroll through to see the next magic trick.
As Facebook makes these experiences more common, maybe users will grow accustomed enough to the visuals to actually read the stories, or maybe they’ll just cut back on reading. Which is why it’s worth keeping in mind that this is just the version one rollout. You could imagine Facebook investing more into the interactive side of things, making polls and touchable infographics run natively, too. Whether visitors are reading, looking, or tapping, Facebook has incredible incentive here: To, as the industry puts it, "engage" people longer—which should translate to more revenue for Facebook. And with Instant Articles, Facebook is removing a big reason you might ever leave their service.
As for publishers, they already get about 25% of their referral traffic from Facebook. Instant Articles will only make the industry more dependent on the social network for ad revenue. But what will happen if every news organization and magazine buys into the platform, and then Facebook decides that the Atlantic or the New York Times can't sell its own ads? Instant Articles will allow Facebook to own the publishing industry without ever buying it.
Instant Articles are launching on the iPhone Facebook app. See more here.