Have you seen the links on Facebook with the little lightning bolt icon in the top right corner yet?
Tap the link and, woosh, the article swoops in from the right. It was quick and you didn’t have to leave the Facebook app. Scrolling is smooth, images, videos and ads fit perfectly, and liking or sharing is only tap away.
This is a Facebook Instant Article. Last year Facebook invited a handful of publishers to test Instant Articles. Today (Tuesday, April 12th, 2016) Facebook is opening the platform up to everyone.
Once you’re setup, publishing a post stores it in your Facebook library as an Instant Article (IA). When that post is shared (by you or anyone else), Facebook sees that it’s an IA and serves the quick, rich format rather than directing the reader to your website.
Instant Articles host several “rich media” elements that can fill out your reader’s experience. If you’re a photo blogger, images will fit perfectly, but you can also pin an image to where it was taken on a map, and readers can tap to see its full size and tilt their phone to pan across the image. You can also give photos an audio caption.
Social media posts can be embedded, videos can auto-play (or not), and maps can be interactive. Facebook doesn’t want you to feel limited by IA, so they’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make it a platform that serves up a high-quality storytelling experience.
Setting up that experience, however, requires some technical know-how on your part.
Setup Gets Technical
Facebook did their best to automate the process of publishing Instant Articles without removing you from your CMS. You can use the API Facebook developed for IA or you can use your RSS feed.
Both methods build your library of Instant Articles. The original link you published the article under is how Facebook recognizes the IA.
This avoids loading an separate browser page which can be time consuming and messy on mobile. But it also means you have to code each article so that Facebook recognizes it as an IA.
Using HTML5, Facebook created special tags to identify an IA. You have to use those special tags to tell Facebook about any rich elements in the article. This is where set up becomes technical.
Not only do you have the process of registering as a publisher with Facebook, you have to define how you want your articles to be styled. That means a lot of testing and debugging in the beginning, which has to be done within the Facebook Page app. Once setup is complete, you have to submit 50 articles to Facebook for review. They will work with you to make sure the Instant Articles platform is working for you.
After the review team has approved you as a publisher, every article you publish after that will be coded as an IA, ready for speedy delivery.
You Can Still Monetize and Measure
Ads are welcomed in the IA environment. You can directly sell your own ad space, of which you get 100% of the revenue, or you can employ the Facebook Audience Network to serve ads.
Because IA doesn’t redirect to your website, many publishers risk loosing ad revenue. So Facebook made ads integral to Instant Articles. Of course you have to have a Facebook Ads account, but if you’re already advertising on Facebook, that’s not a problem.
Keeping readers in the Facebook app presents another issue, publishers loose traffic to their website and the ability to measure their readers’ movements and responses.
Facebook uses “Insights” for metrics, but you can fully integrate most analytics platforms (Google Analytics, comScore, etc.). Every tap on an IA is considered a visitor to your website.
You can get some deep statistics for each article: read time, scroll depth, image taps, video plays, likes, comments, shares, etc. Plus you can see, in real-time, how many people are reading each article and how they’re interacting with it.
An article’s rank in the News Feed isn’t affected by IA. However, Facebook ranks articles by the amount of interaction and time spent in the article. Ideally, if IA provides readers with a fun experience, it can increase the performance of your articles in Facebook’s app.
But What Does It Mean?
The reading experience is a big deal. Supplying readers with a quick and rich reading environment makes the content more enjoyable. It solves a lot of typical mobile issues, like long load times and poor organization.
Facebook also gets to control its user’s reading environment. They can now dictate what is style is acceptable for articles shared through their platform. It’s a smart move that keeps users in their app (as if we didn’t spend enough time on Facebook already).
Adding ads makes it easy to monetize. You can still track traffic, although, traffic isn’t being funneled to your website. This is troublesome if traffic is the goal of your content. Placing links and your own “ads” in the content to lead readers back to your website quickly fixes that.
Instant Articles equalizes the playing field, in the Facebook app, anyway. Smaller blogs can now offer the same high quality content experience that major publishers can. And Facebook gets to tap into even more user data. It could also expand their ad network – if you’re not serving up your own ads, it’s easy to employ Facebook’s Audience Network.
If you follow the Huffington Post, the New York Times, or Vox, then you know how attractive Instant Articles are. For smaller publishers, the setup may be a significant hurdle, but the value of the reading experience will out weigh initial friction.
Facebook has competition though. Apple is doing something similar with “News,” an app to replace “Newsstand” and provide the same quick, rich reading environment as IA. Google has developed AMP (Accelerated Mobil Pages) to do the same thing from Google search results and Google Plus.
This is all good news for us as readers, but as publishers, it means keeping up with a lot more platforms and expectations.