Hyperlocal news site Billy Penn shares insights from Instant Articles ramp-up

By Chris Krewson

Billy Penn

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


As the first local publisher on Facebook’s Instant Articles, we’re excited to join large-scale news organisations and publishers like The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Slate, and many more who are embracing this trend.

We’re Billy Penn though — a very small team covering a very big city, with a much smaller staff and a strategy that doesn’t rely on a large number of stories published every day. We’re also working with a product team of two people: one product manager and one developer.

So our challenge to implement Instant Articles was actually fairly large: it required bending all our development resources to this new publishing platform, and pushing off a few projects we already had in the works.

We decided to do this when we learned that Facebook was partnering with publishers to make it easier for users to find news.

When our news site has done well, Facebook has been a huge driver. It allowed people to start conversations around our articles, introduced us to a much broader audience than we’d be able to otherwise reach, and an ongoing goal of ours is to make consuming news easier for readers.

This goal is reflected in everything from our editorial strategy to our mobile-first design.

But the experience of getting to an external site from Facebook can be, from a user’s perspective, not good. 

Instant Articles, for those who haven’t seen them in action, are Facebook’s way of optimising a publisher’s content when it’s accessed within Facebook’s mobile app on Android and iPhone. A small lightning bolt in the upper right-hand corner of the story’s featured image indicates that it’s an Instant Article.

The advantage of this, for publishers, is that the article loads … instantly!

Instant Articles engages users with full-length articles, without ever leaving the Facebook app.
Instant Articles engages users with full-length articles, without ever leaving the Facebook app.

For us, Instant Articles was actually a blessing. We launched Billy Penn in October 2014, but hadn’t really systematically cleaned up the way we handled many publishing tasks, from standardising the way our bylines displayed to the way we handled embedded media from places like YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter.

The Instant Articles requirements wound up making those elements display much more cleanly and easily on BillyPenn.com, and we found opportunities along the way to streamline some of our back-end tasks.

We also standardised the way we produce photos, upgrading their size and more consistently choosing horizontal images to feature on our stories. The majority of our audience visits us via mobile phones, so that’s a better experience for everyone.

There’s a significant time investment to ramp up Instant Articles. I think Facebook tells potential publishers it should take about a month of development work, but that much of this time is spent waiting for your site’s feed to be reviewed on their end.

It took around six weeks for Billy Penn to make it through. We’re still working with developers at Facebook to iron out a few post-launch kinks.

We published our first Facebook Instant Article on February 8, 2016. Since then, every article we’ve published on the site has automatically published in that way. (We publish three to four articles per weekday; fewer on the weekends.)

We’re already a fairly quick-loading site, especially among news sites in Philadelphia, and we weren’t looking to beat any one particular site to the platform. So Instant Articles doesn’t necessarily give us an edge in that regard.

However, we were happy to work more easily on something where so many people spend so much time, and our small staff size allows us to experiment with tools like this one more easily than other newsrooms can.

It’s too early to tell how well we’ll wind up doing on Instant Articles. We have seen a boost some days, in mobile audience and in shares, which is consistent with what other publishers have experienced. But as with anything else, in order for your content to be shared, it needs to be worth sharing.

So our approach hasn’t changed — just the way our news is delivered.

About Chris Krewson

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