An inside look at Facebook’s Instant Articles

By Xavier van Leeuwe

NRC Media

Amsterdam, The Netherlands


In complete Facebook style, Instant Articles will be rocketing from a beta version to a full-fledged product available to every publisher in a couple of weeks’ time.

One of the first to have access to Facebook Instant Articles in the Netherlands is Mindshakes, a fast-growing Dutch platform that aims to bring quality journalism that truly touches readers.

I took a look behind the scenes with editor-in-chief Ward Wijndelts and asked him some questions about the product seven days after the introduction of Instant Articles.

Facebook’s Instant Articles offer yet another way for readers to view online content.
Facebook’s Instant Articles offer yet another way for readers to view online content.

What is the benefit for your readers?

“Our audience consists mainly of Millennials. Nearly all our readers are under 24 years old. And eight out of 10 reads us through the mobile app of Facebook. More than 85% use iOs, the rest use Android. That means that 80% of our users now have a much better experience with Mindshakes content.”

How do you measure that?

“I can see that readers dive deeper into the articles, because the scrolling experience is excellent. There is no delay. The scroll depth is almost always more than 75%, even 94% with shorter articles. There is also a slight increase in time spent per article. We are monitoring if this trend continues in the coming weeks.

Millennials are thrilled, that’s for sure: ‘When I see a thunderbolt, I tap it sooner.’ We do not necessarily see more clicks, because it still depends on the strength of your content. That’s the way it was. And that’s how it will remain.”

How does Instant Articles actually work?

“It used to be like this: If you tapped on one of our articles within the Facebook app, a layer of the Safari browser would come over your screen and load our Web site in our own design. Now the items are already loaded as you scroll through your timeline.

There is a cost for the user. It consumes data. But they load a very unsophisticated version of the image and the text, so the data is very limited. Now the 15 seconds it took to load that page have completely vanished. Our content appears really fast.

The good news is our page count is not changing. We also send a Google Analytics script so the Instant Article is considered a full view on our very own Web site. You still have to tap. I expect readers will experience a lower threshold to tap. That seems to be taking place on our site anyway.”

You had access to Facebook Articles Instant in November. Why is it only live in March?

“Make no mistake: We stepped into a beta and things can change. It’s something we already knew.

At first I spent a lot of time uploading 100 articles into the Instant Article content management system. You have to upload at least 100 articles. Later we were told an RSS feed was mandatory. So we needed to have that built, which can be quite a challenge for small publishers. That took time.

By now Facebook is checking every three minutes to see if there is a change in the RSS. I like the way they have built that. In the future, publishers will have an easier time thanks to the WordPress plugin for Instant Articles. It automatically adjusts your RSS feed so you easily build a working flow of Instant Articles.

We went live seven days ago. The Dutch public broadcaster NOS, our local BBC, was just a few weeks ahead of us. The size of the organisation doesn’t matter. Everyone was dealing with a small puzzle, apparently.” 

Analytics show that scroll depth in Instant Articles is almost always more than 75%.
Analytics show that scroll depth in Instant Articles is almost always more than 75%.

What about ads?

It’s simple. You can do two things. Place ads yourself, which is what we do, or you can choose to add Instant Article ads from Facebook. Its really easy. You just enter your account number, sign an online tax form, and Facebook will sell the ads for you. I think it’s great.”

Can those ads be blocked?

No, because youre in the Facebook application. However, Instant Articles only accepts formats that are not intrusive and download quickly.

Why did you not go with Facebook Ads?

Foreign publishers tell us that advertising revenues have declined after the introduction, probably because of lower CPM rates used by Facebook. We have to wait and see if thats the case for us. We’re all exploring here. You can always choose between your own ads and Facebook ads. Also, the inventory you don’t sell can be supplemented by Facebook ads.

So you can also coexist without having to choose. Facebook Ads will give you 100% of the revenue.

Why Facebook would do that?

Facebook loves people to stay in the app, I guess. They don’t disappear from the timeline to your Web site. The New York Times occasionally skips Instant Articles because they want people to hit their paywall. That is a great disadvantage of Instant Articles. There is no metered paywall. But Facebook will pretty soon solve that.

Any other wishes?

The product has been designed to be very simple, and rightly so. You keep your own identity by using your own fonts, and you upload a title, an article, and a picture, but the rest is still quite standard. Animated GIFs do not work yet. I handpick those items from the RSS feed for Instant Articles, and direct them to my own Web site.

Facebook does not accept your branded articles either, so I have to filter those, too. Thats a pity. I lose content that is embedded in my Web site. I expect Facebook will develop those features. 

Back to those ads. Can individual writers make money by placing their articles on Facebook?

Yes, thats right. Facebook will find advertisers for you.

That could start a revolution.

Well, for the time being only publishers are accepted. Although it is very neat that you can make money on content without selling ads yourself, YouTube-style. Facebook decides who is and who is not a publisher.

HTTPS required for video

Lara Ankersmit, head of digital media of the Dutch public broadcaster NOS, ran into another issue. The feed was not that difficult, Ankersmit says. What turned out to be a problem is the company’s hosting party does not support HTTPS, which is what Facebook requires for safety reasons.

NOS had to create a separate feed for Instant Articles. Therefore, there was some discussion back and forth between the television broadcaster and Facebook about what, exactly, it could and could not offer. In the end, NOS put everything through except video items that require HTTPS.

33% more time spent

Moving abroad, my namesake Xavier Grangier of French news organisation Libération sees no change in mobile unique visitors. However, he now understands that 40% of the visits are in Instant Articles, while 60% are on the site.

What has changed is that readers spend 33% more time on Instant Articles than on the mobile site (4:40 minutes per item instead of 3:30 minutes), due to the better customer experience and good layout, Grangier says.

Libération runs all the ads on Facebooks Audience Network. Its eCPM is US$1.80 and long articles have more than one ad. The fill rates are high and clicks are normal. Finally, the increase in Facebook followers is increasing by 10% for Libération.

Facebook Instant Articles seems to not only drive new audiences, but also creates recurring reach. I find that very encouraging.

About Xavier van Leeuwe

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