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October 21, 2022updated 24 Jan 2023 1:23pm

Meta to end Facebook Instant Articles after seven years as drive away from news continues

By Charlotte Tobitt

Meta is turning off Facebook Instant Articles after seven years as the platform continues to draw away from supporting news publishers.

But the mood in the industry does not appear to be one of sadness or surprise.

The Instant Articles format, which is currently optional for publishers, allows news links to open in a quicker-to-load, mobile-friendly format within the Facebook app rather than readers having to wait for an external website to load.

The switch-off, which will come in mid-April, follows reports that Meta plans to stop paying publishers to include their content in the Facebook News tab.

The tech giant has repeatedly said users want to see less news and political content on their feeds and that they are spending more time consuming video content, particularly in short-form formats like Reels and Stories.

[Read more: Why news publishers are positive about Instagram’s shift to video]

A Meta spokesperson said: “Currently less than 3% of what people around the world see in Facebook’s feed are posts with links to news articles. And as we said earlier this year, as a business it doesn’t make sense to over-invest in areas that don’t align with user preferences.”

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After April, article links will send users to publishers’ own websites rather than keeping them within the Facebook app. This will mean they will monetise their Facebook traffic by their website programmatic or in-house advertising rather than the current options: in Instant Articles, publishers can either sell all their own advertising and keep the revenue, or allow Facebook to fill the spaces and keep an estimated 70% of the income.

Publishers will still separately be able to monetise video content on Facebook using in-stream ads.

[The news industry’s $1bn question: Is Meta about to unfriend journalism?]

Publishers and Facebook Instant Articles

Instant Articles launched with several initial partners in the US in 2015 and in the UK the following year.

But by 2017 some backlash had begun, with The Guardian pulling out due to what then-chief executive David Pemsel described as “woeful” financial returns. The publisher decided it would be more worthwhile to send readers through to its own site, where it could benefit from both its own advertising and by encouraging readers to contribute financially.

A Guardian News and Media spokesperson said at the time its “primary objective is to bring audiences to the trusted environment of the Guardian to support building deeper relationships with our readers…”

The New York Times also decided against using Instant Articles in 2017 after deciding monetisation and subscription sign-ups were both better when users clicked through to its own site. Others with similar viewpoints, as reported by Digiday, included Hearst, Forbes and Quartz.

Others, however, remained keen on the format. Last year Reach, the UK’s largest commercial news publisher, revealed the results of a “business-defining” experiment at flagship regional the Liverpool Echo that showed Instant Articles get seen by almost a third more readers than stories not using the mobile-friendly format.

Reach also benefited from newsletter subscribers who signed up using a “call to action” button option added to Instant Articles in 2019.

The journey away from the fast-loading Instant Articles follows publishers increasingly ditching Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) on Google in the past year after the search giant made it no longer compulsory to use the format to rank in its most competitive spots.

Industry reaction to demise of Facebook Instant Articles

Richard Reeves, managing director at the Association of Online Publishers, said: “I don’t think the announcement will have been a great surprise to publishers, with the importance of Instant Articles having been very much in decline over the last year – along with Meta’s audiences more generally.

“Although the format has been a source of discovery for some, publishers have largely migrated away more recently to focus their resources on other platforms, for example Instagram, which have established themselves as more effective vehicles to support audience development strategies.”

 

Social media expert Matt Navarra, who _____, told Press Gazette:

The social media landscape has shifted significantly since Facebook launched Instant Articles for news publishers in 2015. In the past seven years we’ve seen the arrival of new, popular content formats such as Stories and short-form video. We’ve seen you platforms explode in popularity such as TikTok. There has also been huge rise in internet browsing speeds and global connectivity. These changes have eroded the core value and purpose of IAs for both news publishers and Facebook. It’s therefore unsurprising to see Meta ceasing support for them in 2023.

News publishers have always had a volatile relationship with Facebook. Publishers were never very happy about ceding so much control and audience data to Facebook in order to use IAs. And for an uncomfortably long period of time after they first launched, they were buggy, prone to issues, and often hard to get Facebook’s help to resolve problems. The proprietary format just gave news publishers another things that sucked up their development team’s time managing, and offered only limited upsides. Facebook was known for massively over hyping new features or tools it pestered news publishers to adopt or invest resources in during this period. And they nearly always produced inconsistent or disappointing results. However, Facebook’s role in content distribution on the social web was / is so large, most publishers could not easily dismiss implementation of things like IA. The potential reach of content on Facebook is just too huge to ignore. Some publishers will have benefited from the Ad Network integrations IA’s offered, but I’d imagine the loss will easily be muted by the gains made switching back to direct site traffic.

I suspect most publishers will not be shedding a tear over news of IAs demise. Whilst it may create some additional work for them remove IAs integrations, the upside of direct traffic to their sites and one less platform specific format will be good news.

Picture: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

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