Facebook will now automatically post news from its partners, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds
Facebook Inc. (FB) today quietly began to roll out a major change to how its homepage works, one that sent ripples through the news industry. The apparent goal of the change is to monetize the sharing of news on its social network. To that end Facebook has created a new piece of News Feed filler dubbed “Instant Articles”. This promoted content gets injected directly into your homepage News Feed. And while those of you with ad block may not notice it at all (as it will likely be filtered out), to others it will represent a significant new wrinkle to Facebook advertising approach.
I. Mass Market? Try a Billion Potential Readers
News on Facebook isn’t anything new and revolutionary in and of itself. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center reported that 30 percent of Americans get their news on the site.
Also not really new is Facebook putting stuff in your News Feed (the homepage stream where your friends’ posts (mostly those of your closest friends and family) show up. A key piece of Facebook’s monetization strategy has long involved injecting ads into the stream. Most controversially in 2013 it rolled out autoplay video advertising to the feed. And at times Facebook has gone to even more bizarre lengths, such as manipulating a handful of users’ feeds in a psychological experiment last June. And Facebook even suggested auto-generated “Related News” links when it came to organically shared news.
But there are some key differences between the new feature and Facebook’s past site policies and strategy.
Facebook’s News Feed will now directly promoted content of a handful of privileged partners.
Most notably, news on Facebook has traditionally been organically shared by (quasi) independent parties — your friends. Presumably Facebook isn’t paying your friends anything to repost news stories they like and presumably your friends are paying Facebook to promote those posts. Even when it came to the Related News links, it appeared that Facebook was drawing much, if not all, the suggestions from articles it had spied being organically shared on the site. Hence to some degree that suggestion list was at worst lightly curated and somewhat source-agnostic.
While large news networks sometimes buy ad space and promote articles via ads, those plugs were always visually distinct from the organically shared news from your friends. Now that is no longer the case.
Under the new strategy Facebook will play the role of your friend sharing content. One problematic aspect, though, is that it’s only sharing (at present) content from a select handful of partners:
Buzzfeed (Jonah Peretti’s NYC-based, venture-capital-backed viral news blog)
National Geographic (nonprofit w/ a focus on educational news and photography)
NBC News (part of NBCUniversal, a wholly owned subsidiary of Comcast Corp. (CMCSA))
The New York Times (flagship paper of The New York Times Comp. (NYT))
And therein lies part of the rub.
For now Facebook has agreed to push only the news stories of this select inner circle. And while the program may someday expand to encompass other news sites, that means that for the time being four news outlets will be getting the awesome boost of having their content promoted ubiquitously to Facebook’s 1.4 billion plus active users worldwide (or the English speaking portion of those users, at least). With 83 percent of its users living in the U.S. or Canada (and thus presumably speaking English relatively well), Facebook has the power to put news in front of more than 1.1 billion English-language readers.
Most wouldn’t have a major issue with promoting news from an esteemed nonprofit like National Geographic. And many wouldn’t even have a problem with promoting an aged and (typically) reliable pillar of the news business such as The New York Times.
The controversy will likely largely revolve around the promotion of Buzzfeed and Comcast’s NBC — media sources with far more controversial reputations and who are known at times to engage in self-promoting sensationalism. And aside from the character of the content, many will also take issue with NBC‘s reported political bias/leanings (eh, News Corp. (NWS) Fox News, crowd?).
II. Curation vs. Aggregation
And aside from questions of the source there’s bigger questions about whether Facebook should be playing content curator and picking favorites. Google Inc. (GOOG) and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) both play in the news business as well, but their primary strategy is one of aggregation, not curation. Many of you reach DailyTech from Bing News or Google News. Whether you like the articles on this site or any other site, I would strongly argue that Google and Microsoft’s approach preserves news variety and independence. By all appearances Facebook’s new promoted stories feature is doing quite the opposite.
[Image Source: Wikimapia.org]
And any concerns of bias only grow when you consider the shadowy cloud of money surrounding the deal. According to USA Today:
Very little is known about the outlines of the program, which has been kept very quiet.
How many articles will be published on Facebook each day or what the news creators will get paid for them are just some of the questions still to be answered.
The Times in particular has been carefully negotiating with Facebook because of concerns about giving away Times content for free when its has carefully built up a subscriber base of over one-million who pay to access the paper’s full digital content, New York magazine said.
Based on that one can conclude with reasonable certainty that Facebook is getting paid some cut of the ad revenue to promote these stories. And more than likely the news networks are getting something in return (a part of the advertising from traffic that Facebook delivers, namely). Some outlets like The NYT may actually look to limit this tsunami of traffic as giving away too much free news cheapens their brand if overdone. Ironically, though, it’s the most controversial outlets — Buzzfeed and NBC — which will likely be most eager to share their articles by the millions.
That all said, there’s also a case to be made for getting news — even of the somewhat biased or sensationalized kind to the masses. Many in America are very out of touch with what’s going on in their own states, let alone in their own nation’s government or the world. To some degree for all its negatives it’s hard to deny that Facebook will convince some who don’t usually seek out news to click and become more informed.
The program is worth carefully monitor both to gauge its scope and where Facebook is going to take it. But given the potential financial gains to Facebook by cashing in on shared news on its network, for better or worse organically shared news may soon be forced to compete with prominently placed promoted stories.
Source: USA Today