We explain exactly what Facebook’s Instant Articles are, and how publishers are using them.
From a social publishing perspective, Facebook Instant Articles have been one of the major talking points of 2015.
With some of the biggest news brands, from legacy sites to digital upstarts, now participating, Instant Articles are now a dominant talking point in many online newsrooms.
But for anyone outside Facebook’s Partner Publisher network, the new feature can be somewhat confusing.
What are Instant Articles?
Most Facebook users have had the frustrating experience of tapping furiously on an interesting-looking link in the news feed, only for the screen to go blank as the page loads at varying speeds. Then, after an online eternity, you might limp onto a desktop-optimised site to be welcomed with lots of pop-up ads.
It’s a problem that Facebook see as a fundamentally bad user experience on mobile, and are trying to solve with Instant Articles. At their simplest, Instant Articles are stories from different publishers hosted directly on Facebook, which do not require the reader to click to an external site.
Facebook say that the articles load around 10 times faster than regular mobile links on Facebook.
Facebook initially announced Instant Articles with a select batch of partner sites in May. We analysed the early numbers and found that there was significant engagement with the new format on day one of the launch.
For now, Instant Articles are a mobile-first format. They’re leading the wave of ‘distributed content’ formats that platforms including Snapchat, Google and Twitter have been developing throughout 2015. As we move into 2016, it’s expected that more Facebook users will see Instant Articles on different devices.
Why Haven’t I Noticed Any Instant Articles in My News Feed?
Up until October 20th, only a handful of iPhone users in the US were seeing Instant Articles, as part of an advance test group.
After a few months of testing, Facebook announced that Instant Articles were to be widely available on iOS.
If you’re using Android, or on your laptop or desktop computer, you won’t be able to access Instant Articles for now. Instead, they’ll show up as regular links. However, Instant Articles are currently being tested on Android phones with partner publishers in India.
Update, December 16th: All Android users can now also access Instant Articles.
Instant Articles are distinguished by a lightning bolt symbol.
What Publishers are Using Instant Articles?
Here are some publishers that were approved as partners in the first round of IA announcements:
In October, the list was extended to include a raft of new publishers, including Business Insider, The Verge, TIME, Rolling Stone, and more. Shortly after, Instant Articles Product Manager Michael Reckhow told Nieman Lab:
“Now we’re hitting an inflection point where the number of publishers that will be coming on board is growing significantly and we’re growing our capacity to be able to support them.”
As of yet, it’s not possible to just sign up and start publishing Instant Articles straight away. First, you have to be approved as a ‘partner publisher’ of Facebook. You can register your interest in using Instant Articles here.
On December 1, Facebook launched Instant Articles in Latin America, with 40 publishers participating.
How Do Publishers Make Money from Instant Articles?
Here’s a question that will concern most publishers: how do we make money from Instant Articles?
Partner publishers have two options here: to either sell and serve their own ads (while sticking to Facebook’s guidelines) and keep 100% of the revenue, or to sell ads through Facebook’s Audience Network, and keep a cut. You can read more about how both options work here.
Ads will load as fast as the content in the articles, providing a smoother user experience, and (publishers hope) off-setting readers’ reliance on ad-blockers.
There has been some pushback on Facebook’s ad guidelines from publishers. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that some publishers were finding the restrictions too, well, restrictive. More changes could be on the cards over the next few months.
Update, December 10: Jack Marshall reports that Facebook have now changed its Instant Articles advertising policy. Partner publishers can now place one ad for every 350 words (rather than 500), and can also “pitch Instant Articles ads to marketers at a premium”.
How Do Instant Articles Work?
Providing you’re already a partner, Instant Articles work as follows:
1. Set up your RSS feeds
Each article within your RSS feed is presented as <item> to Facebook, and three elements within each article are essential for Instant Article publishing:
You should also fill out the other elements (including description, author information and publication date) to provide more context.
2. Connect your RSS feeds to your Facebook page
Next, tell Facebook which RSS feed your Instant Articles will be coming from. To do this, go into Settings, then Instant Articles. You’ll see a box where you can paste in the RSS feed.
3. Verify your feed is being ingested by Facebook, and make sure updates are processed
Once you’ve connected your RSS feed with your Facebook page, check for errors in the RSS configuration screen in your Facebook settings. Make sure the right articles are being posted as Instant Articles by going to ‘Publishing Tools’, then ‘Instant Articles’. Your Instant Articles library should be populated by the stories from your site.
To make sure that any edits you make to an article on your site are replicated in the Instant Article, make sure its HTML includes the relevant <time> elements. Facebook will check your RSS feed every three minutes to see if anything needs to be updated.
4. Ensure the Facebook Crawler can reach your content
If you normally restrict access to your content, make sure you whitelist Facebook’s crawler.
Note: It’s also possible to publish manually using the Instant Articles Format Reference. This gives publishers even greater control over the format of the article.
What Kind of Analytics are Available for Instant Articles?
Meanwhile, there’s also a dedicated Instant Articles Dashboard for publishers. It’s something like the ‘Insights’ tab on your Facebook page.
The three break-out elements available are clicks (opens), time spent on the article, and scroll depth.
What Else is Different about Instant Articles?
Instant Articles are not meant to replicate the traditional website article.
Instant Articles force publishers to think mobile-first. With this in mind, the images are often more immersive and vertical-based.
As the Washington Post’s Cory Haik put it at a recent conference:
“The ability to turn your phone and see all sides of a photo (is brilliant). So we’ve been producing to that, putting these panoramic photos on Facebook and watching users engage with that. That’s not something we can do currently on the mobile web. That’s new storytelling.”
Here’s an opportunity for publishers to think creatively about how they present their stories on Facebook. Features such as as the image galleries, videos and maps are all available to use. All of these can be interacted with naturally, through auto-playing vertical videos, or images that move when the phone is tilted.
What does 2016 hold for Instant Articles? It’s a little too early to comment on the overall performance, or wider consumer patterns that Instant Articles may prompt. However, an early analysis of New York Times Instant Articles shows that there was a higher average engagement rate with the native format over regular links in the news feed.
If 2015 was the year where platforms, including Snapchat, Twitter, Google, as well as Facebook, opened the floodgates in terms of what a distributed content ecosystem might look like, it seems as though 2016 will be a ‘speed-first year’. It’s likely that consumers will see fast-loading stories as standard, which will likely in turn affect how publishers present their content on social media.
If you’ve noticed any particularly innovative uses of Instant Article features, or picked up any tips of your own, be sure to let us know on Twitter.
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