19 May, 2015

Lessons From Instant Articles

Instead of merely waiting for Facebook to deliver Instant Articles to everyone, it’s worth looking for some insights from last week’s launch.

Foremost, it’s always nice to be reminded that performance matters. Page load time has, of course, always mattered, but as mobile accounts for more traffic and attention keeps getting sliced thinner, we should expect it to become a key metric, not a nice to have. When managers and executives start to ask why their site’s pages are so slow, the blame is going to quickly circle back around to deals cut with third-party widget providers, share buttons, and other cruft that tries to monetize pageviews. This is going to lead to some awkward conversations and hard choices.

It’s not just pages that need to be nimble but the systems that build those pages will need to be increasingly agile. Facebook didn’t choose their launch partners merely for the content, great though it may be, but because they have some of the best devs in the media business. If your CMS can’t quickly and easily rebuild and repurpose stories in a variety of formats and contexts, it’s not just Instant Articles you’ll miss out on. The good news is, this is precisely the kind of thing computers are great at doing; the bad news, sadly, is off-the-shelf enterprise publishing systems aren’t. Invest in your developers.

Instant Articles raises important questions about websites, to be sure, but it also begs the question of what to do about apps. Your app is competing not just with other magazines and newspapers but Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, who just so happen to employ thousands of the best app designers and developers in the world. It certainly takes a small bit of hubris to believe your readers are going to open your app if it offers little more than what they could get from your website.

Facebook has telegraphed a strategy that Apple and Google could also use to bring more publishers to their mobile platforms. They each have their own Newsfeed-like ecosystems in the form of Newsstand (Apple) and Play Newsstand (Google) that are built into their respective mobile operating systems. Google even has Play Newsstand Producer1 to let publishers build fairly rich, branded editions of their stories. Facebook, of course, has a billion-and-a-half users, whereas Newsstand gets shunted off to a hidden folder along with the Stocks app. The point is, alternatives to Facebook’s Newsfeed can exist and it’s worth figuring out if they’re viable.

The big takeaway from Instant Articles is that we learned the wrong lesson from the rise of mobile and the app ecosystem. We’ve spent far too long trying to compete with native experiences by making our websites look and behave like apps. This includes not just thousands of lines of javascript to mimic native app swipes and scrolling but even the lower overhead aesthetics of fixed position headers and persistent navigation. Consider that a reader is just as, if not more, likely to get to your page via an app like Twitter or Facebook, with its own chrome, than the built in browser. Those positioned elements are only taking up valuable screen space and replicating functionality the reader already has built-in. Simplify your pages, reduce overhead (both cognitive and bandwidth), prepare them to live outside of browser.

Instant Articles are impressive2 and Facebook has made a seductive offer, perhaps one only they can make: we will give you the world’s biggest audience, native performance, storytelling tools built by the best mobile engineers, built-in monetization, all we ask is you give us your content. Maybe going back to basics is a better alternative.

  1. I suspect Apple is on the verge of releasing something similar with their purchase of PRSS, assuming they don’t kill off Newsstand entirely. Perhaps we’ll see at WWDC

  2. It’s been a week since Instant Articles launched and there haven’t been any new articles published, which could mean anything. It certainly suggests Instant Articles aren’t exactly plug-and-play just yet. Obviously, Facebook wants as many stories as possible to be Instant Article-ized, eventually. If publishers treat them as another Snowfall, something to save just for special stories, it’s going to temper their success.