How Facebook Will Force Publishers to Rethink the Role of Websites

This has been a long time coming — in Internet time, at least.

Last March Facebook announced it would start hosting publishers’ content within its mobile app. Such a move was proposed as a win-win. Faced with plummeting web-traffic, these ‘Instant Articles’ would allow publishers to bring their content to larger audiences in a faster, streamlined way. Ads could additionally live within the articles to compensate for the potential loss of revenue from even lower site traffic for publishers.

Unsurprisingly upon this announcement, people began to ask if this syphoning of traffic would negatively impact publishers and businesses.

Digital marketing has traditionally been predicated upon driving traffic into a publishers’ content ecosystem, i.e. their website. From there the publisher could convert this traffic to leads and subscribers, or sales, or revenue, or all of the above.

But the notion of Instant articles challenged this structure, and as of today Instant Articles are a reality. This means in the coming months publishers are going to be forced to ask the question: are the advantages enough to force a paradigm shift?

Facebook is still by far the largest social media platform.

Facebook is still by far the largest social media platform.

Certainly there is an audience on Facebook that can’t be found anywhere else online and content can be serviced up to interested crowds on the channel based on its algorithm, but more eyeballs does not necessarily drive business objectives like conversions and revenue (Facebook does offer publishers the chance to collect e-mails within articles though).

An example of an in-article CTA.

An example of an in-article CTA.

Further, publishers will lose some control over, design, and direct customer access to more content if they join the Facebook mobile movement. There is also the threat that Facebook gets publishers in the door and then changes terms on them (pay to play, anyone?).

But, mobile is undeniably forcing changes — changes that require a rethinking of the destination-centric model of websites to a distribution-centric model of channels. Here is where Facebook holds the power, along with Google and Apple, because the destination model is based on desktop use patterns.

Facebook is giving publishers a chance to modernize along with the channel with most of the features publishers desire, but not the most important one: control.

Device usage by service. Chart from comScore.

Device usage by service. Chart from comScore.

Let’s also not forget the other features Facebook is adding to keep mobile users in-app that make the proposition a bit more enticing.

Does this mean publishers should abandon ship on their websites? Well, no. They will still need a website as a content hub and search is still vital. Facebook doesn’t own the Internet quite yet (although the signs are building).

However to not be left behind, publishers do need to start thinking now about how to adapt. They need to understand what their audience wants, where they want to be engaged, and how to meet them there. All of which Facebook and mobile are going to play a big part in, not to mention the other groups getting involved.

Either way, the changes are coming fast and furious — and the ride is only going to get bumpier. Buckle up.

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