Posted by Todd Handy ● March 31, 2016

Come Into My Parlor...

For some time now, online publishers have been wary of 'platforms' in general- social media and search such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.  Why?  Well, because they (the publishers) know that these platforms have the reach they often lack, but that the platforms lack the content the pubs often have.  An interesting conundrum, to be sure.
Let's be clear- online publishers are already receiving enormous amounts of referral traffic from said platforms [In Q4, Social Media Drove 31.24% of Overall Traffic to Sites].  These platforms have all the scale that online publishers can't match.  So, pubs have for some time used these platforms as incremental distribution channels.  What publisher isn't interested in the 30%+ referral traffic platforms can drive to their sites?  But, for all the upside of the incremental traffic, there's a downside. As online publishers turn their content over to platforms, they also turn their users over to platforms (or at least significantly risk doing so).  
How, you may ask?  It's simple.  As a Facebook user, and also a user of a media company's website, I can access my news in either place.  When I choose to browse a media company's website, I get what I expect- a queue full of news and a few recommendations in article pages.  But, when I spend time on Facebook, I get a queue full of information posted by trusted friends and colleagues, and an algorithm that maximizes viewability and virality- because it knows what my trusted friends and colleagues are viewing, what their trusted friends and colleagues are viewing, and uses that to serve me up with the news the platform thinks I'll want to  And, often times it's right!  So, which experience is a user likely to prefer?  Browsing a queue looking for news that's interesting, or browsing a queue looking for news that the user's friends, family and colleagues have demonstrated they're interested in?  Can you see the Faustian bargain of sorts that's going on here?  Give away content to gain social reach, risk losing users and organic reach.
Now, here's the other problem. When online publishers push their content to platforms, especially in mobile, the user experience is less than desirable.  When a user taps on an article in their feed, it usually takes forever to navigate from the platform to the publisher's mobile site.  Yeah, you know what I'm talking about because you've experienced this same excruciating load time. Facebook says that loading stories this way takes, on average 8 seconds!  Ain't nobody got time for that!
Enter Facebook's 'Instant Articles'.  And Google's 'AMP'.  And Apple's 'News'.  And others. Designed to load faster, thus improving the user experience, these solutions are a boon to the user.  Just yesterday I read three or four local media articles on Facebook Instant Articles and was truly astounded at how quickly they loaded and how much better the U/X was.  It.  Is.  Amazing.
So, now that the platforms have improved the user experience, more and more publishers are embracing them and pushing more and more of their content to the platforms.  We're talking BIG NAMES here, not just small local media companies- The Washington Post, Daily Mail, The Wall Street Journal, Mic and others.
Cut to this morning, when the WSJ (just one of the pubs embracing the platforms) reported that Video Ads Are Coming To Facebook Instant Articles.  Well of course they are!  Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly!  Not only have the platforms proven they can provide reach, a better algorithm and a better mobile user experience, but now they've provided the ultimate prize- higher revenue!  Most everyone knows that video carries with it the highest CPMs in digital advertising.
So, now one of the platforms, Facebook, is enticing online publishers even more by dangling video advertising in front of them- both autoplay as well as user initiated.  Which publisher(s) won't want to take advantage of higher CPMs with video ads associated with their articles on Instant Articles?
But, here's the problem.  To access the video ads, the publisher must embrace the platform.  Embracing the platform brings risk.  Risk is something many publishers aren't too comfortable with.  Risk of losing users, risk of losing brand equity, risk of losing market share, revenue, etc. And, there's also the question of relevance.  Pushing an article to Instant Articles, only to attach a preroll to it, doesn't bring relevance or value add to the article- it just brings a higher CPM ad.
Listen, here's the deal.  Publishers should experiment.  They should diversify.  They should embrace video.  But, what online publishers need to consider is how to bring relevance, engagement, higher CPMs and risk mitigation to their O&Os.  I think I know a company that can do that.