Helping publishers in today’s walled garden world

This article was first published by Yieldbot on 5/20/15

Not to be overly dramatic, but Facebook’s recent Instant Articles announcement reminds me of Batman. An odd comparison, but bear with me.

Throughout the last two Dark Knight movies, the bad guy continually tries to break Gotham by pitting citizens against each other, believing that chaos was a fairer option than order. But in the end, their collective strength united them. By standing together, they helped Batman save the day.

Publishers today face a very interesting dilemma – Facebook’s Instant Articles solution. On it’s surface, it seems like an easy way to fish where the fish are. Not everyone is on your website, but everyone is on Facebook. So publish content to Facebook, count the clicks as site visits, and collect 100% of the ad revenue. The more publishers that do it, the more advertisers will feel comfortable buying “off-site,” and the barriers break down between social and display budgets. Everyone wins, right?

Or maybe, everyone loses.

Let’s start with the obvious – publishers don’t just curate content, they curate an environment – an experience. And if the user finds that experience rewarding, they will keep coming back. By publishing to Facebook instantly, the publisher hands over the environment and the experience to Facebook. Now the user is experiencing Facebook, not the website that the publisher has worked so hard to create. Publishers no longer have control over important user experience elements like responsiveness and page load times.

Less obvious, but, in my opinion, more important, is the data loss that publishers will face with Instant Articles. Ad data doesn’t describe the user experience – website analytics does. Users engaging with publisher content offsite, interrupts and skews incredibly useful data streams: traffic data, click stream data (referrer and page), keyword data, page layout data, and more. These data points decode how a user engaged with the article as well as the on page ad experience. By publishing to Facebook instantly, all of this data is lost. Shared data and click data (on the ad) are not as useful as understanding user intent – and how that intent correlates to the articles they read and the ads they click on.

Let’s be really clear: Google and Facebook use site data, content/keyword data, and traffic data to target ads. This is the data set on which these companies have become the two dominant players in ad technology and it’s how they deliver high CTRs. Facebook is asking publishers to give this data to them as it’s created, and, in the case of site data/traffic data, give it up altogether.

The final straw of the Facebook Instant Article dilemma is the acquisition of new budgets, specifically the performance-oriented budgets that are drawn towards social media advertising. But this is a siren song – it won’t be as wonderful as publishers believe it will be. Performance-based social media relies on the high CTR that comes with micro-targeting. In order to deliver high CTR, you need scale and data. Publishers won’t have the data, nor will they have the scale…..unless they extend their buy into Facebook inventory, thus driving MORE revenue into the Facebook coffers. It simply doesn’t add up.

A viable prediction is that Facebook Instant Articles is actually a killer of Outbrain and Taboola. Google recently launched a Matched Content feature as a way for publishers to take back control of their own traffic-driving efforts. But if traffic is going to Facebook, and the revenue streams from Outbrain and Taboola are diminished, then Facebook can naturally step in and turn this revenue stream….for themselves AND for publishers, back on. Baking this into their new ad stack via LiveRail/Atlas isn’t a far leap. This makes them more than just an Ad Stack provider – they are a Traffic Stack provider, vertically integrated like few companies have ever been.

This is the publisher’s dilemma – be a part of the new vertical Facebook stack or die in the cold. But, like the ending of a great superhero movie, this dilemma is also an incredible opportunity.

If publishers behave like the brave citizens of Gotham and stand tall, they can save their businesses and continue to grow. Publishers need to understand that traffic data is inextricably linked to website data and is as valuable or more so than cookie data (especially because of no cookies in mobile). By publishing to their site first, and not participating in Facebook Instant Articles, publishers will retain data that Facebook and Google use and can use systems like Yieldbot to actually win their share of a $45B market, not give up their share of a $14B market. By keeping this data out of the hands of Facebook, it actually encourages MORE direct buys (at higher CPMs) since buyers want a curated user experience – which direct publishers can provide.

Stand tall, publishers. Help is on the way.76