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Facebook Offers Publishers Another Chance at a Haircut

One thing is for sure: Facebook’s domination of both audience and of digital advertising spend has caused one set of problems after the other for publishers. Essentially Facebook, which does not like to identify itself as a media company, is trying to find ways for visitors to stay in its app rather than clicking through to a publisher site. This has frightened publishers, for obvious reasons. In fact, it has frightened them so much that they have begun to see Facebook as a true competitor rather than just a distribution channel. Every time Facebook makes a change, which is often, publishers stand to lose more advertising dollars.

To this end, many premium publishers have already gone to a subscription model to increase revenue. The New York Times allows ten free articles a month. The Economist allows three free articles a week, and the Wall Street Journal has a hard paywall. This in addition to advertising.

Now Facebook has jumped on that bandwagon as well. Facebook is going to allow people to subscribe to publications through its app. The feature will roll out by year’s end.

Although publishers have asked for this since the advent of Instant Articles, the details of how it will work and how publishers will be paid are not clear:

There are a lot of details to be worked out, including what the model would look like, what subscriber data publishers would get and how the revenue would be distributed. Facebook has moved toward a metered model, and while nothing is final, the latest proposal involves a metered model where users could read up to 10 articles for free a month before being required to subscribe. Publishers would be able to decide if each article is subject to that meter, free or behind a hard paywall, according to people familiar with the discussions.

There’s another big question: how will readers subscribe? If it’s through Instant Articles, Facebook will have to convince publishers who have already bailed on it. The move comes after many publishers, seeing no value from Instant Articles, moved toward Google’s Amp pages. The New York Times bailed early in the year, and even smaller publishers do not push all their content through IA.

Of course subscriptions could be sold through the App Store and the Google Play store, although Apple takes a 30% cut of whatever is sold through its store. And you’d expect Facebook to want a cut as well, so…

One thing is certain. Publishers who aren’t on the ball and using every technique at their disposal to maximize revenue will once again take some sort of haircut. And they’ll be spending the summer figuring out how short that haircut will be.

Facebook’s Day in the Sun May be Over

For publishers, Facebook is no longer the darling it once was.  To be honest, it was never a darling; it was more like a force that had to be reckoned with, as all the publishers who jumped on Instant Articles thought they knew. For them, once Instant Articles launched, it was damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Now, with display advertising largely being replaced by video, Instant Articles isn’t worth the loss of control over their own sites.

The Times is among an elite group of publishers that’s regularly tapped by Facebook to launch new products, and as such, it was one of the first batch of publishers to pilot Instant. But it stopped using Instant Articles after a test last fall that found that links back to the Times’ own site monetized better than Instant Articles, said Kinsey Wilson, evp of product and technology at the Times. People were also more likely to subscribe to the Times if they came directly to the site rather than through Facebook, he said. Thus, for the Times, IA simply isn’t worth it. Even a Facebook-dependent publisher like LittleThings, which depends on Facebook for 80 percent of its visitors, is only pushing 20 percent of its content to IA.

But what’s happening with video? Sites like Bloomberg are launching tech demo offerings that publish video to Facebook live. But like everything else Facebook, Facebook Live arrived with the promise that it would solve monetization problems, but no one knows for sure (yet) how well it works.

Mark Gurman, the expert from 9-5 Mac who got hired away by Bloomberg because he had so many contacts at Apple who fed him rumors, has just started a gadget show that will stream live on FB live. This follows the successful sale of the Wirecutter to the New York Times, and the launch of Circuit Breaker by The Verge. Apparently everyone thinks unboxings, demos, and reviews of gadgets will be the best way to monetize video on Facebook.

We don’t think so. One of the problems with Facebook is that no one goes there to buy things, or even to look at branded content. Rather, they go to connect with other human beings in Facebook Groups, or to respond to invitations to Facebook events. We think that as time goes on and Facebook’s numbers get audited by third parties, we will all learn that Facebook, although it has such amazing scale, does not produce proportional results.

And all of this may be further complicated by new tools Facebook has just released that allow users to suggest that specific articles and sites might be fake news.

We’re pretty sure that the days of sheer scale are numbered, and advertising will go back to more sensible goals — reaching the right potential buyers.