How Facebook Is Eventually Going To Cut Down Referral Traffic Hurting Small And Medium Publishers

Facebook in India is approaching leading journalists and media houses to open up pages on Facebook, in line with its publishing goals. This is going to be bad for publishers as referral traffic will go down in the future.

Facebook Instant Articles

Globally, Facebook the largest social network remains the biggest source of referral traffic for a majority of publishers. Last month, Facebook, for the second time in this year moved ahead of Google in Parse.ly’s rankings. This is obviously happy news for publishers who are creating content for a Facebook audience and driving huge traffic to their platform.

But how long would Facebook allow the traffic to go beyond its closed walls? And, that too when Facebook itself wants to be a publishing platform like LinkedIn has become with Pulse.

From the beginning of this year Facebook, while focusing on its video arm and commerce, had a special focus on building its own publishing platform. The objective has been to motivate publishers to host content on Facebook to get better reach and targeting features. In return Facebook gets the opportunity to hold its traffic for longer duration and grow revenues further.

Earlier this year, Facebook launched Instant Articles, a new product for publishers to create fast, interactive articles on Facebook. Instant Articles debuted with rich-media stories from The New York Times, BuzzFeed, National Geographic, and six other outlets that will be globally visible from Facebook’s iPhone app.

Facebook promised that by no means is Instant Articles feature a stripped down textual dump but came with additional features stuffed by Facebook. From having logo on top of every story, publishers had a “follow” button that users can click to subscribe to their Facebook page and get more stories. The body of the story can contain photos, image galleries, and videos, and publishers can use a web view to embed objects like tweets and interactive graphics.

Beyond just loading faster, Facebook will parse HTML and RSS to display articles with fonts, layouts, and formats that make Instant Articles feel like a publisher’s website. Facebook is also providing vivid media options like embedding zoomable photos, videos, and maps with audio captions, plus contextual ‘Ambient Videos’.

All this added with preferential treatment to publishers when users click, like, comment, and share Instant Articles more often than others, they may show up higher and more frequently in feed like any piece of popular content. Publishers can also sell ads in their articles and keep the revenue, or they can choose to use Facebook’s Audience Network to monetize unsold inventory.

Facebook recently touched a billion users in a day, why would any publisher say no to such a lucrative deal? The catch here, however, is that publishers will have to host content on Facebook and also share 30% with the social network if it sells the ads.

To further lure publishers, Facebook tweaked the News Feed. Till some time back the overly complicated News Feed used to consider liking, commenting and sharing as major factors in determining the mix. But from now on Facebook is adding time spent, after its research showed that people don’t always like or comment on stories that they find meaningful. Describing how the algorithm will show content, Facebook informed it is going to find out the kind of content one spends more time on the News Feed.

Initially publishers had concerns but later they shrugged all concerns and have been eager to publish on the network. Publishers like Time.Inc, CNN, etc. are joining the party. “Obviously our brands will be in there, it’s just a matter of time,” Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines Digital Media had said. Hearst’s flagship Cosmopolitan will likely take the lead, as it has with other digital forays.

In India where Facebook dominates the social networking space with more than 125 million active users has been holding talks with Indian journalists and some publishers too. The trend seems to have started with Shekhar Gupta, who has recently launched his company Mediascape, with digital content as an important aspect of his growth strategy. For the past couple of months, ads have appeared on our timelines promoting his Facebook page. Just recently Barkha Dutt’s Facebook page is also being promoted on our timelines, reports NewsMinute.

Facebook’s move is a smart one specially in the Indian context. In India, maximum number of publishers and influential journalists are hooked on Twitter, as news today breaks on the 140-character medium. Facebook wants to change that and in doing so it is pushing the benefits of the native publishing concept. If it can convince the influential heads who dominate the prime time on Indian television screens, then getting their companies to post exclusive content on Facebook won’t be difficult.

While celebrity journalists have, all of a sudden, realized that Facebook is a calmer medium than Twitter, the network is working on its goal of establishing itself as a publisher. A goal that LinkedIn is living right now, from industry influencers to common users all are using its content platform Pulse to reach out to like-minded folks. Last known fact was that a million plus members are now publishing on LinkedIn.

This isn’t a big news for publishers as LinkedIn over time has been slashing referral traffic. LinkedIn obviously wants to push itself as a publishing platform after the success of its influencer program but publishers are not very happy with this move. At a recent presentation, Quartz revealed that it has witnessed a sharp decline in LinkedIn traffic in 2014.

Not just Quartz, a majority of publishers who used to drive traffic from social networks are now failing to do so after networks have turned into publishing platforms. Social networks want the traffic to remain in their walled gardens.

Facebook is following suit and there would be a time in the near future when publishers wouldn’t have a choice but give in to Facebook’s publishing demands. Buzzfeed might not be bothered but Brian Fitzgerald, co-founder and president of Evolve Media thinks that giving up content over to Facebook is dangerous.

“The danger of all these big platform plays is, they open it up, they encourage you to put your content on their platform, they aggregate the audience, but at the end of the day, they’re building loyalty and engagement for your content on their platform,” he said. “It’s extremely difficult to pull people off YouTube. The more publishers put content on Facebook, the less they will depend on any one particular publisher.”

So if you are a small and medium publisher like us then get ready for the following things:

1. More and more publishers joining the Facebook native initiative, because discovery of content is the first world problem of today’s publisher.

2. Slashing of referral traffic from Facebook.

3. Leaving with no choice for a publisher to give up to Facebook’s demands or stay out and commit suicide.

The days of free traffic from social media on the merit of good content is soon going to be over for publishers. The future for small and medium publishers is a scary one.