News UK Ltd, the UK’s biggest newspaper publisher and owner of The Times and The Sun, is quite categorical about the reasons why it thinks Facebook’s plans to encourage publishers to post their articles direct to the social network’s mobile app is a ridiculous idea, and it won’t be signing up to any time soon.
One of its top executives tells Business Insider the move is a “tax on navigation” and a “tax on audience.”
Facebook’s reasoning is that, with its 654 million daily mobile users and the fact more than half of its ad revenue comes from mobile, it can help publishers make the experience of reading their content on mobile less clunky, according to a report in the New York Times. It says it wants to offer an olive branch by speeding up the load times of publishers’ mobile content by hosting it within its own app, and would offer an ad revenue share.
The report says Facebook has embarked on a “listening tour” with US publishers, encouraging them to sign up to the direct-to-Facebook publishing idea.
The “listening tour” the New York Times described has yet to reach UK shores, Business Insider understands, having spoken to several major UK newspaper publishers.
But Chris Duncan the chief marketing officer of News UK (a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp) told Business Insider it’s extremely unlikely The Sun or The Times (both of which have paywalls) or other big players like the New York Times, Mail Online or Guardian will sign up to the idea.
He describes this new development, plus the general trajectory of the Facebook-publisher relationship, as “a tax on navigation” and a “tax on audience.” He says:
“It’s like handing over the keys to all the things digital publishers are good at. We’d lose visibility of our usage and visibility of our audience. I think you’ll find that big players are big enough not to have to [sign up to the publish-to-Facebook idea] but your mid-tier or smaller-tier newspapers with small circulations might have to make a difficult decision if they want to increase their audience.”
Facebook is the principal source of social referral traffic to the majority of digital publishers. But while it can act as a huge source of additional traffic generation, recent changes to its algorithms have also put strangleholds over the ability publishers have to reach the Facebook audiences they have spent years building up on their Facebook Pages. Unless publishers pay for advertising or create the type of content Facebook’s algorithm deems “quality” (read: the type of stuff likely to get shared on social), the reach of their Facebook posts can be extremely low — to an average of just 6% of a page’s fans or lower, according to a report from Ogilvy released earlier this year.
Duncan explains the timeline of change:
“If you look at the trajectory of Facebook, at the beginning brands like us were part of the social graph, we were people’s friends. There was a lot of referral traffic and audience reach that Facebook was bringing to us and we were bringing to Facebook with our content.
“All that changed a couple of years ago. There are more than 1 million advertisers now and lots more competition for timeline space. Every trend you can extrapolate, it’s become an internet [advertising] platform, not a publishing platform.”
Another sign of that trend escalating was Facebook’s move in December to update its algorithm to feature more “high quality” content from publishers and fewer cat photos and click bait.
That algorithm tweak resulted in huge upticks in Facebook traffic referrals for sites like BuzzFeed, Business Insider and Mashable: digital-only publishers skilled in creating content designed to be shared by thousands online.
But some reputable publishers, usually considered as purveyors of quality content — not just those clickbait-y cat-photo websites the update was designed to catch out — were caught in the net too. News UK saw a double digit drop-off in Facebook referrals to The Times and The Sun websites almost overnight, Duncan says.
“The insidious part [of the Facebook algorithm] is that you are creating performance-based editorial. If you get the Facebook algorithm to dictate the quality of content based on what it can see on the Facebook network — time on site, likes, shares — it promotes and rewards a certain type of article so you’re not incentivized to write news that’s important but that is not necessarily likely to go viral,” Duncan adds.
The changes Facebook — but also Google, which particularly punishes sites sitting behind paywalls like The Sun and The Times in search results — means that most publishers have had to “institutionalize cost” in order to get their online audiences, Duncan says.
Going forward, Duncan is also worried by the launch of the Facebook Atlas offsite mobile ad network. He is concerned that Facebook will be able to potentially sell on what it has learnt from publishers’ own audiences and sell that information on to other publishers to help them advertise on their own sites.
“It feels like the shift has really come about in the last six months as Facebook accelerates towards becoming an ad network. As with any media, there will always be changes, but the scale and dominance of Facebook and Google and the fact that the changes they make can affect companies globally overnight is unprecedented,” he adds.
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