For Facebook, news is just padding around other, more valuable parts of the platform

The digital media odyssey’s latest chapter: According to a March 23rd New York Times article, half a dozen news organizations are currently in discussions with Facebook for a distribution deal. Cited as candidates for the experiment: The NYT itself, but also BuzzFeed, the National Geographic, and even Quartz. (No one actually confirmed the information.) Under the putative deal terms, instead of simple links, Facebook would host media content. In exchange, the media would get a cut of the ad revenue generated by the arrangement.

Media commentators quickly split into two camps: Those seeing this proposal as the most dangerous idea ever, versus others suggesting that times had changed—that Facebook had become the dominant ingredient in the Y generation media diet, and that news organizations better board the Facebook bandwagon or face a certain death (this Google News page provides a good glance at the controversy).

The debate about the increasing dependency on Facebook has been around for a while. Think tank seers remind us that Facebook has become the main source of news consumption. Last year, in its Digital News Report, the Reuters Institute asked if a social platform had been used for any purpose (the dark blue bar), and more specifically for news (light blue):

was facebook used in different countries

At least a quarter of respondents mention Facebook as their source for news, reaching 67% in Brazil, 57% in Italy, and 50% in Spain. In the UK, when these readers are asked how they use Facebook for news, 48% say they browse their feeds and, more importantly, 44% say they actually click on a link, thus revealing a staggering level of engagement:

use of facebook

Actually, these numbers might be vastly underestimated. Last week, I interviewed a candidate for a project manager position at Les Echos. When asked about his media diet, the candidate said the vast majority of his news consumption took place on Facebook; he had about 500 various subscriptions and believed he didn’t miss anything. But he was barely able to mention a news brand on the main screen of his smartphone. I heard such a tale many times over.

When it comes to social media traffic referrals, Facebook is crushing everyone else. According to Shareaholic, in December 2014, Facebook generated 25% of all visits collected by publishers, leaving the rest of the social crowd in its dust. Pinterest, weirdly enough, comes in second, but with only 5% of referrals, and Twitter lags far behind with a mere 0.82%. The six other notable social platforms collectively weigh less than 2% of the total web traffic. Facebook “owns” the social distribution of news. But, impressive as it is, the 25% ratio needs further clarification: News organizations born with the digital era rely much more on social—sometimes up to 70%—while legacy media for only 10% to 15%.

This trend will continue as Facebook is actually expanding both ways: While its user base grew by 60% between December 2011 and December 2014, its referrals contribution grew by 277%, again according to Shareaholic. Aside from Pinterest (+685% growth over the last four years), other social channels did decline in the interval.

Hence Facebook’s powerful pitch to publishers:
– We grow in absolute terms—1.4 billion users and counting, with almost 1 billion mobile users.
– We also grow in relative terms as our users stuff their feed with more news sources than ever.
– The engagement—time spent, click-through rate—is also on the rise.
– We provide the most granular ad targeting you can dream of.
– We can serve your contents on any platform much faster than you do, thanks to our technology and global infrastructure.

Seriously, who can resist that song?

The fact that the New York Times is said to be talking to Facebook rattled the news sector even more. The gold standard of quality journalism considering Facebook’s boost is indeed disturbing to many publishers—many of them in dire situations.

The decision-making process should factor the following items:
– The brand: the more powerful (read: established, acknowledged, ancestral) it is, the less likely it needs a social boost. (That’s the comfortable theory.)
– The type of content: Long form journalism is not the best fit for Facebook. Hardcore journalism, with its share of tragedies, is less likely to click than lighter, shorter pieces of information. ISIS doesn’t do well on FB’s newsfeed but Beyoncé scores high.
– Target group: The younger the better. If your readership is above 45, educated and affluent, you might consider a decisive social deal aimed at tapping into an additional pool of readers.
– Advertising: What’s in it for the publishers who might be part of the deal? That’s the big money question.

Let’s explore some answers

Based on various deals seen here and there, the honey pot, as considered by publishers, rests in sharing advertising revenue. It is likely that Facebook will propose a two-pronged ad deal: a format sold by the publisher will collect between 70% and 100% of the revenue; if the ad is sold by Facebook, the network takes a cut that varies widely, depending on the partner’s bargaining power, but it can be 70/30… in favor of Facebook (a quota of say, a third of the inventory, can be reserved for the network).

Last week, I spoke with two major European digital native players, each getting dozens of millions of unique views per month. Both doubted the advantage of such a deal: Based on their experience with Google, they told me their audience increased while the revenue derived from the deal actually decreased. Their conclusion: Once hooked, the distributor will tend to arbitrarily tighten the deal, making it less and less favorable.

Can Facebook be trusted?

The short answer is no. First of all, when someone subscribes to a given media content, Facebook’s algorithm will decide which amount of news the user will actually see. And s/he sees very little: for a specific flow of news pouring into Facebook, a ratio of 15% actually reaching a subscriber’s newsfeed is considered quite good. (In fact, Mark Zuckerberg said the average Facebook user could be exposed to 1,500 stories per day but actually only sees a hundred of those—that’s 6%. As he sees it, Zuck’s own job is to determine which pieces of news everyone is entitled to see according to their profile.)

Facebook is an unpredictable spigot, whose flow varies according to constantly changing and opaque criteria. A given news stream will see its conversion into clicks vary widely for no apparent reason. (One suspected motive might be the correlation between ad spending on Facebook and the propensity of a news content to rise above the noise.)

Second, unlike Google which is relatively single-product oriented (structuring mostly text-based knowledge), Facebook carries lots of promises: it’s a video platform, a photo repository, a conversational system, an instant messaging service—all competing for the same real estate: your computer display or your mobile screen. Soon, Facebook will encompass a transaction platform, a classified service able to overthrow Craigslist or eBay, a search engine, etc.

In Facebook’s entanglement of platforms, services and applications, the news segment can only expect to play a minor role. In this ecosystem, news is expendable—it will be the adjustment variable that can be downplayed or even sacrificed should the company’s interest dictate it.

Having said that, news distribution through social channels must be part of any media strategy. A news brand, relying only on its notoriety might become increasingly secluded and lose its relevance by falling below its audience’s radar. Those who produce in-depth and unique editorial will consider Facebook a marginal addition to their core audience, while others—gushing loads of repackaged, cheap pieces of information—will agree to be handcuffed by their distributor, for better or worse.

This post originally appeared at Monday Note.

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