Facebook is the world’s largest social network, but it’s not just a social network.
If this wasn’t already evident, it should be now that reports have surfaced indicating the tech giant is negotiating with prominent publishers to host their content within Facebook’s walls so that users don’t have to go to publishers’ sites to consume it.
The New York Times, said to be one of the publishers in talks with Facebook, itself described the plan:
Facebook has said publicly that it wants to make the experience of consuming content online more seamless. News articles on Facebook are currently linked to the publisher’s own website, and open in a web browser, typically taking about eight seconds to load. Facebook thinks that this is too much time, especially on a mobile device, and that when it comes to catching the roving eyeballs of readers, milliseconds matter…In addition to hosting content directly on Facebook, the company is talking with publishers about other technical ways to hasten delivery of their articles.
Some publishers in talks with Facebook are said to have concerns about handing over their content to Facebook. Monetization is an obvious issue, as is user data. By giving Facebook their content, publishers may effectively be giving Facebook their audiences and cannibalizing their brands.
To allay the publisher concerns, Facebook is reportedly offering to find ways for publishers to generate or share in ad revenue, but even with monetization solutions on the table, the New York Times says that some publishers remain unconvinced.
While Facebook’s billion-plus user audience remains mouth-wateringly appetizing, there seems to be broad skepticism of Facebook as content partner.
Author and entrepreneur John Battelle, who was the co-founding editor of Wired magazine, believes there are a number of questions publishers must ask themselves before they jump into bed with Facebook.
One of them: “Do you have control over your core product, so you can craft your reader’s experience as an expression of your brand?”
He goes on:
I mean, what if a year in, you want to ask some of your Facebook readers to pay you, in exchange for less advertising (or none)? Do you have to ask permission? Wait, you agreed to not do that? Well why would any reader pay you on the open web if they can get it for free on Facebook? And what if you want to do something like Snowfall? Or what if you come up with a really neat widget that pulls in processed content from, say, Twitter and SnapChat? Will Facebook let you? They kinda sorta don’t like those companies, last I checked. My guess is they won’t like others down the road too.
Battelle isn’t alone in his skepticism. Paul Marcum, global head of digital video at Bloomberg, told Digiday’s Lucia Moses, “Until there’s monetization, it’s a marketing tool, and like any marketing tool, you have to weigh the return. Future returns at this point are questionable.”
AOL’s head of partner strategy, Shay Brog, noted that the initiative isn’t without risk.
“The risk is similar to Demand Media, which lost traffic when Google changed its algorithm, and it’s the same problem all MCNs have on YouTube,” he explained. “Facebook is just another walled garden, and it’s happy to extract your content and make money on it.”
Mike Dodge, Evolve Media’s COO, worries about Facebook’s ability to change the rules of engagement. “Once we’re hooked on it, will it change, without a viable competitor there?” he asked. USA Today’s Chris Pirrone, GM of sports digital media, also questioned Facebook’s ability to create a level playing field. “Will Facebook favor publishers that publish directly to them?”
None of these comments and questions mean that publishers won’t ultimately relent, deciding that greater access to Facebook’s vast audience outweighs the risks associated with ceding control of their content and brands.
But the general skepticism around Facebook’s push suggests that the social network’s past behavior hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Case in point: according to the New York Times, some employees at The Guardian have suggested that publishers “band together to negotiate deals that work for the whole industry, and should retain control of their own advertising, whether content is hosted on Facebook or not.”
Is The Guardian’s apparent interest based on its past experiences with Facebook? In 2012, The Guardian, seeing major traffic from its Facebook app, was singing the social network’s praises. But the app saw its monthly active users drop by almost half in a single month when Facebook implemented changes. In late 2012, The Guardian killed the app entirely.
The real question now is whether it’s even possible for publishers like The Guardian to negotiate acceptable terms with Facebook. Yes, the lessons of the past are not forgotten, and the risks are clear, putting publishers in a position to negotiate more wisely.
But it’s not at all clear that there’s any way for publishers to come out ahead by allowing a third party – Facebook or anyone else – to publish their content on their behalf.