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How Facebook Instant Articles Works: A Publisher's Perspective

Film industry site Moviepilot walks us through how—and why—they're using Facebook Instant Articles.

[Photo: courtesy of Moviepilot]

The last few times you’ve used Facebook, there’s a good chance you noticed something different. Lots of different publishers, including big names like the Washington Post, are now publishing full-length content directly to Facebook. The program, called Instant Articles, is designed for mobile users. It pushes full articles directly to Facebook, meaning that users get to see articles without ever leaving the Facebook app, and Facebook gains access to the sweet, sweet advertising money surrounding the content. Fast Company recently met with one of the publishers using Instant Articles for an in-depth look at how—and why—it uses the platform.

Moviepilot is a film-industry news site that features crowdsourced articles from a readership of approximately 30 million. Jon Handschin, the company’s cofounder and chief creative officer, describes the process as "the beginning of a journey." Publications work out agreements with Facebook that let them use the instant publisher platform; as of press time, publications need to contact Facebook to apply.

To users, stories published on Facebook don’t look too different from what you’d see on Moviepilot’s mobile page. The biggest differences are the design and interface—as pages load rapidly on mobile, everything shows up in Facebook’s clean aesthetic. Facebook is rolling out the platform for all iOS users, and for Android shortly.

"We're at the beginning of learning what we can do with it," Handschin told Fast Company. While the current number of Moviepilot articles published on Facebook Instant is very small, he expects to publish all the site's content on Facebook by the end of 2015. Publishers choose the articles they allow to run instantly on Facebook, and the decision to publish a small number of articles or a large number is entirely up to them.

Rather than using a separate content management system (CMS), Facebook Instant articles are automatically published based on a media company’s existing CMS through the magic of HTML 5. For their part, Facebook has been aggressively giving tips and best practices to publishers like Moviepilot. The social media giant offers a workflow that more or less instantly converts content into Instant Articles format.

For Moviepilot, which relies on fan-written stories from a large user community as well as their staffers, the process is a bit more complicated than it would be at another publication. The company offers users a proprietary CMS, and handpicked articles are then exported from their CMS into Facebook Instant Articles. Things become much trickier with the remaining 400 daily posts authored within their content system, since individual posts have to be checked in order to make sure they show up correctly in Facebook's app.

Instant Articles, and the media outlets like Moviepilot and the Washington Post that use it, are also at the center of an ongoing discussion about the future of Internet and mobile advertising. Google recently released a rival platform called Accelerated Mobile Pages that makes mobile web pages load more quickly. Partners on that initiative also include the Washington Post, along with Vox Media’s stable of sites, Buzzfeed, and the Guardian. Naturally enough given the Facebook competition, Accelerated Mobile Pages’s content is designed to load quickly through Twitter.

Moviepilot relies on advertising to turn a profit, and Handshcin wondered at the (still unclear) benefits of advertising through Facebook Instant Articles. "I think the biggest change is obviously advertising," he told me. "We use different programmatic advertisers, and I think it’s one big disadvantage from the publisher’s perspective that you can only use Facebook’s programmatic." With programmatic advertising, advertisers bid using algorithms; it is the familiar form of web advertising that usually beams content related to a user's past web browsing habits or partially completed online purchases.

However, he was quick to add that Facebook has "to give publishers room to put in other types of advertisements because it’s the profit model for us. Native advertising is a play in that market as well, and Facebook understands it."

Publishers who use Facebook’s platform currently have two revenue options: Either filling display ad inventory themselves and keeping 100% of the revenue, or offering 30% revenue to Facebook in exchange for letting Facebook handle placement. Andrew Waber of Marketing Land notes that this makes Facebook into an even more influential advertising player.

In the meantime, Handschin is enthusiastic about Facebook Instant Articles. He feels it will encourage traffic to his site and help them grow. His company recently completed a mobile relaunch called Moviepilot Magazine that's closely tied to the Facebook Instant rollout, and he couldn’t be happier about the platform. Behind the scenes, Google and Facebook will keep on fighting for that mobile content dollar.

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