Last week Facebook finally launched Notify, its news alert app. Within the app you opt-in to subscriptions from a select list of news media and other publishers from a variety of categories. Push notifications are then sent to your phone when one of those outlets publishes an update. So, for instance, I’ve opted in to alerts from CNN, Wired and others and when there’s an update my buzzes and beeps. When I open an alert it takes me to the mobile page for that story or update.

facebook notify

The value proposition for users is that this is a single hub for you to manage all your incoming news alerts. So, for instance, I already get push notifications from CNN’s mobile app but now also get them from CNN through Facebook Notify. And because I can also get Weather Channel alerts and a couple dozen other outlets then maybe I don’t need the notifications from all the individual native apps. Plus, Notify has many publishers who don’t have native apps. So it’s a single solution to what had been a distributed issue.

For publishers, the big value is for those who don’t already have a native app. All of a sudden they can send alerts to people who maybe weren’t getting them before, even if they followed or had otherwise connected with that outlet on social channels.

If all of this sounds a lot like RSS…well…that’s because it is. Within my RSS reader (Digg Reader) I’ve opted in to receive updates from a couple hundred publishers I’m interested in. These updates don’t invade my phone’s locked screen but accumulate safely for me until I’m ready to read through them. But with Notify it’s all about “right now” unless you’re a person who is then going to go through all the notifications on tap every single story. Still though, the concept is the same. If you go back and view all the push alerts you’ve received it’s kind of like “J”ing through RSS feeds.

Facebook Won’t Help For Long

It’s kind of surprising that Notify would send people somewhere other than Facebook. After all, Instant Articles are designed to keep people within the Facebook ecosystem and stop sending traffic elsewhere, where page load times may be slow and where people are going to inundated by all kinds of advertising. Even though this is sending publishers traffic it’s easy to see a not-too-distant future where that changes and Facebook decides Notify will emphasize – or perhaps only be available to –  Instant Articles publishers. After all, what are publishers going to do now, build their own apps? They’d have to not only invest that time but also make the pitch for the audience to download and use it. And look, Notify is right there and it’s so easy to publish simultaneously to their own CMS and to Instant Articles and aren’t they trying to cut their own costs?

A recent panel of media execs was more or less unified in saying publishers should be cautious when dealing with platforms who want their content for themselves. That’s because, as I and countless others have said before, the “partnership” is not one of equals. News sites spent years growing their audience on Facebook to send more and more traffic – needed because with limitless inventory advertisers weren’t paying as much and making increasingly onerous demands like 100% viewability – and now Facebook has crimped the organic reach hose, only allowing a trickle through without coughing up ad dollars of their own. Now they’re making the pitch to join Instant Articles, promising reach but with restrictions on the ads that can be placed within those stories.

But publishers don’t seem to be happy with those restrictions. They keep hoping, though, that the rigged game Facebook is playing by giving preferential Newsfeed treatment to Instant Articles continues so the ads being run get broader reach and exposure. Afterall, according to a recent study Instant Articles see significantly higher engagement as a result of how Facebook boosts them in the Newsfeed over link or other posts. And they’ll need that since the money they’re making from those ads is miniscule compared to what they get from on-domain ad sales.

Meanwhile, let’s just try not to think of a situation where the tipping point is reached and the number of Instant Articles publishers means Facebook has to throttle *that* reach. Because then news orgs will be in the position of not having invested in their owned site/native app and so haven’t built up any brand loyalty that will help them survive independent of Facebook’s algorithm. That’s where the position of Mark Sullivan at VentureBeat, who says publishers should stop fighting Facebook and just get on board, becomes perilous.

Ownership Is a Feature, Not a Bug

apple-newsIt’s not just Facebook either. News organizations are  also shocked that inclusion in Apple News isn’t sending tons of traffic to their sites, as if “don’t send traffic anywhere else” wasn’t the primary goal of apps like this.  All this isn’t necessarily changing things, though. Snapchat just signed the Wall Street Journal to its lineup of Discover publishers. This despite sketchy metrics and anecdotal evidence that there’s any benefit to being on Snapchat other than “more followers on Snapchat.” Which is exactly the position we were in with Facebook five or six years ago: Happily building up a network that had yet to prove its value to the business but with the promise that surely this was going to be a good thing because the network itself kept saying so.

The ultimate end game for Facebook Instant Articles is that Facebook consumes all publications and has a single news division producing news for the audience.  It’s not that it sees the content published by The New York Times as competing for people’s attention; It’s that Facebook sees The New York Times brand name as a competitor. Facebook wants people to read the news “on Facebook,” not “on The New York Times’ Facebook.” I absolutely expect that within the next year or so Facebook will launch news verticals of its own, hiring journalists and publishing their material through Instant Articles. That may start broadly with “Politics” and “Entertainment” but could get very, very narrow, down to hyper-local news and niche interests. At the very least it could begin to curate the best stuff published by individuals through its recently-expanded and relaunched Notes feature.

I don’t know where the offramp is here that will allow publishers – news orgs, brands and others – to ween themselves off the bottle being offered by Facebook, Apple News and others. But we’re seeing a situation where the lack of investment in pure, simple brand marketing by news and media companies 15 years is having repercussions. These companies have no brand equity with a whole generation of the citizenry they were tasked with informing and so now see their fate taken fully out of their own hands. There may still be time to take it back, but it’s going to take effort and money, two things these companies may no longer be able to provide given their current fortunes.