According to a report in Digiday, Facebook is making its next move against the media establishment. This time around they want to test paid subscriptions for publications that would put some kind of metered paywall or other pay gate around all or some of the content published through Instant Articles. Publishers would maintain control over setting the price point and retain user information.
It’s hard to fathom how bad an idea this would be for publishers who are already questioning the value of Instant Articles specifically and Facebook’s domination of the media world in general. The timing is even more odd considering it comes at the same time there’s news newspapers are looking to Congress to protect them from looming threats from Google and Facebook.
There are several reasons a paywall on Facebook makes little to no sense:
That’s Now How Facebook Works
Facebook’s News Feed algorithm is meant to stagger what you see. You’ll get an update from a friend from an hour ago followed by something from a relative from three days ago followed by an ad for a page your friends like and so on. It’s meant to highlight information you may find interesting or engaging, not necessarily news stories displayed in a timely manner. While Facebook has put its thumb on the scale to get Instant Articles more exposure – and subsequently higher engagement and views – publishers can’t rely on that. The network has changed the rules before and isn’t known for doing so in ways that benefit publishers long term.
Subscriptions Are a Poor Call To Action
Remember that the key to the success Instant Articles has seen is that the load times are faster because, again, Facebook controls that. But if the call to action after clicking an Instant Articles post is to subscribe, that is going to turn off someone just casually scrolling for new updates. If they’re not already a subscriber to the publication in question, what’s the incentive to do so? Is someone really going to take the time to fill out their payment and registration information on the train?
It Depends On Posts Actually Appearing
In order to even potentially take the step of subscribing, people first need to see the post on Facebook. But with Page reach dropping like a coconut, how many people does that translate to? How much will publishers be told they need to pony up in advertising dollars to increase the audience reach? The ROI here could be low as spend only slightly less in advertising on Facebook than what they’re making in subscriptions.
There’s No Way This Won’t Be Used Against Publishers In the Near Future
Name me a time Facebook hasn’t used the data it’s accumulated from previous “experiments” that have involved willing media partners and not eventually used the resulting data to make changes that benefit not the publisher but Facebook itself. I can’t think of one. Every time Facebook rolls out a new product like this they say it’s about helping the media industry but it always winds up turning Facebook into a place for the audience to go *instead* of the website for that publisher. There’s no reason to believe that won’t be true here as well. The story states publishers will keep audience data, but that data will come from Facebook, who will surely use it for their own purposes as well.