What the Facebook Paywall Means for Publishers
Facebook recently confirmed plans to develop a subscription-based paywall for publishers. The subscription model will be built using Facebook’s growing Instant Articles feature, and is expected to function similarly to existing online news subscriptions; the first ten articles will be free to read, but after ten articles, users will be directed to the publication’s website to sign-up for a content subscription. Enter, the new Facebook paywall.
As you would expect for Facebook, users will also be served content personalized based on their location, online behavior, and other preferences. Established publishers such as National Geographic and Washington Post are already actively using Facebook Instant Articles, and are naturally expected to be first in line to utilize the paywall. Other high-profile publications like Forbes and The New York Times have previously discontinued using Facebook Instant Articles.
The paywall’s introduction is Facebook’s response to growing tension with the publishing community. Dissatisfied with Facebook and Google’s dominance in news distribution, the News Media Alliance, comprised of over 2,000 organizations serving news media, petitioned Congress for collective bargaining rights with these internet behemoths for greater control over how publisher content is exhibited on these platforms.
They argue that Google and Facebook benefit from the work of numerous media organizations without fair compensation for publishers, thus creating an unsustainable future for high-quality journalism and democracy to thrive.
Google and Facebook dominate online news traffic and consume the bulk of digital ad revenue. Because of this digital duopoly, publishers are forced to surrender their content and play by their rules on how news and information is displayed, prioritized and monetized. — News Media Alliance
For publishers, large and small, the paywall presents both some potential advantages and disadvantages. Only time will tell if this solution is enough to ease tension with the publishing community and reestablish credibility in journalism.
In the meantime, let’s explore the potential benefits and drawbacks together.
The Upside for Publishers
Like it or not, the paywall may offer a valuable new monetization method for publishers struggling to generate income and respond to changing ad practices. Facebook claims that it doesn’t want a cut of the subscription revenue or any of the user data collected.
Facebook’s recently-hired news veteran, Campbell Brown, stated:
“Quality journalism costs money to produce, and we want to make sure it can thrive on Facebook. As part of our test to allow publishers in Instant Articles to implement a paywall, they will link to their own websites to process subscriptions and keep 100% of the revenue.”
Facebook’s detached strategy may provide enough autonomy for select publishers to grow subscription revenue and augment readership.
The biggest challenge facing online publications is their ability to scale, both in terms of website performance and audience acquisition. If there’s one thing that Facebook offers, it’s the grand scale of their platform.
The social media network boasts over 2 billion users worldwide, and in the United States alone, more than half of all adults access the news from social media.
62 percent of US adults get news on social media — Gottfried
and Shearer 2016
Facebook has established an infrastructure that can sustain such a vast pool of users devouring media on the site, every second of every day.
For publishers, the question to ask is whether or not there is a greater return on investment by pushing traffic directly to the publication’s website, or by engaging that traffic contemporaneously with other forms of media they’re already consuming.
If you’re in the web industry, you may be hearing the term “personalization” more frequently these days. P13N, personalization shortened, is a growing initiative within web development and publishing communities.
The idea is that by doing deep machine learning about our users, we can serve personalized and highly relevant content to them. Prominent media outlets such as The New York Times and Forbes have implemented user tracking on their site that tailors the content for the current user’s preferred experience.
For larger publications with the development savvy to implement personalization strategies on their sites, they are seeing the benefits of increased user engagement and higher conversions of readers into paid subscribers. Publications still struggling to monetize in today’s news economy adequately, may view personalization as one of those feature requests for the future; not easily attainable today.
Facebook’s Instant Articles and future paywall could be the shortcut to personalization that publishers need to gain an edge with their audience.
Perceived Integrity in Publishing
The 2016 presidential election was undeniably polarizing. The divisive election was memorable for many reasons, but it was the onslaught of “fake news” generated and shared on social media throughout the election that left the darkest impression on the publishing community as a whole.
The overall impact that this form of deceitful media may have had on the election is hard to quantify. The fact remains, Facebook unwittingly became the biggest perpetrator of fake news and the social giant has struggled ever since to combat the sheer amount of disingenuous content being shared.
Introducing a paywall may provide a perceived sense of integrity to users discovering their news through Facebook.
The Downside for Publishers
Increased Reliance on Facebook
Immediately, the biggest drawback is the increased reliance on Facebook’s technology to disseminate the news and other forms of media in a time when so many of us are benefiting from the flexibility of open-source communities. Facebook, which open sources many of it’s technology projects, still places many restrictions on the publishers providing content for their Instant Article platform.
The paywall was introduced a week after News Media Alliance’s retaliation against Google and Facebook for dominating the digital media landscape. Before we can give Zuck a pat on the back for this attempt to extend an olive branch, we have to consider how little this would alter Facebook’s colossal distribution share of the news.
Inadvertently, it also detracts from the continued development of other open-source technologies developed with real democracy in mind; open-source technologies that can continue to benefit publishers long after the next Facebook marketing trend.
A few years ago, some businesses dumped their company websites to invest their resources into creating a presence on Facebook pages instead. They are now finding that their organic reach is being limited and are forced to pay to play. This is the problem when you rent space on somebody else’s playground. And Facebook is the world’s largest digital landlord, isn’t it? — Anurag Harsh
Increased reliance on Facebook Instant Articles and other restrictive solutions can be a giant black box of uncertainty. In exchange for wide distribution, you waive full control over your content and the future of the platform.
It’s extremely common for publishers to experiment with the number of free articles it provides readers before requiring a subscription. Facebook’s one-size-fits-all paywall will restrict this number to ten articles.
Publishers won’t have the liberty to iterate on this number, despite having access to valuable data from Facebook that may suggest a change, in order to keep the experience consistent for users from publisher to publisher.
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Any given publisher may benefit from a higher or lower threshold depending on its respective audience. Just like all digital businesses these days, publications are relying on data to inform strategic decisions, and the benefit of hosting your own content is being able to implement data-driven changes.
When you defer control of your content to Facebook Instant Articles, you agree to play by the rules of their sandbox. You’re subject to content limits and user agreement changes that could directly impact the profitability of your
It’s uncertain how users will respond to paying for premium content that they’ve primarily accessed for free over the years. Some might argue that the paid subscription-model doesn’t represent modern media consumption. Users want news fast, quick, now… but do they want to pay for it?
Millennials, in particular, the largest demographic of social media users, have shifted towards live video and authentic on-the-ground reporting experiences. Frankly, while they are shopping on mobile, most are savvy enough to source their news from other forms of free media, so there’s definitely a level of skepticism over how successful the paywall will be at capturing new readers and setting a precedence for quality journalism.
Users have grown to accept advertisements, but it’s unclear how they’ll react to forking over real dollar bills for their news and eventually, their video content too.
What is clear is that reader behavior has evolved and continues to be shaped by emerging technologies. The paywall may detour some audiences and cause premium journalism to be less accessible for some.
Wrapping It Up
Bottomline: Debate about the future of news media is far from over. The news industry has been radically afflicted by changes in the economy, rapid digital adoption, and progressive reader behavior. News media will continue to face new challenges as new technologies, like Facebook Instant Articles and artificial intelligence, are introduced into the mix.
The future is easy to speculate about, but hard to accurately predict. As we look towards the future of news media, there’s hope in open-source technology that continues to provide a low barrier to entry for publications of all sizes. The WordPress community is committed to providing publishers with free, or low-cost, open-source tools to develop and maintain thriving publications.
If you’re interested in learning more about the WordPress publishing community, there’s still time to pick up tickets for WordCamp for Publishers in Denver later this week. We would love to see you there and tell you how we provide the World’s Most Scalable Media Solution for WordPress.