Opinion

Facebook’s Instant Articles: A response to consumers' increasingly short attention spans

6 min read

15 May 2015

Former deputy editor

Like the expression goes, time is money. Recognising that, Facebook has introduced a new time-effective way for users to get briefed on world news by partnering with publishers including The New York Times, Buzzfeed and National Geographic for Instant Articles – speeding up monetisation opportunities in the process.

Twitter is arguably the company that changed everything when it came to lowering the attention spans of today’s consumers, providing users of the social network with just 140-characters to express their thoughts with per tweet.

Indeed, it requires a certain amount of creativity to condense comprehensive information into succinct sentences – lest people risk committing grammatical crimes with “text talk” or hijacking a timeline with multiple tweets on the same topic and potentially losing followers in the process.

A demonstration of the unpopularity of social media spamming was witnessed on 11 May when rapper ASAP Rocky lost 100,000 Instagram followers in just ten hours, having flooded fans with 150 images without stopping for breath. 

Discontent with making the world abbreviate, Twitter bought and launched Vine in January 2013. It saw the firm carry its short-form model into the burgeoning video space, allowing users to offer just six-seconds to get their message across in a clip that loops endlessly.

Of course, it’s not just the public that’s using the channels, which have become lucrative marketing opportunities for brands large and small to embrace. It’s a chance to have fun and get innovative, but it’s a way of connecting and engaging with customers, while also showing off some personality.

The caveat to this, however, is that consumers are, without question, increasingly inundated with content from all angles. That combined with busier lifestyles means that attention spans are getting shorter, and a video, even one just a minute long, could be snubbed in favour of one a tenth of the size.

What does this mean for news publishers? Well, the print is dead argument continues as digital investment increases, thus Facebook has recognised the attitudes of today’s consumers, which is why it has launched the Instant Articles product.

“As more people get their news on mobile devices, we want to make the experience faster and richer on Facebook,” said product manager Michael Reckhow. “People share a lot of articles on Facebook, particularly on our mobile app. To date, however, these stories take an average of eight seconds to load, by far the slowest single content type on Facebook. Instant Articles makes the reading experience as much as ten times faster than standard mobile web articles.”

The speed itself will be achieved as the content will be hosted directly on Facebook servers, which will make access to material immediate.

In a Q&A session, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg explained the demand for speed from users was a stimulus behind the new product.

It sounds remarkably similar to an innovation from 19-year-old British entrepreneur Nick D’Aloisio, who developed news summary app Summly.

The value of such a commodity was proven when Yahoo bought Summly for $30m in 2013, subsequently rebranding as Yahoo News Digest and hiring D’Aloisio as its head.

Access to Instant Articles will be exclusive to nine publishers initially, with The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel and Bild being given keys to test drive the new vehicle.

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Beyond summarising content and making it faster, interactive features are said to include high-resolution image zooming via tilts, while videos will automatically play during scrolling, captions can be listened to and maps can be explored.

At the heart of all of this, of course, is revenue.

“We designed Instant Articles to give publishers control over their stories, brand experience and monetisation opportunities,” Reckhow detailed.

“Publishers can sell ads in their articles and keep the revenue, or they can choose to use Facebook’s Audience Network to monetise unsold inventory. Publishers will also have the ability to track data and traffic through comScore and other analytics tools.”

The new innovation from Facebook follows the social network’s increasing focus on generating business from SMEs. It announced in April that 40m small firms now host pages on the site, while it plans to target 3,000 SMEs in five UK cities this summer with workshops.

The move will build on the inaugural Facebook SME Bootcamp that took place in London in April, when SMB regional director Ciaran Quilty spoke to Real Business about why the market is of such importance.

Mark Thompson, president and CEO, The New York Times Company, said, “The New York Times already has a significant and growing audience on Facebook. We’re participating in Instant Articles to explore ways of growing the number of Times users on Facebook, improving their experience of our journalism and deepening their engagement.

“We have a long tradition of meeting readers where they are and that means being available not just on our own sites, but on the social platforms frequented by many current and potential Times users.”