Don’t Worry About Facebook Instant Articles: Here’s Why They’re Actually a Good Thing

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Last week, Facebook made a big announcement: the release of their new Instant Articles feature. It allows publishers to create and distribute mixed-media articles in a self-contained Facebook “capsule,” while promising mobile app users a more visually interesting reading experience that loads significantly faster that articles have previously.

In response, my HubSpot colleague Kipp Bodnar wrote a blog post concluding that Instant Articles is bad for marketers. But I think he’s missing the point. There’s a whole other aspect of the debate that marketers need to consider.

Let me show you what I mean. Take a moment to read through this quote:

Something has dramatically changed. The way people consume information on Facebook is not controlled by businesses with big advertising budgets. Users are in control. In order to successfully break through the noise and connect to people, companies need to rethink their Facebook strategy from the bottom-up. They need to ensure readers can find their content in a manner consistent with the way they use Facebook.”

This sounds like something said in support of Facebook’s new Instant Articles feature, right?

Not so fast. The quote had nothing to do with Instant Articles. It was written by HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan in the introduction to his 2010 best-selling book, Inbound Marketing. The year 2010! I simply changed the tense to present and substituted readers, information and Facebook for consumers, products and marketing to illustrate the parallel.

Halligan’s observation helped give rise to inbound marketing itself. Today’s successful inbound marketers adapt to the behaviors and preferences of their buyers, turning inside-out the conventional brand-first model.

So why would these very same pioneers scoff at Instant Articles, which promises to enhance the user’s Facebook experience by allowing them to consume content in their preferred manner?

In my opinion, whether Instant Articles is good or bad for marketers is the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking if the way Facebook is packaging and distributing Instant Articles is consistent with the way its mobile users want to discover, consume and share content.

If the answer is yes, then to attempt to counteract that tendency is the current-day equivalent of outbound marketing. That is to say: It’s company-centric, not reader-centric.

Facebook Understands Its Users

Researchers have found that, with a large enough data set, Facebook can know you better than your spouse does. The company also understands that when it comes to mobile content, format matters. Self-contained content (such as cards) rules. So does speed. Instant Articles was developed in reaction to these shifting behavioral patterns.

Should Facebook open Instant Articles to brand publishers, then the company will have (inadvertently) pressured marketing to (yet again) drag their change-averse employers along into weird, uncharted territory. This time, the brand creates content for the counter-intuitive purpose of ceding pretty much all control over it.

Control, or more specifically, the lack of control, is Bodnar’s primary beef with Instant Articles as a marketing vehicle. His conclusion is plausible: “When you make a deal with Facebook, you give up control. When you give up control, you give up the ability to predictably drive growth and revenue — which is exactly what marketers aim to do.” Yup.

And yet, remember that the fundamental premise of inbound marketing is that the consumer (in our case, the reader) is in control.

Admittedly, if Instant Articles is rolled out to brand publishers, we might find ourselves having to rethink our SEO strategy — in the conventional, Google-centric sense of the phrase, anyway. And I’d be surprised if the “container” supported the calls-to-action that are so vital to lead generation. But, provided we are able to pair the right topics with the right blend of words and images, then what we stand to gain is at least on par with what we sacrifice. That is, new DNA in our customer gene pool.

Why ‘Reader-Centric’ is Good

Instant Articles is designed to inspire and facilitate sharing. It’s not an accident that the “share button” is contained in the coveted upper left corner of the article depicted below. Search is only effective if readers have a sense of what they’re looking for — and then take an action to find it.

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Yet what about the much larger audience comprised of people who have little or no sense of who you are or what you do? They are, by definition, the most difficult segment to reach. And yet, through the promise of accelerated sharing across “the internet of streams,” Instant Articles — at least theoretically — puts you in a better position to reach this elusive group. (And through highly trusted sources, no less.)

Marketers Shouldn’t Lose Sleep

Ultimately, Instant Articles will prove to be a minor disruption. It will be confounding enough to cause some initial hand-wringing, but over time, will seem like much ado about nothing. After just a few internal discussions, a marketing use case is beginning to emerge.

Marketers should test Instant Articles as a distribution vehicle for posts with a short half-life, like “real-time” articles, newsjacking, and perhaps even infographics. In other words, saccharine content that’s produced for a quick burst in traffic but isn’t expected to nourish long-term growth.

As Bodnar mentioned, HubSpot has long contended that marketers should behave like publishers. Innovative publishers like The New York Times and BuzzFeed, two Instant Articles beta partners, recognize that experimentation is essential to survival.

Had the Times stood on principle, it would have never expanded from print to web, web to app, and now app to Instant Articles. As marketers, we too need to be willing to exchange what we want people to do for what they are going to do anyway, with or without us. In the end, that’s what inbound is all about.

What do you think about Facebook’s Instant Articles feature? Discuss in the comments below.

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