A game-changing innovation: Creating content exclusively for Facebook

Facebook’s siren song inviting publishers to create content exclusively for its News Feed reminds me of an Indiana Jones movie. 

In every swashbuckling adventure, there was always a mountain of gold or a fantastic artefact within reach, but there also was always a very real chance of dying a terrible death either in the process of getting the gold or from a blood-curdling curse down the road.

Partnering with Facebook with its treasure chest of 1.4bn active users has the same irresistible allure for publishers, as well as some serious dangers and potential curses lurking in the background (loss of user data and no shared ad revenue).

My recommendation? The initial risk of publishing content exclusively on Facebook is so modest, and the potential gain so fantastic, publishers should give it a try. Now. 

Even if you are not one of Facebook’s initial partners, you can begin testing the strategy on your own and be ready for when Facebook comes calling or opens its doors to more publishers.

Should you worry about the curses? Absolutely. 

But until the arrangements for the sharing of revenue and user data are finalised, publishers should dive in to see if Facebook-only content works for you and your readers (and potential readers). Then, when the data and revenue details are clarified, you can make an informed decision as to the value of the partnership and what is an acceptable cost of getting access to Facebook’s unequalled audience.

For now, the chance to be favoured by Facebook’s News Feed algorithm and to reach a significant portion of the site’s massive readership (many of whom may not even know you exist!) is reason enough to start experimenting. 

Besides, readers are abandoning home pages in droves, preferring to find content through the recommendations of their friends on social media in general and on Facebook in particular. Facebook alone is already responsible for directing as much as 40 per cent of some sites’ traffic; at BuzzFeed that figure is 80 per cent. So why not make it even easier to engage with you by meeting them on familiar turf?

So go for it. Test this strategy quickly and simply with a minimal investment: Assign a single staffer (it must be someone who understands what works on Facebook) to create social-friendly content exclusively for Facebook. And then see what happens.

Or, you could go whole hog, like Cosmopolitan did.

In mid-2014, Cosmo editors noticed an increase in their video engagements rates on Facebook (about the time Facebook changed its algorithm to favour video in News Feeds). So the Cosmo team decided to see what would happen if they launched a Facebook-only native video series. They came up with something called ‘Hacksmopolitan’, a comedic take on the classic staple: the lifestyle-tips video. 

After just three months, the Hacksmopolitan’ episodes were getting 53 per cent more shares than other Cosmo posts. One of the first videos, an episode about smoky eye makeup, got six million likes and 500 per cent more shares than the average Cosmo post. In just one month, Cosmo experienced a 200 per cent year-on-year increase in engagements to 2.5m likes, comments, and shares.

While the quality of the video series was top-notch and certainly influenced the growth in engagement, Hacksmopolitan also benefited directly and significantly from Facebook’s well-advertised decision not only to emphasise video in its News Feed but also, and more importantly, to give special News Feed treatment to “native” Facebook videos (videos that live on Facebook, not on YouTube or elsewhere that users must click away from Facebook to view). Native Facebook videos are also displayed in Facebook’s new, bigger, better video player, and obviously load much more quickly than off-site videos.

Vox employed a similar strategy in February with their interview of US president Barack Obama. The editors decided to post in-depth video excerpts (not just 10-second promo clips) exclusively on Facebook before the full interview went live on vox.com. In the first two hours alone, the videos were viewed 250,000 times; they ended up getting more than one million views in total. 

The potential to similarly scale text content, especially sponsored content or native advertising, could deliver some very big numbers for publishers who are in need of very big numbers. With such scale, content and sponsored content could reach a massive audience, enabling publishers to charge the kind of rates they need to replace the ever-dwindling print ad revenue.

So it was no surprise when the other shoe (posting text content exclusively on Facebook) dropped on 24 March. The New York Times reported that the Times itself as well as BuzzFeed, National Geographic, and three other publishers were going to be Facebook’s initial partners in publishing unique text content exclusively for the social media giant. Readers who click on a publisher’s ‘native’ Facebook story will stay on the Facebook site to read it.

Using the same argument they used to encourage posting video exclusively on Facebook, the company said their push for native text content was designed to create a better user experience. Facebook claimed that readers have to wait an average of eight seconds for pages to load when a reader clicks on a link in Facebook but is directed to a site outside of Facebook. That’s too long, Facebook insisted, especially for mobile users. To capture the attention of today’s impatient readers, eight seconds is a bridge too far. 

They also argued that posting on Facebook also makes sense because you are:

  • Going where the audience already is
  • Reaching them where they feel comfortable
  • Catching them where they spend much if not most of their online time
  • Exposing your content to audiences who otherwise might never have found you
  • Getting your content to them where they do most of their sharing, and
  • Packaging your content in a format that is conducive to the platform (e.g., Facebook’s native video player)

Meanwhile, Facebook will deliver:

  • A quality user experience environment
  • Extremely sophisticated targeting
  • Proven ad unit presentation (if the revenue sharing happens)
  • An incentive to create content worthy of sharing instead of click-bait content

As a result, “engagement, views, sharing, time spent — pick whatever metric makes you feel the best — will increase,” according to awl.com co-editor and former BuzzFeed tech editor John Herrman.

It works. 

“In general, we do see higher sharing rates from the native-only posts,” Chris Thorman, Vox Media’s director of audience development, told Digiday. “They don’t have to click off; there’s no barrier to engage.” Vox’s success with native Facebook video is nothing short of astounding, with Facebook driving most of Vox’s 2014 year-over-year social reach increases of between 200 to 450 per cent across the company’s verticals.

Some publishers are already creating exclusive text content for social sites. In January, Snapchat launched Discover where publishers place exclusive content and reach Snapchat’s audience of as many as 200m young people. 

According to re/code.net, Snapchat is getting an astounding US$100 CPMs for Discover ads, and sites like ESPN are getting $100,000 per-day for Snapchat ads. One publisher told Digiday:“I can’t tell you what the numbers are, but they’re f’ing incredible.”

Again in the vanguard of change, National Geographic was one of the original partners, and the gamble paid off handsomely. 

“On Discover launch day, we had the most interaction and engagement ever for a digital property in a single day,” said National Geographic Society chief media officer Declan Moore. “Who would have thought?!”

Well, Moore himself actually did think of it. He approved the Discover experiment. And he’s been anticipating publishing innovations at National Geographic for some time, including the Snapchat and, potentially, Facebook collaborations.

“This is a consumer behaviour issue with people spending more time in social networks and reducing the number of destinations they go to for story telling,” Moore told FIPP. “It is important for us to have our journalism in the places where they’re going.

“Should publishers experiment with native Facebook publishing? Yes, absolutely,” Moore said.

According to BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti, “it increasingly doesn’t matter where our content lives.”

All Peretti wants is the data. If BuzzFeed’s team can get the data, they can optimise their content for that platform, especially BuzzFeed’s lifeblood: sponsored content.

The details of revenue sharing between publishers and Facebook are still being discussed but one option would have Facebook allowing publishers to show a single ad in a custom format in each native Facebook post, according to the Times story quoting someone with knowledge of the negotiations.

The question, though, would appear to be how, not if there will be revenue sharing.

Until last fall, Facebook had never shared revenue. In December, in a little-noticed but potentially paradigm-busting experiment, Facebook partnered with the U.S. National Football League (NFL) to show its action videos sponsored by telecommunications company Verizon. Verizon ads appeared at the end of the video, and the NFL and Facebook split the revenue. So Facebook has finally set a precedent for revenue sharing with partners.

You can see where this is going, right? 

Native Facebook content will be presented in News Feeds in the most compelling design Facebook can create while non-native content will appear less appealing. Similarly, Facebook’s algorithm will favor native Facebook content in the same way it favours native video, leaving non-native text and video in the dust.

The reward for publishers? A potential revenue share, data share, and an increase of reach by an order of magnitude. And, because the stories will be different from what appears on a publisher’s site, there will likely be little or no negative impact on subscription numbers (and possibly an increase due to the exposure of your brand to people who would not otherwise encounter it).

“There’s little question in my mind that Facebook will over time favour content that is on site, slowly freezing out everyone else,” wrote Ben Thompson, former Microsoft executive and current tech blogger and consultant, on his blog “Stratechery”.

That is why it is so important to start figuring this whole native Facebook publishing thing out early, all the while keeping in mind the potential pitfalls.

Critics with a doomsday outlook predict a day when Facebook becomes not only the modern equivalent of the printing press and delivery truck, but also (and this is not a stretch) the sales team representing publishers. 

The next predicted disaster would be readers liking the Facebook-based content so much that they increasingly limit their reading to Facebook making the social media giant the dominant revenue stream for publishers, in effect making publishers and their staffs for all intents and purposes employees of Facebook. 

And then, given how dependent publishers would be on Facebook, what happens if Facebook decides it wants to change the revenue sharing model…you can imagine where the doomsday people go next.

The late NYT media critic David Carr saw this development coming and warned last fall that “media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.”

Less grim observers see Facebook just becoming yet another place for publishers to get their content in front of readers and create another incremental ad stream, like Snapchat.

Media critic and author Jeff Jarvis, writing on his “BuzzMachine” blog, had a short and sweet message for publishers considering creating native Facebook content: 

“I have one bit of advice: Don’t do it without the data, people.

“It’s a damned fine idea to go to the readers rather than make them come to you — BuzzFeed does it; so does Vox; so does Reported.ly. It’s wonderful to get more audience and branding on Facebook. It’d be super peachy to get a share of revenue from Facebook at last. All that is great.

“But keep in mind where the real value is: in the relationship, in knowing what people — individuals and communities, not a faceless, anonymous mass — need and want and know so you can give them relevance and value and so they will give you greater usage, engagement, attention, loyalty, and advertising value in return.”

Every publisher must decide how much they’re willing to give up for access to the Facebook kingdom. And we won’t know until the initial partners conclude the first deal. 

“It really comes down to how Facebook structures this, and how they can ensure this is a win on both sides,” Edward Kim, chief executive of the analytics and distribution company SimpleReach told The New York Times.

But sitting on your hands and waiting should not be an option. Learn how to do it now, find out if Facebook’s users respond, weigh the advantages and disadvantages, and when the smoke clears, you’ll be ready to sign on the dotted line, or walk away. But you’ll do either from a position of strength and knowledge, not supposition and guesswork.

Why BuzzFeed loves dancing with Facebook

While other publishers are struggling with the idea of posting their own content exclusively on someone else’s site, BuzzFeed is already there.

Referrals from outside sources are already healthy: In January BuzzFeed got 420 million views through social media referrals (Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest). But BuzzFeed content living exclusively on those three platforms generated 18bn (with a b!) impressions. 

So, it’s hardly a blind leap of faith for BuzzFeed to want to find ways to enhance what is already a robust distributed content publishing system.

In August, BuzzFeed announced the creation of BuzzFeed Distributed, a team of 20 people creating original content exclusively for other platforms and messaging apps. The content they create will have all the characteristics of BuzzFeed content that has made it so successful, it will just never appear on BuzzFeed itself. It will appear on the big three (Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest) but also on Tumblr, Imgur, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and instant messaging apps.

BuzzFeed says it is simply following one trend — readers moving to social platforms — and anticipating another: “[It] might be that people consume media within the places where they’re also networking with their friends,” BuzzFeed Distributed head Summer Anne Burton told journalism.uk.

National Geographic’s Declan Moore: The Facebook opportunity “would be silly to ignore”

National Geographic’s chief content officer, Declan Moore, spoke with FIPP about publishing content exclusively on sites outside of NatGeo’s owned and operated sites.

Here are some excerpts of our conversation:

“This is an opportunity for us and a new way to reach a new audience that spends a lot of time on these platforms versus on our own sites or on the big web. We’re investing in reaching folks wherever it is they are spending their time.”

“We were among the early adopters when the iPad came out. Others sat on the sidelines and many said there was no way they would be running content on them. OK, fine. But Apple sold 3 million of those things in 90 days. If you’re not there, you can’t take part.

“No one today saying no we should not be present. We’ve had a different philosophy from other publishers.

“Facebook is a market that would be silly to ignore [because] the hours of engagement and the reach are so large and so vast.

“And there are some elegant ways you can encourage folks to come to your site and there are other monetisation possibilities that weren’t there before. Readers can register with you for different kinds of content experiences, and we’re encouraged with the number of folks who’ve done that. There will be more ways to connect with customers, but that’s down the road. 

“With Snapchat, for example, it’s taking reaching millennials to the power of ten. We are seeing great engagement with the audience that we do not see via big web, print or TV. 

“Also with Snapchat there is advertising, and it will be quite large.

“The sales people all of a sudden selling a demographic of ages 12-18, which is a very different set of buyers. We’ve sold buyers of Prilosec® and Lipitor®, now we’re selling consumers of Clearasil®. It’s an exciting change; we’ve never been in that category. We’ve had kids up to 11 or 12, but we weren’t picking them up again until they were in their mid-20s. Now we have an interesting proposition that fits right in.

“We’ll adapt, it will be important [to recognise that] instead of getting paid for media, media is going to be something to keep the brand top of mind, to be the flame, and then find a variety of different ways to generate a return from that — events, ancillary services, added commerce possibilities, some premium content or community profile access — those are the ways we will have to fund what we do in the future, not just the media alone.

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