The case for publishing directly to Facebook

When the subject of Facebook comes up with publishers, there’s not much room for nuance. For publishers, Facebook comes with strings attached — it’s become a significant source of referral traffic and a way to expose their content to new audiences, but research shows that people who come to publisher sites from social media don’t stay as long, which makes them less valuable to some advertisers. And that referral source could just as easily dry up if Facebook changed the way it promotes some content over others.

Now comes news that Facebook is in talks with some publishers to host their content directly on its platform, with Facebook running ads around it. The problem, critics say, is that by having their content live in Facebook’s ecosystem, the platform will control access to valuable reader data that publishers use to make their content better and promote other products to them, and may favor the content of those who publish directly over those who don’t.

The New York Times, BuzzFeed and National Geographic are expected to be the initial partners, according to the Times report.

The news brought out the alarmists in full force.

But for some publishers and in some cases, it’s not such a terrible idea. With the caveat that there are lots of unknowns about this — such as how much ad revenue and reader data Facebook will share with publishers — here’s the case for publishing directly to Facebook.

As an audience-building strategy
For smaller publishers and newer brands, this could be a very attractive proposition, said Vivian Schiller, the former NPR and NBC News executive and most recently was head of news at Twitter. “Facebook is so colossal that it could help the smaller or newer guys get in front of large audience in a big way. For them, scale may be more important than revenue.”

Visibility for established publishers
For longstanding publishers, it might might make sense to let Facebook host some content, perhaps more commoditized news stories, for the reach and visibility, Schiller said. But Edward Kim, CEO of SimpleReach, said established players have less to lose than they might think. “If you have unique content and a unique voice, there’s a lot of opportunity. The content is the product. Where it’s showcased matters a bit less.”

The cable model
There are compelling reasons to test publishing inside Facebook’s walled garden, said digital entrepreneur John Battelle. He argues that it’s just another distribution outlet publishers have to use. Getting in early can give a publisher a first-mover advantage, and they can always pull back if it doesn’t work out. Similarly, the Daily Mail’s Jon Steinberg argues that publishers need to recognize that they can build huge audiences on the array of platforms out there, and use the platforms’ interest in their content to their advantage. “They all have slowing user growth to some extent,” he said. “They all need engagement. And content has been the lifeblood for achieving that.

Sharing as model
Publishing to Facebook could work to the advantage of sites that don’t have a well developed revenue stream that they’d be sacrificing, said Kim. BuzzFeed is unlike other publishers in that its business, which is built on getting its posts shared as much as possible, thrives on platforms. Its core ad product, native ads, are distributed just like its editorial content, so publishing to Facebook makes sense, Battelle said.

Ultimately, Facebook’s publisher initiatives may purely be designed not to hurt publishers but to improve the user experience by loading articles faster than they would on the publishers’ own sites. But whatever its motives, the details of the revenue and data sharing that Facebook offers remain a big question for publishers. And those aren’t aren’t widely known. That’s why even those who allow for some benefits to working within Facebook’s ecosystem do so with caveats.

“There’s always going to be a good use case for publishing on these platforms,” Battelle said. “My argument is, you don’t want to throw your whole lot in there.”