Facebook claims subscription test results are ‘promising’ so far, though still small

Eight months after Facebook started testing subscription sales within news publishers’ Instant Articles pages, it said those tests with a dozen publishers have yielded “promising” preliminary results.

According to Facebook, people who saw subscription offers from publishers in Instant Articles in May were 17 percent more likely to subscribe than those who just saw publishers’ standard mobile web links. Facebook said it plans to expand the test to an undetermined number in the coming weeks and eventually, to all publishers, but didn’t give a time frame.

Alex Hardiman, head of news products for Facebook, said in an interview that the subscription test was part of a broader effort by Facebook to support high-quality publishers. The test involved 12 publishers in the U.S. and Europe, including The Washington Post, Hearst Newspapers and Bild.

It’s hard to know how much one month of data across 12 publishers will apply to the rest of the industry. (The results were isolated to May because that was Facebook’s first full month of results across Android and iOS devices; the test initially rolled out only on Android devices.) The results also don’t account for seasonal factors or other offers that publisher might have out there. They also will vary by publisher. Facebook wouldn’t break out results by publisher.

Mark Campbell, svp of digital marketing at Tronc’s Tribune Interactive, one of the publishers in the test group, said he was pleased with the results; at the Baltimore Sun, one of three Tronc papers in the test, conversion increased 50 percent. Campbell said the test results were “certainly a bright spot” in Facebook’s relationship with publishers. Tribune had held out on using Instant Articles because of the lack of a subscription option. He said that based on the test results, he would look to expand the test to other Tribune markets and expand the use of Instant Articles.

Still on his wish list is more information about what signals indicate a user is likely to subscribe. “Facebook knows a lot about its users,” he said. “We could potentially offer them a different meter.”

Bild’s results were less rosy. “Unfortunately, the beta test phase with Facebook did not show a significant uplift in subscriptions through Instant Articles so far,” said Stefan Betzold, managing director of Bild Digital. “Therefore we need to further optimize the test with even stronger support from Facebook on analysis and user flow optimizations to make it a success. We do still believe in the idea of subscription initiatives that are integrated into platforms like Facebook Instant Articles as a necessary means for a true partnership between publishers and platforms.“

How much Facebook can move the needle for subscription publishers’ bottom line is another question. Facebook wouldn’t say how frequently people subscribe to publications through Facebook in the first place, but admitted it’s a minority of publishers’ subscribers. That’s not surprising, as news isn’t the main reason people are going to Facebook in the first place. Still, Hardiman called it a “misperception that Facebook is only for flyby readers. What this test shows is there are a lot of people who are willing to pay for journalism and have a deep relationship with publishers.”

Facebook’s relationship with publishers has been strained over Facebook cutting referral traffic to publishers, failing to delivery meaningful revenue from their video content and subjecting them to a controversial issues ads policy that Facebook enacted in response to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — not to mention mopping up, along with Google, most of the digital ad market.

With the subscriptions test, Facebook is eager to show it’s listening to publishers. The new blog post was filled with positive testimonials from publishers that participated in the test. Facebook let publishers keep all the subscription revenue and associated customer data and said it plans to continue doing so (Facebook sends users to the publishers’ site to subscribe).

Rival Google has also been rolling out a subscription tool for publishers in April, Subscribe with Google, naming 17 launch publishers. Google is taking a small cut of the revenue (up to 15 percent) but won points with publishers for letting them set their meters anywhere they want and generally portraying itself as sharing publishers’ interests.

Facebook has gotten more flexible as the testing has gone on, following publisher pushback. Facebook initially required publishers to set their meter at 10 articles a month; in April, it loosened that requirement and let publishers set it at the same level as their own sites.

Facebook also has tested subscription signup buttons outside Instant Articles, on publishers’ Facebook pages, to expand the number of places users might run into subscription offers. It’s tested the ability for publishers to make time-specific offers, like a July 4 sale, and to decide which articles are locked to non-subscribers. It’s also tested ways to predict if someone is likely to subscribe, and putting more subscription offers in front of those people. Right now, the metered model is based on monthly prices, but Facebook said it plans to give publishers the ability to make offers on a weekly and daily basis, too.

A sticking point for some publishers may be that the subscription test requires them to use Facebook’s Instant Articles format. Many publishers have cut back on or stopped using the fast-loading articles feature because they’d rather have visitors read articles on their own sites and Instant Articles keeps readers in Facebook’s ecosystem (and generates ad revenue for Facebook). Many also said they can make more money by selling ads on their own mobile sites. For subscription publishers to rethink Instant Articles, they’d need to see subscription sales there offset any ad revenue downside.

Both Facebook and Google’s subscription tools also don’t extend to membership- and donation-based publishers; Hardiman said Facebook sought to build its subscription tool with flexibility and hoped to add that ability in the second half of 2018.


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