Facebook will ‘completely deprioritize publishers’: Confessions of a publisher audience development head

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Many of the publishers that spent 2016 and 2017 investing in Facebook products like Instant Articles and news feed videos enter the new year with new perspective on the relationship they have with the world’s largest social platform. For the latest installment of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, we spoke to an audience development head at a midsize digital publisher that resisted the temptation to go all-in on those products. The conversation has been condensed.

You don’t put a lot of resources into news feed video, Instant Articles or any of Facebook’s other products. Why?
We don’t use Instant Articles, and we didn’t pivot to video, but Facebook has encouraged us not to pivot to video, very candidly so. The opportunities for monetization there are basically nil. The ROI for the kind of investment required to put out the amount of video some folks are putting out there isn’t there. And with Instant Articles, being a first candidate for alpha and beta testing is predicated on being there, but the dev lift would be such a heavy lift for not much return.

Facebook actually told you not to pivot to video?
It wasn’t an explicit “don’t do this.” But it was a candid conversation about publishers pivoting to video and crashing and failing. Look at Mic or the BuzzFeed video series that used to take off and just don’t anymore. It was in the context of other publishers taking this step, and it didn’t yield the results they wanted.

Investing time in news feed video seems like a dubious decision. How is Facebook responding to that?
The way they responded to it was enlightening for me. It was one of the first conversations I’d had where it was clear that the publishers were testing a product. A lot of these decisions are made by the product team — not the audience or even the engineers. With video specifically, they were looking at it as an experiment.

So, not a lot of contrition there.
Not at all. It was almost like, “It’s not us, it’s the product team.” When you’re a publisher, you don’t think of yourself as part of a test, but really, we’re all at the behest of Facebook and their constant experimentation. That’s all going to go away in 2018.

Why do you say that?
They are going to completely deprioritize publishers. They very candidly said to me, “If I were you, I would probably not rely on Facebook as much as you are.” So a big strategy for publishers needs to be diversification. The people at Facebook I’ve spoken to have confirmed this. Their efforts are going to be elsewhere.

Did hearing that change the way you interact with them?
Maybe. I’m seeing the relationship we have as a fruitful one, as opposed to a functional one. I know what to turn to them for now. [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg changed the mission statement a couple months ago, and this is what the reps keep coming back to. For a while, it became all about publishers. Now, they’re going back to making it about individuals, communities, groups and membership. I think now, if I were to go to them, it will be for completely different reasons than I did last year.

How will you focus your energy differently?
We need to see how we’re going to elevate our journalists on Facebook the way they elevate themselves on Twitter. Our journalists have huge social capital there. Groups are going to be interest-oriented hubs, and it’s going to be important to watch that. It’s very much going to be the year of the individual brand.

With all the effort you put into building a good relationship with Facebook, how did it feel to hear that publishers are going to be less important to the platform?
I guess it would be an annoying, possibly devastating thing for publishers, especially the ones that rely on it so much. We don’t get the bulk of our traffic from Facebook. We have a loyal user base. That’s going to behoove us going forward. We’re not going to be dead or anything. It’s going to be a challenge, but the only thing we can do is be creative. There are new platforms to be discovered on and new ways we can stay afloat.


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