New York Times, BuzzFeed and others to publish content directly on Facebook

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 3:24pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 4:38pm

Facebook has completed its transformation into a one-stop-shop web portal as several major US media organisations are preparing to publish content directly on the social media platform. 

According to the New York Times, Facebook is holding talks with publishers to host their content directly on the social media platform rather than sending users to external websites.

Facebook "intends to begin testing the new format in the next several months", with the Times, National Geographic and BuzzFeed as initial partners. Advertising will be served alongside the content, with publishers earning a cut of the revenue.

The new format will launch first the US, with global expansion in the near future. Facebook has targeted overseas users aggressively in recent years as US growth slows. According to a recent earnings report, Facebook has more than 450 million active users in the Asia Pacific region, a 51 per cent increase on 2012. 

Facebook has long been expected to open its platform to publishers, with executives repeatedly emphasising the company's desire to make user experience more "seamless" by keeping users within the Facebook ecosystem itself, rather than sending them to external websites, particularly on mobile.

“Reading news on a smartphone is still a very bad experience most of the time,” the company's chief product officer Chris Cox told Re/Code in February.

“We want to try and make that a better experience for publishers.”

Currently, nearly all media organisations, including the South China Morning Post, share content on Facebook via branded 'pages'. Readers also share content on their own Facebook walls, and through the company's Messenger app. When someone clicks on a link on Facebook, it loads in a new web browser window, a process that takes on average eight seconds according to the Times.

Facebook argues that this is too much time and that users would be better served by the content appearing directly within the Facebook app itself where, conveniently, the company would also earn revenue from advertising served alongside it.

"Facebook has far better data about individual users than any publisher has, and it wants to keep its users on Facebook," writes Nieman Lab's Joshua Benton.

"That data edge should enable it to charge higher rates to advertisers."

Video offers a prime example of how the new publishing plan might work. Since late last year, videos posted directly on Facebook's platform autoplay in users' feeds, while to view content from third-party providers, users must click on the video to play, or visit an external site.

The company has also entered into partnerships with video creators and advertisers. In December, the NFL began publishing clips from sports games sponsored by Verizon, with Facebook and the NFL sharing advertising revenue.

"Facebook is more interested in hosting the things media companies make than just spreading them, it views links to outside pages as a problem to be solved, and it sees Facebook-hosted video as an example of the solution," technology and media commentator John Herrman wrote in January.

"A company that uploads its videos to Facebook is not the publisher of those videos. At best, it produced them."

Many media organisations, which have become increasingly dependent on Facebook to drive traffic to their content, have seen a marked drop-off in referrals from the social network as it has begun to prioritise video content in the past year.

The ability to publish content directly on Facebook's platform will be attractive to some media organisations, particularly those new media publishers such as BuzzFeed which rely on native advertising – sponsored articles which appear alongside regular content – rather than traditional display ads. However, it remains to be seen how legacy publishers, many of whom place the majority of their content behind a paywall (as the Post does), will react.

The New York Times, a major pioneer of the paywall approach, will publish its content on Facebook, according to its own report, but other traditional media organisations may not be so keen.

Last week, five major international publishers, including the Guardian, Reuters, and the Financial Times, announced that they were teaming up to pool digital advertising space "to fight back against the drain of ad spend to tech giants such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook". 

Facebook's new model would be something of a return to the early days of the internet, when companies such as AOL and Yahoo sought to keep customers within their "walled gardens" and away from the wider internet, offering everything from instant messaging and news to video and gaming within one giant web portal.

Since the early 2000s, portals have been on the decline, a transformation driven largely by the rise of Google, whose search engine became the new front page of the internet for many millions of users, and the mobile internet. 

That trend now appears to be reversing, at least for Facebook, whose metamorphis into a traditional web portal has been a long time coming, as it folded users' status updates, photos, videos, and now content from other publishers into one online megasite.

Not all social media providers are taking this approach. Twitter, which opened its Hong Kong office this month, has a number of advertising models, such as promoted tweets and app install and newsletter subscription buttons, which encourage users to leave its website or app.

Speaking prior to today's news about Facebook, Peter Greenberger, Twitter's sales director for emerging markets, told the Post the company did not see it as a problem to drive traffic to other sites and apps. 

While he would not comment on Facebook specifically, Greenberger said Twitter viewed the situation as a conflict between the "Yahoo model vs the Google model", with Twitter following the lead of the search giant.

"If you can add value, if you help users find interesting info, they'll come back," Greenberger said. "We’re happy to send you that traffic."