Yesterday’s news that Facebook has launched its Instant Article initiative, whereby it hosts selected news and magazine content rather than linking to another website, is a good reminder about the changing power dynamics that shifts in discovery practices are introducing. The New York Times’ coverage of this launch focuses extensively on its implications for The Times itself, which is one of less than a dozen publishers that is experimenting with what is for the news industry a new content distribution paradigm.
Facebook’s Instant Article initiative appeals to news publishers, a group looking to find additional avenues to monetize their online content as print continues to erode. One statistic that especially caught my eye: “For The Times, Facebook represents from 14 to 16 percent of its web traffic — a figure that has doubled in recent months.” Trends like these raise several issues for any publisher, the most important of which is that whatever traffic a discovery service gives a publisher today, it can take away tomorrow. Facebook has regularly updated its newsfeed algorithm, which is possibly the single most powerful recommender system in use today, to highlight news over memes one month, personal interest over the public good another.
For this reason, the news brands that are internationally powerful enough, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, have sought to strengthen their direct relationships with readers rather than rely simply on traffic sent to them by discovery services like Facebook, Twitter, and Google News. Often these have taken the form of online subscriptions which are required for access after a reader exceeds a metered threshold of article consumption over a given time period. Certainly, online subscriptions are a preferred source of revenue as compared with advertising, not least because the former can erode only so fast while the latter can disappear overnight when an important enough third-party updates its algorithm. But while the revenue from subscriptions has helped news publishers’ bottom lines, there is another dimension to their interests. Ultimately, they are looking for mechanisms to strengthen their relationships with readers – and potential readers – as a mechanism over time to discourage or at least limit “grab and go” behavior.
News publishers share with scholarly publishers the challenge of “grab and go” behavior. From the publisher’s perspective, an individual who lands on an article (or ebook or other material type), perhaps downloads it, and then disappears back to the discovery service, represents a lost opportunity, as compared with an individual who visits The Times, or ScienceDirect, or Oxford Journals Online, due to mindful interest in the materials there. Savvy content platforms are analyzing the behavioral differences among researchers who arrive via an internet search engine, through Google Scholar, through Scopus or Web of Science, through an A&I service, through a content alert, or through a bookmark, a LibGuide, or other direct mechanism. They are finding in some cases material differences in users’ behaviors that provide them with strong incentives to try to convert “grab and go” behavior into a stronger relationship. Strategies for doing so are only beginning to be designed and implemented.
Why then would news publishers even consider joining Facebook’s Instant Article initiative? For one thing, there is money to be made given Facebook’s willingness to drive traffic and advertising revenues, while there are promises of analytics no less sophisticated than those the publisher has on its own platform. But while these explanations may offset some of the disadvantages and perhaps provide marginal revenues, they impede the core objective of strengthening reader relationships.
Instead, publishers are battling against the fact that in many cases, readers have a much stronger relationship with their discovery services than they do with content providers. This is no less true for scholarly publishers than it is with news brands. One has shared far more personal information with Facebook, Twitter, or Mendeley, or through a user account with Google or any of a variety of other services, than with The Times, or ScienceDirect, or Oxford Journals Online. While scholarly authors may in some cases have strong relationships with their preferred publishers or journals, on the reader side workflows and affinities increasingly favor discovery over content. For Facebook, the long time lag between a user clicking an article in their news feed and it loading for them – 8 seconds! – was an enormous stumbling block impeding its users’ satisfaction, and since it manages the discovery algorithm, it makes choices about what content to preference for its users. Scrolling through one’s Facebook feed, one is perhaps interested in the latest story that a friend has shared but far less frequently a loyal reader of The Times’ coverage of that particular issue.
Some may laugh that 8 seconds should make a difference one way or another, but I recently wrote (here and in greater detail here) about some of the much more serious stumbling blocks that impede researcher access to scholarly materials online. What is the equivalent of Facebook’s Instant Articles initiative? If the indexed discovery services drive increasing amounts of researcher traffic to scholarly content, it is easy to see advantages to putting increasing amounts of content “inside” the discovery services, or at least on their affiliated content platforms. It is possible to interpret aspects of EBSCO’s and ProQuest’s strategy over the last few years as consistent, at least, with this type of outcome. Other scenarios are possible if Google were to wish to act on the high share of discovery that it drives through its Search and Scholar products, or if Elsevier through Scopus and Mendeley do so, or if Twitter or a variety of innovative startups play that role. Even if discovery and access were to take place in a highly decentralized environment, the need to address the access stumbling blocks that researchers face are no less urgent.
But discovery, at least in the consumer sector, seems to possess a certain type of centripetal force, perhaps like gravity one that is a function of its mass. Some libraries and publishers may yet have an ability to influence which discovery services for scholarship will achieve this level of “critical mass.”