Image: justin sullivan/Getty Images
Facebook is listening. No, not to your phone calls — probably. They are listening to publishers. And yet, publishers are still wary of the technology company’s power and its ability to help them succeed in the new media industry.
Last week, Facebook held F8, its annual conference to tease all the cool stuff it’s working on. Traditionally it has provided opportunities for developers to also learn about those new toys, with Facebook CEO and coder Mark Zuckerberg presenting his latest open-source developments.
This year, the affair expanded to much more.
While thousands of developers wandered the halls of the San Jose Convention Center, a far fewer — but a noteworthy — number of media elite listened to talks at the Marriott Hotel and took private meetings with members of Facebook’s news team.
Image: courtesy of f8 attendee
Facebook isn’t just a technology company. It serves as a major media platform, and the company is starting to embrace that more and more. And yet, the publishers it relies on to provide the content for the platform remain displeased.
These talks last Wednesday were off the record. Reporters, like myself, were denied entry to the meeting halls. But, thankfully, publishers like to chat. The publishers we spoke to — anonymously because they do not dare bite the algorithm that feeds — each expressed annoyance with the platform, its history, and its continued inability to not execute on positive changes that could benefit them.
While Facebook is listening, clearly, there’s a fear that Facebook won’t create anything publishers desire — namely, revenue — and that they continue to move fast and break things without respecting news organizations.
Facebook "just kept being like, ‘We know there are concerns, and we’re excited to address them.’ But then it’s not like they were taking questions, at least as long as I was there. So it’s like, uh, ok?" an attendee, who works on the digital side of a major national media company, told me.
Publishers building for Facebook
Most of the first sessions Wednesday were spent discussing Instant Articles, Facebook’s solution to better news consumption for users on its platform by having publishers directly upload stories to Facebook.
Instant Articles have gotten a bad reputation by failing to bring in enough revenue to publishers and by failing to convert readers to loyal subscribers. The New York Times, a launch partner, abandoned the system last fall.
Campbell Brown, Facebook’s recently-hired head of news partnerships, and Fidji Simo, vice president of media products, said new features are on the way to support Instant Articles and to create other meaningful tools. For example, Facebook showed off its new Snapchat Discover knock-off, Facebook Editions.
Common theme being repeated over and over at #F8: "we understand that monetization is a huge issue w/ publishers; we are working on it."
— Nancy Lane (@localmediarocks) April 18, 2017
Still, The Guardian pulled out of Instant Articles this week.
Instant Articles aside, Facebook was also pitching some of its more innovative products. This time, monetization was at the forefront in the hopes of winning the praise of publishers. That’s helped attract some media organizations, which have spent precious time and other resources building experiences on top of the Facebook platform.
Facebook came, with confidence, to USA Today, asking them to work on a new form of digital storytelling for Facebook’s virtual reality headset Oculus. USA Today created an experiential tour of the Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Image: usa today
The relationship with Facebook is not perfect. There are many points of friction, Chauls said.
"How they engage with news and media companies is something we’re still figuring out," Chauls said.
Facebook building for publishers
Facebook is trying, apparently. Ricky Van Veen, Facebook’s head of global creative strategy, spoke publicly and private at F8, advising media companies and how they too can create fun and perhaps revenue-driving experiences with Facebook:
Facebook had a public display of their interest in media partnerships. A whole wing of the Convention Center was dedicated to media partners. It featured booths from Crowdtangle, a social monitoring platform Facebook bought last year, and Delmondo, a social video analytics company that offers real-time Facebook Live data and is a third-party partner.
Developers at media companies, as well as digital executives, stopped by the booths:
Other publishers spoke of their own success within Facebook, while cautious of the technology company as a powerful distributor.
"I think of [the Facebook algorithm] like a living breathing thing. It’s constantly evolving," said Jarrett Moreno, cofounder of ATTN. "We’ve never had a problem… Every algorithm change has only been good for us."
There’s no easy answer to why that could be true. What may be ATTN’s favor is their willingness to create video content, something Facebook prioritizes.
During the week of F8 and the week after, representatives from Facebook’s news and video teams met with partners to discuss upcoming video initiatives.
Last year, Facebook took the plunge and started paying some publishers for live video (Mashable was one of these companies). This year, Facebook is asking those companies to pitch scripted video series (something like TV) as well as some live video and video on demand exclusively for Facebook. Some agencies are speaking to Facebook about commerce-driven shows, like pitching products in video form like what you would see on QVC.
Facebook is looking to fill more high-end content within the video tab on the Facebook mobile app with shows that can now feature mid-roll ads, as long as they’re at least 90 seconds long.
And yet, publishers remain skeptical
Revenue strategies for publishers, like mid-rolls ads, are good. But 90 seconds is a long time for a user to spend on Facebook for a single video. Will Facebook and publishers be able to change the behavior of the user? Will anyone actually want to use the Facebook TV app over Netflix, Hulu, YouTube or even cable?
Attendees were not confident in Facebook’s ability to execute on positive changes for publishers.
"The problem with Facebook’s entire ‘news team’ is that they’re glorified client services people, but with absolutely no power over, or ability to shape, the actual product. So it’s annoying dealing with them because they can talk all day about how they ‘hear our concerns,’ but they ultimately aren’t product people or engineers," an attendee said.
To be sure, Facebook has won the respect of some publishers. Crypt TV is a two-year-old startup dedicated to creating a new horror brand. Its fans include more than 2 million people on Facebook, which serves as its largest audience. Crypt TV’s latest 2-minute video on Facebook, posted April 12, received 1.5 million views.
The brand has done well enough that Facebook’s Ricky Van Veen pointed to Crypt TV as an example of publishers finding success on the platform. Of course, Crypt TV isn’t the largest Facebook publisher. For comparison’s sake, BuzzFeed has nearly 10 million likes. Still, they have founded themselves in an inner circle of publishers doing it right on Facebook, according to Facebook.