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Publishers? Facebook partnerships carry no guarantee of mobile readership

Although the New York Times and other publishers see teaming up with Facebook as a way to form a bond with mobile audiences, success is not guaranteed due to the difficulties of predicting human behavioral patterns, especially concerning news consumption.

Articles featured on Facebook?s Instant Articles service will load up to 10 times faster than they normally would since readers stay on Facebook rather than follow a link to another site. Nevertheless, the alliance has raised eyebrows, given that the publishers? participation could ultimately undermine their own businesses.

?The real issue here is whether consumers will be so enticed to read their news on their phone while using Facebook or whether their habits of going to their favorite sites or apps will continue,? said Chuck Martin, CEO of Mobile Future Institute, Boston.

?While load times likely will be faster, the question is how much of a factor that is in getting to a particular news story.?

Launch partners
Facebook is working with nine launch partners for Instant Articles: The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC News, Spiegel and Bild.

Along with a faster experience, Instant Articles contains interactive features that allow publishers to bring their stories to life in new ways. Consumers can zoom in and explore high-resolution photos by tilting a phone. They can watch auto-play videos come alive as they scroll through stories. 

Introducing Instant Articles on Facebook.

Opportunities to explore interactive maps, listen to audio captions and like and comment on individual parts of an article in-line also are available.

As more people get their news on mobile devices, Facebook wants to make the experience faster and richer, product manager Michael Reckhow wrote on Facebook?s blog. 

Facebook designed Instant Articles to give publishers control over their stories, brand experience and monetization opportunities. Publishers can sell ads in their articles and keep the revenue, or they can choose to use Facebook?s Audience Network to monetize unsold inventory. 

Publishers will also have the ability to track data and traffic through comScore and other analytics tools.

Mark Thompson, president and CEO of The New York Times Company, said the Times is participating in Instant Articles to explore ways of growing the number of Times users on Facebook, improving their experience of its journalism and deepening its engagement. 

?We have a long tradition of meeting readers where they are and that means being available not just on our own sites, but on the social platforms frequented by many current and potential Times users,? Mr. Thompson was quoted in a release.

Mobile?s role in accelerating demand for personalized delivery of content has challenged traditional publishers like nothing else, contributing to a rapid revenue decline that began with the advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s.

Publishers have learned that the smaller smartphone screen has to be treated much differently than the screen of a personal computer. They also are grasping that allowing the consumer to select his or her news preferences has to be a priority.

The Chicago Tribune, the Montreal Gazette and other news brands have recently unveiled redesigns with improved site speed and performance and features that let consumers create their own personalized mobile newspapers. 

In another attempt to make news consumption more personal, The New York Times? crafting of one-sentence stories specifically for Apple Watch users extended the newsgathering organization?s efforts to cater to individual consumers.

To fit the news more effectively to the watch?s smaller real estate, a team of Times editors, around the clock, now produces single-sentence articles that can be read at a glance by Apple Watch users from sections such as Business, Politics, Science, Tech and The Arts. 

The Times also abandoned the subscription model for its NYT Now iPhone mobile application, citing disappointing numbers.

Research shows that U.S. adults will spend nearly 44 percent of their overall media time with digital this year, including nearly 20 percent on mobile?compared to 19.2 percent on laptops and PCs.

Sharing stories
The Facebook program will start with a few articles then quickly grow.

For publishers, the key advantage is the sharing of stories from within Facebook, since the link shared will drive others directly to the original source of the story.

NYT Now.

?News and other content consumption has massively moved to mobile over the years,? Mr. Martin said. ?But as faster cellular networks and ubiquitous Wi-Fi expand, the issue of speed of access to a story or mobile Web site may become less significant. 

?Another issue is that, at least at launch, the instant stories will be available only on iPhones, leaving the majority market of Android users without the ability to get Facebook-delivered news,? he said.
Final Take
Michael Barris is staff reporter on Mobile Marketer, New York