After weeks of hinting, Instant Articles was officially rolled out last week. The first five articles from Facebook’s partner network of US media giants went live on the 13th May, including content from Buzzfeed, The New York Times, NBC News and National Geographic. BBC News and The Guardian were the first UK partners to join the venture.
A faster load time is the hook that Facebook are pitching to the world, with their onsite announcement flagging up a ‘faster and richer’ user experience that gives ‘publishers control over their stories, brand experience and monetisation opportunities’.
So far, the feature seems to be fulfilling this promise. Instant Articles is making online content more sophisticated, and even in its early stages it’s clear that this marks a huge shift in the future of digital publishing and news consumption. User experience is no longer an add-on for journalistic content, it’s the whole story.
We spoke to Falcon UX Designer Patrik Jensen for some insights on why Facebook might be subsuming the user experience (surely it can’t just be about world domination?).
"I see Facebook taking ownership of an experience, that experience being reading articles when using Facebook. When you open a link on the network, you exit their ecosystem. Publishers behind that link might then present you with a poorly designed page, ads, or even a non mobile optimised page. Those things can harm your interpretation of Facebook and their product. Facebook are taking action to build a specific product that will give back that experience."
An innovative take on UX
So what does ‘taking ownership’ of user experience look like? Here’s a snapshot of what the Instant Articles pioneers have been up to.
Buzzfeed are taking full advantage of the the feature’s ‘tilt-to-zoom’ ability. By tilting your phone, you can zoom closer to any image:
The New York Times is reporting the news with shorter copy, more images and more videos:
Each article is stringently optimised for social sharing and re-circulating readers:
A milestone for social content
So what does this mean for publishers who haven’t yet signed up? Or those who are wondering about what this means for the future of their content distribution strategy?
At first glance there are a few interesting things we can pick out here. Firstly, social sharing is taking centre stage. Instant Articles is making the old share button at the top of the article a thing of the past. The process of sharing is now integrated into the user’s experience. Secondly, multiple forms of content are now being unified into one experience, and this is standard procedure in Instant Articles. Even serious news outlet The New York Times is pushing long-form copy into the backseat.
While Facebook have been careful to not draw a direct link between Instant Articles and the elusive newsfeed algorithm, there will undoubtedly be a connection here. If a user engages more with a piece of content, it’s more likely to appear on their newsfeed – and the innovative features of Instant Articles are likely to garner higher interaction from mobile users. Engagement will become key to any content distribution strategy.
To level the playing field, publishers will have to begin to be more innovative with their content. However you choose to look at it, Instant Articles will undoubtedly become a trendsetter for content innovation, with publishing pioneers like The New York Times setting the standard for how users define engaging and shareable content. So what lessons can we we take away from the new feature?
Mobile is optimal
We all heard about the mobilegeddon update, but Facebook are reminding us of the importance of considering mobile in content innovation. Instant Articles is optimised for mobile, and so all publishers involved in the feature are ensuring that their content is too. Mobile-friendly content is becoming central to content innovation, and publishers need to be clued up on it if they’re to keep up in the engagement battle.
Optimising for mobile is tricky. With less real-estate on the screen comes a shorter attention span and the need for short, concise copy. Not easy when you’re trying to communicate a complicated news story, or trigger a share with your comedic wit.
Looking at The New York Times example, it seems the trick here is to present a news piece frame by frame, and allow the story to unfold moment by moment. Your copy should then be designed to fit into this frame-by-frame model. Keeping it concise by presenting one nugget of information at a time.
Content is multifaceted
Whether it’s a share-worthy Buzzfeed post, or an informative news-piece, Instant Articles is teaching us that content is now more than just copy with images. As well as mobile-optimised copy, here’s a list of some of the innovative content features that Instant Articles is presenting as standard:
- Interactive high-res images
- Video taking the place of copy
- Ambient videos
- Sophisticated frame-by-frame design
All this sophistication results in each piece of content becoming an immersive experience. Take a look at the way Buzzfeed direct their user through the virtual world of the story:
And the way both publishers include illustrative videos and impressive images:
While the feature is too new for us to have any concrete analytics, we can forecast that the more immersive your content is, the higher level of engagement you can expect from your users.
Distribution is shifting
It used to be that Facebook was simply a controller of traffic, but Instant Articles is changing this. For The New York Times and Buzzfeed, user engagement, content distribution and content innovation is all being directed by a single platform, and according to Patrik, this is only the start of a new journey in user experience.
"I see the future of mobile becoming more and more unified. I see a change in how we use and how we expect our wearables to react. We are a busy species right now. We want stuff to happen and we don't accept technical limitations, we see that at Falcon when designing our own apps."
If you’re a publisher, this is something important to be thinking about. Facebook have now merged content innovation, engagement and distribution into one feature for users. To ensure that your content can keep up, unification is something that publishers need to seriously consider.
If you’re a brand, this shift is also extremely important. Generally speaking, any type of branded social content will now be up against Instant Article content in the battle for engagement and ultimately, newsfeed space. Brands will also need to become more innovative if they’re to keep up.