You Gotta Hand it to Facebook

AOL-logoAnyone who remembers AOL in the ‘90s is having an eerie sense of déjà vu with Facebook’s Instant Articles. Is it a case of fool me twice?

It’s like the ’90s all over again; and not in a good way like grunge rock and Super Soakers.

“Back in the ’90s, publishers were bamboozled by America Online on many different levels, but the most prominent method was the way AOL used media content to build up its own brand,” writes John Motavalli in MediaPost.

“Now Facebook is doing the same thing, and the media companies are falling for the ruse again. We have to laugh. Remember that old saw, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me?” he continues.

He’s referring, of course, to Facebook’s Instant Articles and the publishers who are willingly handing over their content to the platform.

From FB’s point of view, it sounded so alluring: “Facebook is making a pitch to media publishers: Let us host your content for you, and we’ll make it look beautiful (and give you more eyeballs) in the process, said Facebook’s Christopher Cox in 2015 when the program was unveiled.

“…Reading news on a smartphone is still a very bad experience most of the time,” Cox said at the time, citing problems like speed and general design. “We want to try and make that a better experience for publishers.”

For Motavalli, this is when the alarm bells started ringing. “AOL CEO Bob Pittman, a genius salesman, convinced every media company worthy of the name that unless it offered content to his brand, it would be forever left in the online dust,” he explains.

A few years in, AOL changed the rules and media companies were forced to pay to appear. In the interim, digital publishers had failed to build the infrastructure or technical know-how to do things on their own and had little choice but to pay or flounder.

On the surface, Motavalli notes that FB’s deal looks better. “Publishers get their video and native ad content loaded faster on mobile, they get to keep 100% of revenue from the ads they sell; Facebook gets 30% only if it sells the ads. Moreover, unlike what happened in AOL’s walled garden, Instant Articles is compatible with comScore and Google Analytics,” he says.

Still, he reminds us that AOL was paying well for content up front too. The real problem, as Motavalli explains it, is that brands have once again turned to a technical platform to magically solve their publishing problems, giving the only thing of value they produce – their content – away. And Facebook is playing for keeps and unlikely to suffer the kind of internal meltdown that brought AOL to its knees. For those of us who remember the ‘90s, it looks like the same path to suckerdom in a different package, and it’s a pretty scary sight.