facebook instant articles
Credit: Image by Pixabay.

From Snapchat Discover to Facebook Instant Articles, publishers are experimenting with new projects to widen their distribution and find new audiences.

As digital media strategies continue to develop, publishers spoke yesterday (23 March) at the Guardian Changing Media Summit 2016 about how their organisations are trying to adapt to ever-changing audience consumption habits, and whether they believe off-site publishing offers media companies a sustainable future.

Mary Hamilton, executive editor, audience, Guardian News and Media, discussed the importance of using off-site publishing to encourage online conversation between the news organisation and its audience.

"What we want to do is bring more people into the Guardian's ecosystem – a lot of publishers have tended to think of themselves as speaking out to people, but at the Guardian we try to think of ourselves as a place where people can have conversations," Hamilton said.

"It is also important to play in other people's ecosystems, and the overlaps between them is where it gets particularly interesting."

The Guardian is currently testing Facebook Instant Articles and looking at the impact that has on their traffic, readership, audiences and their content.

"On a traffic level Facebook is, in many ways, the primary distribution channel for a lot of publishers now – it is arguably the largest video publisher in the world", said Hamilton.

Facebook Instant Articles – 'a dramatic uplift in numbers'

The Washington Post is also on Facebook Instant Articles, and Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at the organisation explained that it has been a huge driving force of engagement for the organisation.

"Comparing our performance before and after we started using Facebook Instant Articles, we have seen a dramatic uplift in the number of people who come more than once a week to our content, so publishing on Facebook Instant Articles brings recirculation and a deeper engagement," said Gilbert.

"Also, our presence on Facebook has not stymied growth or lowered growth on our own platforms, not yet anyway."

As opposed to testing the water with a sample of content from The Washington Post, the publisher has been posting 1,200 articles on Facebook a day, ensuring their range of stories are being represented on the platform, enabling them to fairly experiment what subjects work best with different fragments of audience.

"It is valuable for us that we can actually compare, one-to-one, the audience we have on the platforms that we control directly with Facebook Instant Articles audiences, and we can measure things like operational speed, how fast those articles are loading.

"We can access what the differences are between similar stories on different platforms," said Gilbert.

But it remains important not to ignore the inter-relation between different social networks, he added, having found that many of The Washington Post's organic Facebook shares and posts come from Twitter.

In fact, the organisation is placing a heavy importance on embracing new social platforms and learning what works best with them.

"We have 'verticals' in our newsroom – those are coverage topics such as news, style, sport, business and then within that we have horizontals," said Gilbert.

We want to do a lot of experimentation – we don't want all of our platforms to look the sameJeremy Gilbert, The Washington Post

"Our audience team is a horizontal team that cuts across all of those vertical roads.

"We have embedded our audience team in those verticals in very specific teams and sections, ensuring that in addition to become a content expert in the specific subject, they also have to be an expert in a new and emerging channel – one that is not as flaring."

For example, Gilbert explained that the audience team found that the app Kik, popular amongst 16-18 year-olds, is drawing in an audience as young as 14 years old through The Washington Post's use of bots on the platform, where the teenagers can ask question and get immediate answers in return.

"We want to do a lot of experimentation – we don't want all of our platforms to look the same," said Gilbert.

"We have to find a way to make our content so compelling that our audience wants to promote it, wants to share it, wants to engage with it, and we have to find ways to make that work."

Cosmopolitan's editor Farrah Storr agreed, noting that "you have to go where the audiences are".

'It makes sense commercially'

The magazine has had much success using Snapchat Discover, where it has a 76 per cent completion rate on the 14 snaps it publishes a day, with 56 per cent of audiences coming back to the content five days out of seven.

It is hoped that the use of this platform will pull in younger audiences, many of which will be encountering the publication for the first time on the social platform.

"If you are a 14 year-old girl and you come into contact with Cosmopolitan on Snapchat and see the magazine and it is now a pound, you're probably going to buy that," said Storr.

"The success of Snapchat has knocked us all for six, it really has - and that's in the US as well as in the UK.

"From some learning research we have done, we are getting a lot of that 16-24 age bracket now, so you have to deduce that there is crossover [with Snapchat Discover] there."

The publisher is also marking its territory within Instagram, being "rebellious" against the "blemish-free beautiful world" that the platform is often seen as.

"Cosmopolitan's presence on it is about funny stuff," Storr said, highlighting the potential of playing different roles on different social platforms for audience engagement with the brand.

"We still have editorial control," said Storr. "The beauty of working on someone else's platform is that they make money and you make money – it commercially makes sense for us."

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