Facebook’s Support for Subscriptions Is a Double-Edged Sword

by Mathew on July 19, 2017 · 5 comments

Campbell Brown, the former NBC and CNN broadcaster who is now Facebook’s head of news partnerships, confirmed in a speech at a digital publishing conference that the social network plans to roll out support for subscriptions as part of its mobile Instant Articles platform.

There have been multiple reports that the company was working on such a plan, including a recent piece by Digiday that quoted a number of sources, but Brown’s speech is the first official confirmation. She said testing of the new feature will begin in October.

This plan is likely to cause at least some cheering in media land, because a number of publishers have been clamoring for paywall support from Facebook, and criticizing the lackluster performance of the existing Instant Articles format when it comes to generating revenue.

As with most things involving Facebook, however, this deal sounds like a classic Faustian bargain.

According to Brown, subscriptions will work this way: If a publisher chooses to implement support for a paywall, readers will get 10 articles for free — in much the same way they do with the New York Times’ “metered” access plan. After that, they will be prompted to sign up for a subscription. If they already have one, Facebook says it will make it easy for them to log in.

And what about the revenue — will there be some kind of sharing plan, where Facebook takes a percentage, the way Apple does with its 30%? The company isn’t saying, but it seems likely that there will be, although perhaps not to begin with.

Update: In a statement on Wednesday, Brown said “Quality journalism costs money to produce, and we want to make sure it can thrive on Facebook. As part of our test to allow publishers in Instant Articles to implement a paywall, they will link to their own websites to process subscriptions and keep 100% of the revenue.” 

Brown also said the social network would give publishers control over all of the reader and subscription data involved in the process, which is also likely to come as good news to many. At least they don’t have to hand all of that over to Facebook as well as all of their content. But that doesn’t mean this deal is something media companies should leap at.

The context to this offer, as a number of people have pointed out, is that Facebook is taking some sustained fire for its dominance of the advertising industry (along with Google), with the News Media Alliance arguing its members should be exempted from antitrust laws so that they can present a combined front in bargaining with the digital giants. I wrote about that idea in a previous post.

Not only that, but a number of publishers — including the New York Times, an early partner — have talked openly about how Instant Articles has proven to be a bit of a bust revenue-wise. Some have turned their back on the platform completely, despite Facebook’s attempts to improve things.

But the bottom line with this subscription offering is the same as it has been with Instant Articles and Facebook video and half a dozen other things the social networking behemoth has come up with: They are fundamentally designed to benefit Facebook, and to centralise control in its hands, and to generate as much content as possible. Any benefits they provide to media companies are ancillary at best.

If you connect your subscription plan to Facebook, will you get increased reach? Probably. Will it help you drive some new sign-ups? Perhaps. But it’s important to remember that the entity in control of every aspect of that relationship is Facebook, not you — Facebook decides who sees what and when, what it looks like, how it functions, and how much revenue you will get.

In other words, you are working on land that has been given to you by a feudal lord, and that rarely ends well.

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