Facebook Adds Signup Buttons to Win Over Skeptical Instant Articles Partners

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Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Facebook is giving publishers new tools to attract digital subscribers as the social-media giant tries to ease concerns that its growing power threatens the media industry.

In recent months, Facebook has tested "call-to-action" features with select media outlets participating in its Instant Articles program. The tools, which are embedded within stories, prompt Facebook readers to sign up for publishers' newsletters or "like" their Facebook pages. The company is expanding those two features next week to all media outlets using Instant Articles.

The company is also working with publishers to promote free trials of digital subscriptions to newspapers or encourage readers to download their apps. The goal is to give media companies a more direct relationship with Facebook readers so they can convert them into paying customers, said Fidji Simo, VP-product for the Menlo Park, Calif.-based social-media leader.

Facebook executives went on a listening tour recently to hear the concerns of publishers, many of which are grappling with shrinking sales of print advertising and a digital ad landscape dominated by Facebook and Google. While media companies need Facebook to reach a large audience, Facebook needs quality content from publishers to keep people coming back to its platform and combat "fake news."

"We're trying to build an informed community," Ms. Simo said. Facebook needs to create "an environment that makes publishers want to participate in the platform. That means supporting their business model."

Some media companies worry that Facebook's Instant Articles program, which started in 2015, could threaten their businesses. To load stories faster on phones, Facebook hosts articles on its own website, instead of sending readers to publishers' sites, where they can promote subscriptions and gather valuable data.

Some publishers have cut back on Instant Articles because they were struggling to profit from the program, according to a January report by Digital Content Next, a group whose members include the New York Times, the Washington Post, ESPN and Bloomberg. The Times no longer posts stories on Instant Articles, according to Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman.

"We're focused on building our subscription business and we're working with Facebook (and other platforms) in a number of ways to develop products and solutions in support of that goal," Ms. Murphy said in an email.

Others have seen benefits. Facebook's "call to action" tools accounted for 41% of the growth in Slate Group's email newsletter list over the past two months, said Chris Schieffer, senior product manager.

With so much of Slate's audience already on Facebook, "that's pretty significant," he said.

By enticing more Facebook readers to subscribe to its newsletter, Slate can promote additional content, like its subscription product Slate Plus, Mr. Schieffer said.

Facebook's newsletter feature proved to be twice as effective at getting people to subscribe to the Washington Post's newsletters as the publisher's own website because Facebook readers don't have to enter an email address, said David Merrell, the newspaper company's product manager. The Post is also testing Facebook's tool to promote 30-day free trials of digital subscriptions.

"We're a growing subscription business, so we really needed another way to take those Facebook Instant Article users and turn then into Washington Post users," he said.

Facebook, Merrell said, has shown "a real willingness to try new things with us."

-- Bloomberg News

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