Wednesday was a fairly big deal in media-land: Facebook finally launched what it’s calling its “Instant Articles” initiative, a partnership with nine media entities—including the New York Times, the Guardian and BuzzFeed—that allows those companies to publish their news stories directly through Facebook’s (FB) mobile app and get special features for doing so. Much of the commentary (including some from me) focused on the potential downside of this arrangement for news companies, but there are others who stand to lose as well, and one of the most obvious ones is Twitter.
Not that long ago, Twitter (TWTR) saw itself as the obvious partner for media companies, and many publishers seemed to agree wholeheartedly. The network’s real-time nature made it a must-have tool for any kind of breaking news—and arguably still does—and Twitter spent a lot of time reaching out to news organizations to get them using the platform more. It also designed features that were aimed at publishers, such as “Cards” that automatically showed an excerpt from news stories that were linked in a tweet.
In October of 2013, Twitter hired former NBC and NPR executive Vivian Schiller to be its head of news, and there was a lot of optimism about what kinds of things media companies and Twitter could do together. Less than a year later, however, Schiller was gone, and there appears to have been very little follow-through from Twitter when it comes to making more friends on the news-publishing side.
Now we have Facebook signing deals with major publishers, in which it gives those companies a better-looking and better-performing mobile version of their content, plus it gives them all of the advertising revenue (unless they rely on Facebook to sell the ads, in which case they get 70%). Twitter’s Cards don’t look quite so compelling by comparison—and the company’s built-in mobile browser not only isn’t faster or better-looking than what media companies have come up with, in many cases it seems to be slower and even buggier.
Twitter also has spent a lot of the time since it went public in late 2013 focusing on deals related to celebrity accounts and various kinds of entertainment media, in an attempt to drive usage and engagement, and potentially bring in new users in order to boost its numbers for Wall Street. It has reached out to sports media as well, but traditional news companies no longer seem to be on the radar.
It’s possible that Twitter simply doesn’t care any more about its connection to news publishers, or it figures that its value for those companies is already well established. It also may be thinking about going into competition with those companies to some extent, if the rumor mill is to be believed: a number of sources have reported that Twitter tried to buy (or at least thought about buying) Mic, the news site for millennials, and we’ve heard the same. What it planned to do with Mic is unclear.
There are other digital players for whom the competitive landscape has now been altered by Facebook’s deals with media outlets: Pinterest, for example, at one point seemed to be basing much of its future growth on selling itself to media companies as a platform for sharing content or driving engagement. Snapchat also has made a fairly big bet on a similar kind of strategy with its recently-launched Discover feature, which gives outlets like CNN a way to embed short video clips and other content.
Facebook’s ability to provide a smooth, fast-loading user experience for media companies on mobile is one of the most compelling aspects of Instant Articles—perhaps even more appealing than the revenue-sharing, as strange as that sounds. Most existing media entities have comparatively terrible mobile offerings (although the NY Times has done a fairly good job with NYT Now) and, as a result, have little hope of generating meaningful mobile revenue.
Snapchat is the closest to having something competitive in that area, especially for a younger audience. And Twitter theoretically could develop a better mobile experience for news publishers within its app, although it should probably get moving if it doesn’t want to get left in the dust.
But those abilities are just part of what Facebook is able to offer. The chance to potentially reach some of the social network’s 1.4 billion or so users is also a huge draw, and one that Twitter can’t even hope to compete with. On top of that, Facebook’s ability to target advertising at those users based on an incredibly granular set of attributes and behaviors is extremely enticing to advertisers, and Twitter is reportedly behind in that area as well.
The online media world isn’t quite a zero-sum game—even if Facebook does manage to get its Borg-like grip on major publishers like The NY Times, there is arguably still room for other platforms to have relationships with those companies as well, in different ways. But the folks at Twitter had better start thinking hard about what that means and how they are planning to get there.