By Max Willens
Google and Facebook over the past year introduced tools to help publishers sell subscriptions on their platform, and so far publisher response to both efforts has been mixed.
Publishers contacted for this story praised the platforms for being communicative and committed to these products but also groused that the tools were cumbersome to implement and had limited returns.
“The people they’ve got on this are diligent, and they mean it,” said a source that’s used both platforms’ tools. “But I can’t tell my CEO we’re making meaningful progress.”
A heavy lift
Facebook said early on, it averaged eight weeks for the participating publishers to integrate its tools, which let people subscribe to publications through Facebook’s fast-loading Instant Articles mobile format.
Many of the publishers that launched Subscribe with Google, meanwhile, still haven’t fully integrated its tools, according to Google. Part of the delay is that publishers have competing development and product priorities. But it’s also because the platforms’ tools are cumbersome. McClatchy had a 30-person person task force that spent three months getting the newspaper publisher’s 30 sites ready to integrate Subscribe with Google this spring. “That took some commitment,” said Dan Schaub, McClatchy’s corporate director of audience development, adding that he was pleased with the tests and the incremental improvement.
“No disrespect to Google, because it’s hard no matter what. But if I introduce ‘Subscribe with Google,’ my workload doubles,” said one source at a publisher that has experimented with both platforms’ tools. Google said it expected integration to take a long time since its tool is an end-to-end solution, but that it’s interested in integrating into third-party tools.
It’s hard for some publishers to shoulder this extra lift when the upside remains limited. Most publishers’ subscription signups happen on desktop (in part because publishers’ own mobile checkout experiences often are subpar), while Facebook and Google’s products focus on mobile devices.
Facebook’s alpha test yielded a 17 percent average lift in subscriptions, which should be taken with a grain of salt because Facebook generated few subscriptions to begin with.
“Neither Instant Articles nor Subscribe with Google is moving the needle for any of the publishers I’ve spoken to,” said a source at one publisher that’s considered using the tools. “It’s all incremental.”
Facebook also wouldn’t give publishers user-level data of who was and wasn’t in its control group when testing its tool’s effectiveness. One publisher said that Facebook’s reports often seemed more positive than what the publisher observed. Facebook disputed the claim that there were wide disparities between the results observed by publisher and platform.
Many publishers contacted for this story said they were impressed by how the platforms adjusted their products to improve engagement and retention.
Google, for example, made anonymous user data available with a News Consumer Insights tool, which measures a publisher audience’s propensity to subscribe and which Google said thousands of publishers have used since it was introduced in March. “Them opening up the kimono like that is a big deal,” one source said.
Facebook, for its part, discovered that almost 40 percent of its initial test publishers’ subscribers did not follow their pages on Facebook, so it added an account-linking page to the subscription checkout flow to show subscribers more content from those publishers. It also gave publishers the ability to put subscribe buttons on their Facebook pages to use for flash sales or other promotions.
Having paywall in Instant Articles sends the message that publishers’ content is worth paying for; it’s offset by the fact that Facebook has been decreasing the amount of publisher content in the news feed.
“We should be benefiting from their algorithm changes,” said a source at another publisher that’s used both products. “If the broad effort to fight fake news and gaming Facebook is supposed to lead to [users seeing] more brand-name news, you can’t say they’re knocking it out of the park.” Facebook said it is weighing that as an option but hasn’t planned any tests to do so.
By limiting the number of publisher pages that needed to have the platform’s code on them, Facebook said the integration time has been cut to under two weeks. In November, it will integrate with paywall provider Piano, which will open up Facebook’s subscription tools to a wider range of publishers. Google is readying case studies designed to show how a wider range of publishers can use the tools it launched in March.
It’s unclear when either product will become something any subscription publisher can use, though.
“Facebook and Google have been very good partners in this,” said Fran Wills, president of the Local Media Consortium, a publisher trade group that frequently partners with the two tech giants. “With any kind of technology, you have to start with a simple concept or a simple model and then try to make that work before you can start customizing and adapting to a lot of different needs.”