Facebook is testing a feature to link your Facebook account to paid subscriptions at news organizations. The idea is that you can click on a link in your Facebook feed to a behind-the-paywall New York Times article and be able to read it without losing context in the Facebook app.
It’s long overdue.
But it’s also a significant challenge to both Apple News+ and Flipboard, one of the first big news aggregators on mobile, and one that Steve Jobs famously loved. Plus, a pre-announced Google news product and a rumored CNN news aggregator.
“Facebook has built a new account linking tool that provides a better experience for people on Facebook when they see and access content from publishers they subscribe to,” says Facebook product marketing manager Stephen Largen. “We’re collaborating with publishers around the world to test this new product, which allows people to link their news subscription accounts on Facebook.”
It’s a critical new feature.
Most large news organizations now have paywalls that limit outsider access to news. Even those who buy a subscription currently have to jump out of Facebook, open a web browser app, navigate to the same page they initially wanted to access, log in, read the article, then flip back to Facebook, hope they can find the same place they were before (because Facebook often auto-refreshes with new content when you return to the app), and then potentially like or comment on a friend’s post.
That’s a long slog, and it’s not likely most will undertake it.
The rise in subscription access to news has promoted a concurrent rise in aggregators of paid news like Apple News+ or Readly. One place and one monthly fee now covers access to hundreds of news outlets and magazines, which is simple, convenient, and cost-effective for many.
But it also means that old-school news aggregators like Flipboard are in trouble.
I’m a long-time Flipboard user, but the app is getting less and less useful as more and more news disappears behind the paywall. Article after article that you tap on leads to a title, picture, and an offer to subscribe, making Flipboard less of a single place where you can consume all your news and more of a starting block that you run farther and farther away from.
Facebook’s just testing this right now with The Athletic, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Winnipeg Free Press, so it’s early days. But Facebook is adding additional news publishers and tools for those publishers to find and keep readers.
“People have account and password fatigue and so it is not surprising that one of our most common reader complaints is that they have to login too often, and of course when it happens they do not remember their user name, or password,” Christian Panson, VP of digital at Winnipeg Free Press said in Facebook’s announcement. “Once a reader has linked their subscription, any visit to us from Facebook delivers a seamless and frictionless experience directly to the content they expect. We expect that this will help us to build longer and more frequent engagement with our customers, which will translate to greater retention and customer satisfaction, and maybe a bit less customer support.”
Facebook is also working on a way “that would allow subscribers to directly initiate the account linking process on publisher websites,” which you can bet will come with an ad type that Facebook will sell to news agencies.
At some level, that’s a way to keep people in the Facebook app — and learn more about what they read and are interested in. At another level, it’s a shot across the bow of Apple News+ and other news aggregators, including a coming competitor in the space that Google pre-launched in June.
But it’s also an acceleration of competition for how we consume news.
And old-school mobile aggregators like Flipboard need to assemble seamless behind-the-paywall access schemes themselves to compete. Already former competitors like Nuzzle, which also aggregated news, have refocused more on the media intelligence side than on news consumption.
One challenge here: Apple’s 30% subscription fee for apps.
Apple has already terminated game publisher Epic’s App Store account for attempting to run payments directly to players of its popular Fortnite game without paying Apple 30% of the proceeds, as the App Store guidelines require. But it’s unclear how a small company like Flipboard will be able to aggregate sufficient news publishers to compete while also cutting similar deals (Apple charges about $10/month for Apple News+) and fund payments to Apple — a competitor — for in-app purchases.
To twist the knife while adding salt to the wound, Apple News+, presumably, does not have to pay those 30% platform charges.
Epic has sued Apple in response. But it’s unclear that news aggregators, who don’t make billions annually, will be able to do the same.
Interestingly, Apple has recently come under fire for redirecting links in a web browser — Safari, owned by Apple — to the Apple News app. Publishers are reportedly not happy about this direction of subscribers away from their own websites, where the news organization controls the experience and the monetization, and into Apple’s app … where Apple does.
One called it “totally unethical, if not actually illegal,” according to Digiday. A second, who noted that Apple is typically more communicative, described it as “a bit shady.”
“They’re being kind of hypocritical,” that first source said. “They’re saying everybody can’t use third-party cookies and we can’t track our audience. Meanwhile, they control the hardware and the software pipeline.”
In that sense, Facebook’s solution might be more palatable to some publishers who, like the New York Times, have declined to participate in Apple News+. One reason: they want a more direct connection with their subscribers. Another reason: linking your Facebook account and your paid news subscriptions seems to be a good thing for news publishers, according to the early beta testers.
“Subscribers in our test group who had linked their subscription accounts on Facebook had on average 111 percent more article clicks compared to subscribers who were not part of the test group,” Facebook says. “Publishers’ Facebook followers jumped from 34 percent to more than 97 percent among subscribers who had linked their accounts.”
It’s not clear yet, however, whether Facebook would expand this into a full-fledged news aggregator product in which you can subscribe to multiple organizations with one fee.
Ultimately, that might not be best for Facebook, which is ad revenue driven. Many news publishers placing ads competing for individual subscriptions might drive more revenue for the social network than a news subscription product.