Facebook has a new weapon in its arsenal in the war for people’s digital attentions. Starting on June 22, anyone operating a Facebook Page will be able to use Facebook’s web app-like Canvas ad format for their organic Page posts.
Facebook’s Canvas ad format doesn’t offer much different compared to what brands and publishers can publish to their own sites. The format resembles the splashy feature stories published by Vox Media or product showcase pages produced by Nike. A Canvas ad or organic post can include text, full-screen and in-line videos that play automatically, photo carousels and panoramic photos that people can swipe or tilt around to see more.
But there’s one big difference between the interactive pages brands and publishers are already posting to their own sites and Canvas posts: Canvas posts live on Facebook (though only on mobile, not desktop). That means they load quickly — up to 10 times faster than the typical mobile web page, claimed Facebook. While a Facebook spokesperson said that Canvas posts will not be given any special treatment by Facebook’s news feed algorithm — meaning an organic Page post won’t rank higher simply because it’s in the Canvas format — Facebook’s algorithm does take time spent into account when ranking news feed content as well as whether people quickly bounce back from a link because the corresponding page takes too long to load.
Fast-loading content has been Facebook’s biggest selling point in getting brands and publishers to host more of their content on the social network versus on their own sites. The longer you make people wait to get to your content, the less likely they are to get to your content, says Facebook, so just give us your content and we’ll get them there for you. That argument is how Facebook has gotten these companies to upload videos and, more recently, articles and advertorials directly to Facebook. And it’s how Facebook is now trying to get them to house their single-page showcases on Facebook (and maybe eventually run those Canvas posts as ads).
People have spent, on average, 31 seconds in a Canvas ad over the past four months, according to Facebook.
Facebook doesn’t only want brands and publishers to publish organic Canvas posts because then they’ll be more likely to pay Facebook to run those posts as ads. That would have to be part of it. But organic Canvas posts play into another, larger part of Facebook’s strategy. Facebook doesn’t only want to have the most users of any digital platform; it wants to have the biggest share of the time those users spend with any digital platform.
“People are now spending more than 46 minutes per day on average” using Facebook, Facebook Messenger and Instagram, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in July 2015. By April 2016 that figure had shot up to more than50 minutes. But Facebook isn’t the only digital platform eating up more of people’s online time. According to mobile app analytics firm App Annie, Snapchat has usurped Instagram and become the second-ranked app when it comes to the share of U.S. iPhone owners’ time spent on their phones. If the 50 million brands, publishers, celebrities and others that operate Facebook Pages adopt Canvas for their organic posts and continue to see people spending roughly half-a-minute with each post, that could help Facebook keep people’s attentions within its walls.
But will organic Canvas posts gain enough adoption? Maybe, maybe not.
Assuming Canvas posts are easy to produce, small- and medium-sized brands might especially flock to the format because it’ll offer them a way to produce big brand-style pages without the back-end resources required to support them on their own sites and with a higher likelihood that people will see them. And larger brands may cut Canvas versions of their sites’ product showcase pages because the assets have already been produced and would just need to be inserted into Facebook’s format.
Publishers may be a different story. Some publishers like Thrillist Media Group are already working with brands to co-create Canvas ads and could extend those advertorial sales to organic Canvas posts, thanks to Facebook’s relaxation of its branded-content rules. But Facebook’s Instant Article format — which incorporates text, photos and video into a single feature-style page, like Canvas — will probably be the more popular option for their Facebook-hosted article-style content.
Canvas posts are more labor-intensive over the long run than Instant Articles. They must be created one at a time whereas an Instant Article can be formatted from a site’s RSS feed, assuming the site has already reworked its code to adapt to the Facebook-only format. And Instant Articles can contain ads, whereas Canvas posts cannot. So if a brand, or less likely publisher, wants to produce a one-off post, Canvas can work. But if a brand, or more likely a publisher, wants to churn out this Facebook-hosted content at scale and make money in the process, Instant Articles appear to be the way to go.
But even if Canvas doesn’t become the dominant organic Page post format — and it probably won’t if Facebook is supposed to be all video in five years — so long as it incrementally increases the share of time people are spending on Facebook, and reduces the amount of slow-loading external links in their news feeds, that’s enough. In the battle for people’s attentions, every second counts.