By Julia Smekalina, News Partnerships

Instant Articles first launched in the summer of 2015 with just a handful of publishers. The Atlantic, as one of the first nine, is among the platform’s longest tenured partners. During that time they’ve provided ongoing feedback on relative performance and have been a frequent beta tester for new features. More than two years later, The Atlantic remains committed to using the format as a core part of their distribution strategy.

The Atlantic has seen a year over year increase in mobile unique visitors of more than 40% and Instant Articles has been a significant part of that growth. “In the frantic world of publishing, we often expect to see immediate results or we move on. In the case of Instant Articles, the evolution has been slower than expected but the product has improved,” says Kimberly Lau, SVP of Digital and Head of Business Development at The Atlantic. “By staying with it and continuing to put resources into the partnership, we’re seeing increasing traffic and revenue. I think this is the result of the user behaviors evolving and the product evolving.”

By staying the course in some areas and tinkering with their strategy in others, The Atlantic has seen increases in revenue, traffic and newsletter signups coming from Instant Articles.

We’ll take you through some of the adjustments they’ve made and new products they’re using, in addition to what long term strategies they stuck with to achieve their recent results.

Expanding Audience Reach and Engagement Through Facebook Instant Articles


Strategy:

  • Publish as much as possible to Facebook as Instant Articles

Results:

  • Average monthly Facebook Instant Article page views up 66% in 2017 compared to same months in 2016.
  • 27-33% increase in traffic from Instant Articles compared to mobile web versions of the same articles in recent months.

Lau believes that consistently publishing Instant Articles has led to a change in user habits, and fostered a loyalty over time to the platform. “Publishers can have a short term focus on product development. With this product, we’ve committed for a longer horizon, and we’ve seen behaviors and results evolve,” she says.

When The Atlantic first joined the program, they expected an immediate big jump in traffic, then for it to flatten. Instead, they’ve seen slow and steady growth of the format over time.

In May 2017, The Atlantic broke single-day and concurrent traffic records with its June Atlantic cover story, “My Family’s Slave.” The piece took off, getting more than 12 million page views to date, almost 50% of which were on the Instant Articles format. Lau said: “When a story is as compelling as this one, it travels easily across many platforms, but our experience with Instant Articles suggests that the mobile friendly format helped it travel further.”

Making Adjustments To Improve Monetization


Strategy:

Results:

  • Audience Network eCPMs increased 60% year over year.
  • Turning on Automatic Ad Placement led to 15% increase in impressions per page.

From the beginning, The Atlantic was focused on optimizing monetization on Instant Articles. They employ a combination of direct-sold ads and Audience Network, Facebook’s programmatic solution. For any ad space that isn’t sold directly, The Atlantic uses Audience Network to backfill.

In the spring 2017, The Atlantic and Facebook began a series of discussions around gaps in monetization and opportunities to improve the performance. Two initiatives came out of that discussion – the adoption of Instant Article Automatic Ad Placement and testing of new recirculation units below the article body.

When The Atlantic first launched on Instant Articles in 2015, they employed an ad injection logic based on a minimum level of words between ads. Limits for ad placements were reduced over time, and they updated their rules; however, ad placements still lagged behind their own mobile site. Facebook recommended that The Atlantic turn on Automatic Ad Placement — a feature that automatically optimizes your ads for optimal performance. While skeptical, The Atlantic replaced their ad logic with Facebook’s Automatic Ad Placement in June. On average, the change resulted in a 15% increase in average monthly impressions per page in the 3 months following the change.

Separately, at the end of March, The Atlantic became an early tester of new ad recirculation units. On average, eCPMS for Audience Network increased 60% year over year following that implementation.

Utilizing New Tools to Measure Value and Build Reader Engagement


Strategy:

  • Insert Call-To-Action units to drive newsletter subscriptions.
  • Use traffic lift tool to see difference between Instant Articles and mobile web.

Results:

  • 15% of new Page followers come from Instant Articles Call-To-Action (CTA) units.
  • Instant Articles accounts for 20% of daily newsletter subscriber growth since February.

The Atlantic was an early tester of the Call-to-Action units on Instant Articles. They started first with email newsletter acquisition and Page likes and more recently adopted the app CTA, directing people towards downloading their mobile app.

The addition of CTA units have helped The Atlantic convert readers into the funnel — from casual readers to followers and newsletter recipients. Since launching in early 2017, newsletter CTAs have become one of the top three sources of signups for them, and are responsible for about 20% of each month’s growth. When an article goes viral and reaches new readers, it’s proven to be a useful driver of pulling new readers into The Atlantic’s orbit. “For each of these CTAs, we see greater benefits when we have viral content that reaches new audiences that might be engaging with us for the first time,” Lau says.

A source of frustration for Lau had been that it wasn’t always clear how to measure the impact of the product. In July, we added a new tool for publishers to measure how their Instant Articles perform compared to the mobile web equivalents. This new tool, along with other Instant Articles updates, has given The Atlantic an improved outlook on the product.

“We can now see the lift we’re getting and better understand the impact Instant Articles has on traffic,” she says. “And when you combine that with our increases in impressions and backfill eCPMs, we now have a much clearer picture of the value Instant Articles is providing to The Atlantic.”