With the data of its two billion-strong audience, Facebook is building an empire. And it’s decided that video will be a major cornerstone in this digital kingdom. Challenge set, content marketers. Just don’t forget your audience.

For the last few years, social media giant Facebook – which hit $500 billion in market value this July – has been aggressively romancing brand publishers to either commence or expand their video creation. Through their brand new ‘Watch’ tab, algorithmic updates and the powerful incentive of advertising dollars, they’re winning them over too.

In just a year, daily video views have skyrocketed fourfold to a whopping eight billion, with 100 million hours watched every day. Research by Animoto also found that 76.5% of professional marketers and SMB owners see video marketing as having a “direct impact on their business” and more than 60% set out to to increase their video investment this year.

Yet as ABC’s Social Media Strategist Flip Prior said at the recent Mumbrella Publish conference, brands should think twice before they glibly follow the diktats of the tech titans. Resource-heavy to produce, so far “video efforts are paying scant dividends,” Prior dryly observed, with Facebook’s native video purposefully disincentivising users from leaving the platform and traveling to other sites. Sites, in other words, like yours.

Here, we break down the rules of Facebook’s video game and what it all means for content marketers with a cameraperson either on hand, or on their ‘to hire’ list.

Watch this space: Facebook’s new ‘Watch’ tab

Facebook’s new ‘Watch’ tab is named with excruciating obviousness for what it will contain: video content. That you watch.

Rolling out gradually across mobile and desktop, the new tab undermines one certain Facebook VP’s much-covered and melodramatic 2015 claim that within five years, the platform will be “all video”. The reality is still moderately seismic, but not quite so earth-shattering. Rather, Facebook by massively prioritising the moving image, it’s urging brands to pivot more towards video to earn a greater share of audience’s eyeballs and time.

The tab itself sits in ‘prime real estate’ on the page. On mobile, users will find it just left of the marketplace icon, whereas on desktop, Watch will fit snugly against the newsfeed and messenger buttons.

The feed on Watch will feature both live and recorded videos. Needless to say, only videos uploaded with Facebook’s native video publishing tool will have a chance to appear. There’ll also be video categories or channels like ‘Most Talked About’ and ‘Shows Your Friends Are Watching’. These categories suggest that the communal, meme-oriented, feel-good vibe that has given Facebook such populist appeal will probably typify the kind of content best suited to Watch.

For the more ambitious and bigger-budgeted marketing storytellers, Watch presents another intriguing opportunity, ushering in Facebook as a new, titan-sized contender in the so-called streaming wars. That places itself up against Netflix, Amazon and (for us Aussies) Stan – and Facebook has a whole lot more targeting potential too.

“There was something crushingly inevitable about the news that Facebook, the world’s largest social network, would be throwing its hat into the original programming ring,” lamented the Guardian in September. Several brands have already partnered with Facebook, launching serialised shows made specifically to premiere on Zuckerberg’s turf – from cooking shows to shows by big-name science brands like Nasa to a documentary series produced by the hugely popular ‘Humans of New York’. It’s essentially reality TV-style short-form content; light fodder that doesn’t stir conflict or controversy. Still, who’s to say – in the future, Facebook may decide that prestige is more important than virality.

Hey: it’s possible.

In a bid to democratise programming, anyone can pitch a show, so long as it meets community standards guidelines, and you have the budget and the chutzpah. For those on smaller budgets: consider ways you too can be a player by creating videos on a shoestring budget. Will there be a Mahlab article covering this very topic? You betcha.

New monetisation opportunities for marketers

From equipment costs, to expertise, to the long and often painful shoots themselves – video creation is not cheap or easy. Facebook is aware of this. To grab the attention of publishers and convince them to amp up on video, there has to be something in it for them.

Up until mid this year, the idea that you could make any kind of substantial revenue from Facebook video was near laughable. Zuckerberg was unrelenting in his hardline stance against pre-roll advertising – setting him as something of an eccentric outlier from virtually everyone else in the ad business. Allegedly, Buzzfeed kicked up a fuss, and won a small windfall in 2016 when Facebook responded to allow publishers to create videos sponsored by advertisers.

Then – at last – on July 1 this year, Facebook made this statement – over half of the revenue from ads will now be shared with video creators. Fifty-five percent, to be specific – the same as YouTube.

The first offering under this scheme was called ‘Suggested videos’. When mobile users click on a video, they are taken to black-backgrounded pop-up screen, where a selection of videos will autoplay following the first clicked-upon video. Each of these recommended videos is targeted and personalised for each individual viewer. After the user has committed to a few videos, an ad will get a chance to roll – with sound on.

It was a B-grade first effort from Facebook at best, and publishers were not hugely impressed. Mid-roll ads – still in beta testing with a limited number of publishers – are getting a little more traction. As Digiday points out, “While the revenue from Facebook mid-rolls isn’t at blockbuster levels just yet, if you have enough scale — both in terms audience and output — then the money isn’t bad”.

Notably, an ad will only run if a user has watched a video for 20 seconds or more – an epoch, almost, in social media time. In mandating this 20-second rule, Facebook is essentially telling publishers that if they want to earn advertising dollars, they have to make clips that a) are of a suitable length and b) have a certain level of ‘stickiness’ to hold users’ attention. In other words, they’ve actually got to be good. With clickbait and spam on the rise, this is just one indication by Facebook they’re taking action towards providing a better ecosystem for both content creators and consumers.

Algorithms bumping videos in the feed

Even the best logistician would break down in despair trying to decrypt Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm – which reads an indeterminate number of post ‘signals’ to determine where that post ranks in the feed. One thing that Facebook has made clear however: it’s bumping up organic video.

But not just any old video (which will nonetheless emit stronger ‘signals’ over images and text-based posts). It’s giving a boost to higher-quality videos – which, under its criteria, are videos that are longer than your typical reaction GIF, and watched by users in full. According to Facebook, a video that is able to hold its users attention for over half of its length is identified as “compelling”. People like compelling, Facebook says – and so it puts it in front of more users.

A few caveats to keep in mind

It’s a struggle, but content publishers are learning (sometimes the hard way) that when Facebook says “pivot” they don’t always have to leap up and start sketching arabesques with pointed toe. The fact that only native video is surfaced under the rules of the tech giant’s algorithm is a clear indication that Facebook has no intention of delivering users off-site. If that happens to be a goal in your social media strategy, producing more (costly) video could work against your game plan.

At the end of the day, after all, Facebook is a business. Its core mission is to attract and retain as many users as possible on their platform, and keep them there – fulfilling more and more (and ever-converging) entertainment, information, social, advertising and customer needs. Whatever partnerships they make with other businesses are ultimately, inevitably, only in place to serve Zuckerberg’s profit-driven goals. It’s Black Mirror-esque – but that’s the world we live in.

Some commentators are questioning too whether anyone actually wants more video – from Flip Prior (mentioned above) to Digiday’s Editor-in-Chief Brian Morrissey. In an anonymously authored article on Fast Company, it was argued that Facebook may be the coy manufacturers of its own self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to audience engagement with video. Facebook has “been shoving video down everyone’s throats—video is everywhere on our news feeds,” the article said. “So it shouldn’t be shocking that people are watching more video and expect to watch more of it.”

Can anyone trust the metrics, anyway?

Another dark side of the Facebook story, now. Among the platform’s many public relations gaffes and horror-shows in recent months (from having a ‘jew-hating’ targeting category to overstating its advertising reach to millennials by several million), viewability metrics are an ongoing thorn in Facebook’s embattled side.

Exactly what counts as a view has for a long time been a mystery – and although Facebook is slowly allowing greater transparency and accountability through third-party verification, social media managers and content marketers should retain a healthy dose of suspicion. To put it another way, and to quote Mark Ritson in his July article for the Australian: “Apparently, an exposure of less than two seconds of partial video on a smartphone still represents amazing value for money. I continue to despair at the state of modern marketing.”

It’s a wild west for publishers, marching as we are into Facebook’s new dominion. Still, if marketers want to engage more people, it might be a good idea to pony up on producing video now – whether that’s an episodic 20-minute program series, a monthly ‘how to’ show, or ‘behind-the-scenes’ for-social shoot featuring a few talking heads.

The sheer wealth of data that Facebook offers on audiences is in itself hard-to-resist. It means that video content can be hyper-personalised, granular and targeted like on no other channel. With Facebook users notoriously nonchalant about their privacy on the platform – giving up information in exchange for use – just think of all those streamlined behavioural insights marketers can mine.

Yet before you do jump on the bandwagon, take a breather. Drink some juice. Have a think. Ask yourself: does your audience actually want more video? Do they? No, really? Serious question. Because before we all start kneeling to Facebook’s pressure-driven edicts, brands have to remember who they truly exist to serve.

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