As Facebook tunes in to TV, will advertisers flip the switch or stick with the channel?
Facebook has been softening its stance as a media company as it quietly lays out ambitions to become both a content distributor and commissioner; a social feed, newspaper and TV wrapped up in one. Does this mean media companies will become more integrated into the platform, or will they be phased out as Facebook absorbs their skills? And how will all this impact advertisers?
What Facebook's shift to content commissioner means for advertisers
Over the past few years Facebook has been working hard to prove to publishers and broadcasters that it wants to amplify media rather than own it. Just last year, the company's vice-president for EMEA, Nicola Mendelsohn, likened its relationship with broadcasters to “really happy bedfellows”.
But the arrival of CollegeHumour founder Ricky Van Veen as head of global creative strategy in June last year marked a turning point in Facebook's ambitions to commission, as well as distribute, content – a move that broadcasters are unlikely to warm to.
"I’ll be working with all types of creators and organizations to figure out how best to use the biggest network in the world to better connect people with engaging and meaningful content," he wrote in a Facebook post announcing the move.
Experimenting with long-form
For the time being, Facebook will focus on becoming the go-to destination for premium short-form content. Founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told analysts on its quarter earnings call earlier this month that the social giant wanted to hone in on snackable content in the style of YouTube. He implied there would be a slow move toward long-form, telling analysts he believes people will "experiment with longer forms of video and all kinds of different things," in the future.
The boss also said Facebook’s dedicated video tab was going global. The button currently sits at the bottom of the app for all US users, allowing them to view live streams from around the world and content from their friends. Facebook will also pay creators both upfront and through ad revenue schemes to get their content into its news feed and on the tab, with some even speculating that the social giant wants to host long-form content there before siphoning it off into a separate app once users are accustomed to it.
Where before Facebook acted as a channel for publishers and broadcasters to push content out to a huge global audience, it now looks like the company is planning to eventually buy, fund, or create its own TV-style content. Led by Veen, the platform began to approach TV studios and video producers about licensing shows – including scripted shows, game shows and sports – at the end of last year.
What’s more, the platform is apparently shifting the emphasis from live video when it talks to publishers about content creation, in favour of high-quality, longer content that could see it compete with the likes of Netflix. Recode reports that publishers who struck live-streaming deals with Facebook last year are not expecting their contracts to be renewed. To add to this, Facebook has tweaked its algorithm to put emphasis on longer video as well as giving marketers the means to compare TV and digital ads.
But what does this mean for the social network’s relationship with advertisers? Its move into original content could cushion any potential impact of waning ad spend should Procter & Gamble and other advertisers make good on their threat to pull back spend on the platform if it doesn’t offer more transparent measurement.
Overcoming broadcasters' monetisation woes
How Facebook will convince creators to publish longer content within its walls without a refined monetisation model remains to be seen. It has been trialling mid-roll ads within Live since August last year and, according to sources, is currently testing a ‘mid-roll’ format across its entire video inventory. Insiders say this will give publishers the chance to insert ads into their footage after people have watched for at least 20-seconds. Recode says the company has plans to hand over as much as 55% of ad revenue to publishers – the same as YouTube.
When probed on the subject by investors, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said some of Facebook’s newer attempts at products and news feeds such as ad breaks are in the “early experimental stages”.
Given eMarketer's prediction that digital video is expected to see double-digit growth annually through to 2020, the introduction of mid-roll ads could come as welcome news for advertisers looking for new ways to pump ad spend into the medium.
For broadcasters and publishers it’s not that simple; every deal they make with Google and Facebook is a Faustian bargain. The question is whether the economics of that bargain pay-off: does the content relationship act as a revenue generator that wouldn’t exist otherwise? Does the cannibalisation of other properties as a result of giving up premium content have a lower value than the revenue or fame gained?
To overcome such monetisation woes from broadcasters, Facebook’s director of agency partnerships, Ed Couchman, speculated in October that the platform could develop an Instant Articles-style proposition. In Couchman’s eyes, this could be the solution to prove to broadcasters that the social network wants to share, rather than steal, media budgets.
A new breed
If the business succeeds in making TV-like content a revenue generator, it will become a completely new breed of media company. What is unique about Facebook, particularly as it expands its media empire, is that it will be competing with individual sectors – ie publishers, broadcasters, and other social networks – but no one company can do all those things at the scale Facebook can.
That’s a daunting prospect for a traditional media company given that Facebook’s rise as a news source is already hitting publishers' revenues. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, over half of all web users use social media for news each week, with increasing numbers citing it as their main source.
Yet as Facebook blurs the lines between tech and media company, there is still the question of whether it will begin to abide by common media laws and practices, or whether it will shape out a new form of this. That depends at which level Facebook accepts it is responsible for the content on its platform, commissioned or otherwise.
The platform has made several U-turns concerning its responsibilities as a tech business, publicly asserting it is a neutral channel for helping users share information, while making editorial judgements on what news appears top in the feed and making murky censorship decisions. Notable examples include the censoring of an iconic Vietnam war photo, a picture of a 16th-century statue of Neptune, and a photograph of topless Aboriginal women wearing ceremonial paint as part of a protest, leading to accusations of 'racially biased censorship'.
‘The ability to go live shone a bright light in a very dark place’
If Facebook allows things to be published that are outside of the law, it has an obligation to remove them. The issue is the speed at which it can remove something, proven most recently by its failure in removing a Live video showing the torture of a young man with disabilities before it was copied and redistributed across the site. Even more alarmingly, the platform has inadvertently acted as a distribution tool for terrorists who can take advantage of Live to push their message quickly before it is removed.
“The ability to do it live offers an open invitation to the basest human behaviour,” says Rob Norman, chief digital officer at GroupM. “It is so dangerous that you can’t let it happen. Facebook will do everything it can to suppress and remove that kind of stuff.”
Herein lies the thorny issue: whether Facebook has an additional responsibility as a media owner to manage its Live functionality, its most powerful, but dangerous tool. It’s a unique problem that goes beyond TV’s live functionality.
Norman suggests the platform must develop an additional filter that stops a live transmission that contains illegal or harmful content, either by time delay or by screening tools, or risk authoritative action.
Publishers who have been commissioned to produce Live, including the New York Times, have questioned the ability to create quality broadcasts in real-time, and the impact this has on their brand, which raises the question of why an advertiser would want to serve up a mid-roll within an experience that could potentially contain issues like substandard audio.
With this in mind, a greater focus on creating long-form content that encompasses mid-roll ads is likely to be a more appealing option for advertisers. GroupM’s Norman believes so, because “it almost certainly means longer and more conventional video formats will have an easier content frame to exist in Facebook than they do in the news feed today”.
He observes it will bring the relationship between Facebook and media agencies closer because the content is going to be different and exclusive, creating a new opportunity for agencies to sell to clients.
“We generally take the view that the most powerful form of advertising is video that people pay attention to. One of our challenges with Facebook is we think the feed-based format doesn’t create that environment as well as others.”
“We think these extended content pieces will create more of an environment. If that means we can have more effectiveness out of video in the world’s single most popular media platform, that is good for us. That is better for us than Netflix, which just takes away screen time that you can run ads in.”
Another challenge for advertisers, should Facebook take on the role of media owner, is how the editorial decisions it takes impact on issues like brand safety and relevance.
In the wake of the ongoing fake news furore, Zuckerberg has softened his steadfast stance on what he believes Facebook to be, recently implying that it is a media company, just not in the “traditional” sense.
“Traditionally, Facebook had managed to escape definition because it didn’t create content and it was just a technology platform and a network for content distribution, but as Facebook has grown the lines have blurred,” says Tim Pritchard, head of social marketing at Manning Gottlieb OMD.
There are already countless examples of Facebook having instituted editorial standards not unlike those imposed by newspapers – including Zuckerberg allegedly putting his foot down about not removing content posted by president Trump (even though it violated the social network’s own rules around hate speech).
However, several new initiatives indicate the company wants to establish stronger ties with the industry rather than become a central part of it. It’s even hired a head of news partnerships in the form of former NBC journalist Campbell Brown to make sure these plans go smoothly.
When it simply billed itself as a tech company, Facebook didn’t have a responsibility to regulate what publishers share within its walls. As it appears to be moving away from that vision, it could be held accountable to advertisers should their content end up served against something unsuitable in the same way a traditional media owner would.
It will inevitably have to commit (at least partially) to the same measurement standards the rest of media has rather than ‘marking its own homework’. Because without advertisers on board, and still a way to prove to broadcasters and publishers it wants to share rather than steal media budgets, its efforts are fruitless in the face of fierce competition from Apple and Snapchat, who are ready to swoop at the first sign of weakness. Consolidation of media will happen regardless. Facebook, take note.
Reporting by Jessica Goodfellow and Rebecca Stewart