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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Will Facebook crush Snapchat in video?

August 17, 2017 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift @mediatwit
Boot Stepping on Figures

Video has become an obsession for many publishers as a method to garner deeper engagement with their audiences. So why not post them on Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat and see if you can wring a few more ad dollars from those platforms? It always gets down to time and money: Which platform is really worth it?

Lately Facebook has been front and center with video, pushing live-streaming last year by subsidizing publishers who created recurring original content. And now comes Watch, a new tab for video with mini-shows from publishers that look more like YouTube than Netflix, funded by Facebook. And that’s after many publishers such as Hearst, Bustle and TechCrunch have prioritized Facebook’s Instagram over Snapchat.

In the end, Facebook has its eye on the bigger prize: getting a piece of the TV advertising action.

So where will that leave Snapchat? It’s reputation as a millennial digital darling has now matured into that of a sluggish teenager seemingly in need of a parental (read: profitable) business model after another poor earnings report with big losses and slowing user growth. Perhaps Snap will try harder to play nice with publishers since it remains a relatively “safe space” within Discover.

Watching ‘Watch’

Facebook has long said their future is in video, and a dedicated section to keep you sucked into the app is part of that strategy. The Watch tab also features a “Watchlist” of episodes created around your personalized algorithms, and is meant to capitalize on community viewership for the maximum Facebook experience. Seeing what your friends are reacting to and being able to watch videos within groups is how Facebook’s video platform differentiates from the likes of YouTube, Netflix and Hulu.

While Facebook eventually hopes for “thousands of shows,” so far only a few are available. And like its effort with Facebook Live, Facebook is paying a select group of publishers, including BuzzFeed, A&E, Major League Baseball and National Geographic, to create and offer content specifically for Watch. Publishers can make money either by splitting advertising revenues with Facebook (the social giant gets a 45% cut), or by creating branded content with advertisers from the start.

Facebook is anticipated to take in about 20 percent of the $83 billion in online advertising dollars this year, according to eMarketer, but it’s still unclear how much will eventually stem from Watch, even if it does have potential (and the backing of the all-powerful News Feed algorithm).

Watch vs. Discover

Even though Facebook has put a lot of energy into cloning Snapchat’s best features, it didn’t copy Snapchat’s strategy of only allowing a select group of publishers onto Discover. The result of Snapchat’s control is that it only has about one short original video show per day. When Facebook eventually opens Watch to whoever wants to create video for it — which is part of the plan — the YouTube-like experience, without YouTube’s powerful search function, might make discoverability hard for most people. In fact, as others have reported, Facebook’s Watch stands to increase the effect of the filter bubble.

When it comes to business, given the less than stellar performance of resource-heavy Facebook Live — not to mention the difficulty of making money with Instant Articles — it’s safe to say publishers should proceed with caution about putting all their eggs in Facebook’s video basket. Facebook is already on top of growth as one part of the two-part online ad duopoly, but it has yet to make itself a safe space for publishers to profit as well.

And Facebook will have to also deal with extremist content that has put YouTube in hot water. Facebook has already come under fire for violent content in some of its livestreams, and brand safety and offensive issues have been huge sources of contention for YouTube. It seems it’s only a matter of time for conflict to arise in that department as well for Facebook. Facebook hasn’t done a great job with humans or algorithms on handling fake news or extremist content, so it still has a lot to learn in editorial oversight.

Can Snapchat Snap Out of It?

Meanwhile, with slow user growth and poor earnings performance, Snapchat has a lot to catch up on if it wants to keep pace with competition. Its growth rate this quarter was about half of what it was in the first quarter. When it comes to daily users, Snapchat also only added 15 million new daily users in the first half of this year — whereas Instagram Stories added 100 million, more than six times as much.

Snapchat could try to subsidize more content, but the question is how. And the truth is that Facebook’s better ad targeting and measurement makes it that much more difficult for Snap to grab advertisers onto its platform over Instagram. Snapchat may have an automated ad-selling platform, but some publishers are grumbling that they have no way of knowing their performance on the “dying” platform.

To top it off, Google is planning to launch its own answer to Snapchat’s Discover, “Stamp.” Built around its AMP mobile web pages that load faster, it’ll allow publishers to create visual-oriented content that — unlike both Facebook and Snapchat — they can also host on their own sites. Another boon for publishers is that Google-backed publisher stories would be available in Google search results.

With all this in mind, publishers would do their best to diversify their video efforts and distribution. They’ve tried complaining and teaming up against the tech giants, but maybe this is a better idea: pitting the platforms against each other. If they all want to dominate in video, why not hold out for better terms, subsidies and promotion in the feed? Snap is in a real bind, and this would be a good time to ask them for a better deal. Facebook wants Watch to catch on? Maybe they can offer producers a better deal for good content.

If platforms want to divide and conquer, then publishers should do the same back at them.


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