In the past week, Facebook and YouTube have both announced some changes to their video advertising formats. Now, a couple of years ago, I would have channeled Star Trek’s Commander Leonard “Bones” McCoy, M.D. and started this column by ranting, “I know engineers, they LOVE to change things.” But, it’s hard to get worked up when both video platforms announced that the changes they were talking about won’t take place until later this year or next year. Hey, I know video marketers, too. They HATE to change things. But, with that kind of advanced warning, who can really complain?
So, what are these changes? And why did Facebook, whose mantra for developers has long been “move fast and break things,” and YouTube, which changes at a rate of 33% a year, decide to alert us to these alterations in their video advertising formats several months in advance?
New Ways to Watch Facebook Video
On Feb. 14, 2017, Facebook announced four news ways to watch Facebook video. The biggest change involves bringing sound to videos in the News Feed between now and the end of the year. As video marketers know, videos in the News Feed have played silently up to now — unless a user tapped on a video to hear the sound. But, as younger people have been watching more Snapchat videos on their smartphones, they’ve apparently come to expect sound when the volume on their device is turned on. Who knew?
So, Facebook has decided – after testing sound on in its News Feed and “hearing positive feedback” – to carefully follow in Snapchat’s footsteps and slowly bring sound to more people, as well. When this update rolls out, sound will fade in and out as Facebook users scroll through videos in their News Feed.
Now, if your smartphone is set to silent, then Facebook videos won’t play with sound. And, if you never want videos to play with sound, then you can disable this feature by switching off “Videos in News Feed Start with Sound” in Settings. Facebook also says it will be showing in-product messages to tell people about the new sound on experience and controls.
In other news, Facebook also announced changes to make vertical videos look better on mobile devices. It made it possible to minimize the video you’re watching to a picture-in-picture view that keeps playing in the corner of your screen while you browse other stories in News Feed. And it announced a new Facebook video app for TV. But, these changes are less likely to ruffle anyone’s feathers.
Now, I had lunch in New York City last week with a couple of people who work at a company that provides digital advertising services to 91% of Ad Age 100 brands. And they wanted to know what I thought about Facebook videos starting to autoplay with sound. Let me share with you what I told them. All media companies have to carefully balance what their readers, listeners, viewers, and users want with what their advertisers would like to have. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, two-thirds of the advertisers in PC/Computing wanted their ads to appear in the first third of the magazine, even though reader research showed that the most popular part was the middle of the publication where the cover story ran. Today, advertisers may prefer that their videos autoplay with the sound on, but that may or may not be welcomed by the vast majority of Facebook users.
Why would Snapchat users expect sound when watching a video? Because it typically comes from one of their friends, not an advertiser. With the advent of Facebook Live, we may see a similar response, but it’s too soon to tell.
So, why would Facebook hear “positive feedback” after testing sound on in its News Feed? Well, not every Facebook user sees videos in their News Feed. As far as we know, only 500 million Facebook users even see videos, so the test may have been conducted using the most video-friendly segment of the social network’s users. And 85% of these Facebook users currently watch videos with the sound off. So, did Facebook conduct its test using the 15% that currently watch videos with the sound on? And as the social network rolls out videos that autoplay with sound, will the feedback continue to be as positive?
In other words, kudos to Facebook for giving everyone a “heads up” that changes are coming down the road. For a company that just celebrated its 13th birthday, the social network is showing a lot of maturity. But, video marketers should still watch this particular change like a hawk, because sound may not be welcomed by as many Facebook users as advertisers would like. The jury is still out.
YouTube to End 30 Second Unskippable Ads
Meanwhile, over in the UK, Google provided an official statement to Campaign on Feb. 17, 2017, that said YouTube will stop supporting 30-second unskippable ads next year. A Google spokesman added that YouTube will “focus instead on formats that work well for both users and advertisers.”
Now, the 30-second unskippable ads were popular with advertisers. So, apparently this format didn’t work for YouTube users, who have apparently come to expect the ability to choose which video ads they want to watch – which is what TrueView video ads gave them seven years ago. Now, advertisers will have until 2018 to make adjustments to their plans. And video ads that are shorter than 30-seconds, including 20-second spots, can still be made unskippable. Plus, YouTube has been touting its six-second unskippable bumper ad format since its introduction in April 2016.
So, kudos to YouTube for giving us a “heads up” that changes are coming down the road. For a company that just celebrated its 12th birthday, the video-sharing site is showing a lot of maturity. But, video marketers should recognize that YouTube appears to be giving its users want they want while Facebook is testing the limits of what its advertisers would like to have.
Although both video platforms and trying to balance the two competing forces that any media company feels, one is zigging, while the other is zagging. That means this isn’t a horse race where both competitors are trying to pull out ahead of each other on the same well-defined track. This is more like cross-country running where two different teams are competing in a race across open-air courses over natural terrain that is not well marked. That makes the changes to Facebook and YouTube’s video advertising formats well worth watching – even if we won’t know the outcome until next year.