Publishers adopt Facebook Live, but struggle with monetization and discovery

Nine months since Facebook introduced live video, publisher adoption is climbing. But questions remain about how to get the most out of the feature — and how much to invest in a feature whose ability to monetize is still limited.

According to Socialbakers, 51 percent of the top publisher companies posted to Facebook Live in September, up from 10 percent in January. At the same time, use of Twitter’s live video service Periscope has declined, with just 10 percent of publishers using it in September, down from 14 percent in January.

Some publishers seem unconcerned about the lack of dollar signs they’re seeing in the service. The Washington Post is publishing 175 or more live videos a month, to showcase everything from its weekly political fact-checking series to artistic pumpkin-carving demonstrations, said Micah Gelman, director of video at the Post. The Post views live video as it does the many other platforms it distributes to, as a way to expose the Post’s journalism to new audiences. “We’re optimistic the monetization will follow,” he said.

USA Today takes a similar position. It’s publishing a handful each day, and it doesn’t plan to let up, although it has been more actively sharing live video across its 100-plus newspaper network and repurposing live video in the form of shorter clips and text-based articles. For the election, USA Today planned to cross-post and simultaneously stream its coverage across all the network’s Facebook pages. “There are a number of things we don’t make direct revenue from, [that] we do because it helps our brand,” said Jamie Mottram, senior director of social content for the USA Today Network. “Facebook Live is one example of that.”

Other publishers are more circumspect. With the promotional push Facebook is giving live video and its potential to reach huge audiences, it’s hard for publishers to completely ignore Facebook Live. But it was one thing when Facebook was rewarding publishers who actively posted there by sending traffic to their sites; today, Facebook Live is another format demanding publishers’ resources even as Facebook cuts back the traffic it’s sending publishers.

Facebook is running a small test whereby publishers can insert an ad break in their live videos; it’s expected to expand the test to more publishers in the coming months.

Even after that happens, the service will have some challenges attracting advertisers. Facebook Live is tricky for a number of reasons, said Doug Rozen, chief digital and innovation officer at OMD. First, publishers are still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Beyond that, not all ads are suited to the live experience, and historically certain advertisers tend be hesitant about having their ads around breaking news — no matter what the platform — because they can’t control the content, he said.

The Wall Street Journal is just posting one original live video a week and doesn’t plan to ramp up beyond that. It sees the feature as a way to reach new audiences and deepen its relationship with existing ones. But the monetization limits are “something we’re always thinking about,” said Carla Zanoni, executive emerging media editor there. “That’s really why we’re cautious as we experiment with this format.”

CBS News, similarly, treats Facebook Live as supplemental to its streaming activities on its own properties, using Live to get extra exposure for big news stories that it’s already streaming to its other platforms, said Christy Tanner, svp and GM of CBS News Digital. “We are very focused on growing CBSNews with our 24/7 live because the monetization opportunities with Facebook Live are limited,” she said. “Therefore, our Facebook Live distribution is limited.”

Even among those that are committed to the format struggle with how to get the most out of it. Most people are watching live video on their mobile devices and are likely to be on the go and have the sound muted, which makes capturing their attention on the small screen tricky. Justin Choi, CEO of native ad platform Nativo and a Facebook critic, said most live video would do better as an edited product. “It has limited use cases,” he said.

While publishers have learned that having panels and talking heads can fall flat, videos with a suspense or explainer element or lend themselves to watching with friends do well. Among CNN’s best-performing live videos was one of a man climbing Trump Tower, which has gotten 8.1 million views. USA Today Network’s Arizona Republic did well with a video that explored the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana by showing how smoking affects a person’s sobriety. The video did well by the Republic’s standards (it got 221,000 views) because it tapped into an issue of national interest in an entertaining way. “It was somewhat of a clever stunt but it also had a greater purpose,” Mottram said.

Getting the format right is only part of the battle. A common complaint is that Facebook doesn’t make it easy for people to discover live video unless they happen to be following a publisher’s page already, or to resurface videos that have already aired but have a potential long shelf life. (Facebook is starting to address these issues, with scheduling options that let publishers plan and promote broadcasts ahead of time.)

“As a pure user, I wonder about the discoverability of live,” said Samantha Barry, director of social news at CNN, one of the publishers that’s getting paid by Facebook to produce live video, so it’s more committed to the format than other media companies might be. “How are new audiences going to stumble upon it if you’re not a follower? How are we getting it in front of you?”

Image courtesy of USA Today Network.