Publishers eye Facebook as YouTube rival

Facebook is moving into YouTube’s turf, and that could be good for video publishers.

Facebook announced earlier this week that it’s testing a new video section on its mobile app, which would allow users to find and watch videos much as they already do on YouTube. The section will be populated with content that’s been liked and saved by users, recommended by their friends and posted by pages they follow.

While still in an early testing phase, the section is a major departure from Facebook’s current approach of populating users’ news feeds with videos they didn’t even know they’d want to watch. Publishers that have already adopted Facebook to distribute video said they’re excited by the new video section, as well as improvements Facebook is making to its “suggested videos” tab.

“It’s smart for Facebook to provide video experiences for different audience groups and viewing expectations,” said Greg Gittrich, chief content officer at Vocativ, a millennial news site. “The bottom line is that it creates more opportunities for us to reach a large, diverse and engaged audience.”

Vocativ is among the digital publishers that have embraced video on Facebook. In August, the company hit 95.8 million views on the platform, up from just 1.6 million views eight months before. With Facebook’s new video section and improved suggested-videos feature, the publisher has the chance to reach people who are actively seeking out videos and are, therefore, more likely to spend time watching them.

And that’s an important issue in the battle between Facebook and YouTube for online video views. One problem advertisers have with how Facebook treats video is that a view is often counted even if a user scrolled by the silent, auto-playing video in their news feed. YouTube, meanwhile, trumpets how people spend a lot of time watching videos on its platform. In the second quarter of this year, YouTube said its overall watch time increased by 60 percent year-over-year.

“You have only one purpose when you go to YouTube or come across a YouTube video, and that’s to consume video,” said Athan Stephanopoulos, senior vp of strategy and partnerships at NowThis. (The news startup has long embraced social distribution and did 364 million views on Facebook in September, according to Tubular Labs.) “The intent is already there, and the likelihood of a completion is therefore high.”

Stephanopoulos said that even though Facebook has been criticized for the way it counts views, NowThis still produces content with a “maniacal focus” on ensuring that its videos are completed.

Facebook’s new video features — if they are made available to the entire community after the test phase — could help.

“The biggest thing that stands out when comparing the two is that YouTube is subscribers and Facebook is friends,” said Josh Kreitzman, vp of programming for Jukin Media, which buys and resells user-generated clips to publishers and brands. According to Kreitzman, the average number of YouTube channels people subscribe to is far lower than the number of Facebook friends they have. If Facebook’s new video features take hold and draw more people to seek out video content on the platform, that could mean trouble for YouTube.

That said, YouTube has an established system for monetizing its video, whereas Facebook is still testing how to run ads alongside video content. The new video section suggests an easier way to integrate advertising into Facebook’s video ecosystem, and if users flock to the section and start spending a lot of time with video, then it could be devastating for YouTube.

When asked if Facebook’s new video features might entice Vocativ and other publishers to shift their publishing efforts to Facebook from YouTube, Gittrich said, “We’ll test different content and see how it works and use the data to make those decisions, but it’s very possible that it may.”

First, though, publishers need a way to monetize their video there.

“We are absolutely leaning in on Facebook as a meaningful video platform with the hope and expectation that there will eventually be a real monetization opportunity that comes alongside it,” said one publishing executive who requested anonymity.

Image via Twin Design /

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