Facebook tried to couch its announcement yesterday about new video ads as something other than what it was -- a higher level of intrusiveness and clutter in the feed. They so desperately want us to think of this as a direct competitor for TV eyeballs and dollars (a crap line I thought the industry had dismissed when the social network first floated it), it smacks of either arrogance or fear. People don't use the medium the same way they use TV. Facebook's notion of TV reach (grossly fragmented and cumulative) is not the same as TV's itself. The entire viewing experience is different. Oh, why am I bothering? They may really believe they are going to move TV ad dollars where just about everyone else online has failed after claiming the same goal for fifteen years. I was hearing it in 2002 for CEOs at the then-almighty portals.
But the hand-wringing over their attention to creative quality is what really stands out as misdirection. They have enlisted TV creative analytics firm Ace Metrix, arguing that they will be testing ads before they launch and advising brands on effectiveness. I noticed they made no mention of actually using these tests to keep any advertiser out of the feed. Peter Daboll, Ace Metrix CEO, tells me that the more common scenario is that advertisers may test ahead of time a range of creatives to identify what does and doesn't work.
Make no mistake -- Facebook is using devotion to creative to pre-empt potential blowback about auto-play video by insisting it is trying to maintain creative quality and improve the experience. Really? Have they looked at how butt ugly their site is? How that right rail looks like a NASCAR racer sponsored by credit cards, anti-virus vendors, insurance companies and online universities? These are the guys who are going to play creative cop?
And yeah, yeah, yeah -- we have heard this line before about a new ad format inviting marketers to innovate creatively. Maybe I am too old and have been watching all of this for way too long. Déjà vu seems to be a chronic condition in this digital media-watching business.
But Daboll believes that the 15-second and scrolling format will get creatives out of their usual attitude toward the :15 spot as a cut-up version of the :30 or :60. I argue back that I thought the pre-roll was supposed to help do that work long ago, but we never really saw it happen. “I don't think the creative went far enough,” he says. “The Facebook unit is different. You don't get audio. You have to get some kind of interest to watch the full video. What is going to be the challenge is how to get the unit to have that I-wanna-watch quality.”
Ace Metrix has already seen how the most effective TV :15s work differently even than :30s. “You have three seconds in a :15 to establish the entire message of the commercial and then twelve to solve it,” he says. “The first three seconds is critical.”
But put that constraint into a rapid scroll where people can not just tune the ad out on some level but just scroll past. NowThisNews has already discovered on Instagram and Vine that it needs to pack the most important part of the story in those first two seconds, says Editor in Chief Ed O’Keefe. Daboll echoes the idea and suggests “It may mean having the brand name first. There will be a lot of things to test.”
Which I guess is good news for Ace Metrix. This program is being baked into the Facebook process of moving video ads online so they will be amassing a database of what and how things work. And among the many things they will have to discover about these videos is how context matters. As Daboll tells me, there is no way to understand up front how people will respond differently to all the many varied circumstances in which a Facebook user will encounter this material. “We are going to learn as we go.”
As with all things mobile, the real nub here is less attention span and screen size than it is context beyond just location. It is the mode people are in within an interactive, fast scrolling, social media setting. The video is not encountered in any way like a TV interstitial or even a pre-roll. We are not in lean-back mode where we have to endure the ad to get to the content. We are engaged in a rapid scroll where the first frames or even the splash image will determine whether someone scrolls by quickly.
More than that, there is an inherent risk in stuffing content that looks anything like a TV spot into an experience like this. The context is highly intimate, often person-to-person, and engaging in friend updates that are of a different kind. I think we relate to this content much differently than we do any TV, print or radio spot. There is a reason some slice of us really are turned off by in-feed social ads. The dissonance is so apparent. The material we are there to consume is not like news, informational, or entertainment content. It is not disembodied and coming to us from an institutional, corporate source. The voice of this “content” is coming from someone we know, and that makes it different fundamentally. I am not convinced we should be calling this stuff social “media” to begin with. The email in-box may be the closest to the sponsored feed experience nowadays, but most of us aren't getting banners in our person-to-person messages.
We don't call personal letters “media.” We don't call phone calls “media.”