New Facebook Mobile Video Features Turn Up Heat On YouTube

Facebook is experimenting with a number of video features in the test version of its Android app that enhance the mobile viewing experience. New features — like a dedicated video tab and subscription-based video channels — are aiming to make video a more integral component of Facebook’s mobile offering, as it evolves toward a video-first platform (and tries to turn up the heat on YouTube).

While the features create an almost identical user experience to YouTube, it remains to be seen if Facebook can really transform itself into a video-first platform. The company -- like Google as well -- has a long list of failed products that were often designed to imitate a competitor’s strengths, in fields like local check-ins, e-commerce or payments.

Facebook is serious about going after video consumption, and it has to be. Luring TV ad dollars to the platform is essential for Facebook’s future business. Many traditional advertisers are still not comfortable with the idea of video ads appearing in Facebook’s individualized newsfeed, without the option of targeting a particular contextual environment. 

Video content will now be grouped under a dedicated video tab accessible from the main news feed, which will deliver a feed of live videos, as well as other video content based on a user’s subscriptions or interests.

YouTube as a dedicated video app is where people go to watch videos, while Facebook’s feed-oriented user experience -- that mixes many content types -- doesn’t necessarily encourage video consumption.

That’s a concern for brand marketers that want consumers to watch entire ads, not just the first few seconds as they scroll through a newsfeed. Pixability’s cross-platform studies have found that YouTube still outperforms Facebook, Instagram and Twitter by a huge margin when it comes to video completion rates: almost twice as many people watch 100% of a YouTube ad compared to 25% of a Facebook video ad.

The video tab will include a video-specific search engine, introducing the potential for keyword-based ad targeting on Facebook. This feature is clearly designed to solve one of Facebook’s major video pain points: discoverability.

While the platform has seen very significant traction in natively uploaded videos from both consumers and publishers, it’s still nearly impossible to find compelling video content about a specific topic in the Facebook app.

(Interestingly, Facebook’s search results also surface YouTube videos that were shared by Facebook users.) YouTube’s position as the world’s second-largest search engine (behind Google) gives it a huge advantage for content marketing and highly targeted ad campaigns. Facebook clearly wants a piece of this pie.

This is undoubtedly going to be an uphill battle. Not only does Facebook have to change users’ behavior, it also has to overcome the fact that native Facebook video uploads typically have very thin metadata compared to YouTube standards, which makes search inherently difficult. And the availability of content is nowhere near YouTube’s level.

For example, a YouTube search for channels that offer makeup tutorials -- one of YouTube’s most popular categories -- surfaces 238K channel results, while Facebook video search surfaced all of 15 channels.

Facebook video content will be grouped by publishers into "channels" that are linked to the publisher’s Facebook page, and users will be able to subscribe to these channels to see only video content. This is a wise move to encourage video consumption and user loyalty. Over the last few years, YouTube has successfully promoted channel subscriptions, growing average watch time by more than 50% year over year.

Facebook needs users to watch more and longer videos on its platform in order to create enough attractive video ad inventory. Video content will also be grouped into categories that users can subscribe to, including games, science & tech, politics, and sports. As with video search, this feature is clearly designed to solve the issue of discoverability of Facebook videos.

While Facebook has historically lacked contextual targeting, these video-centric updates have the potential to unlock new ad targeting capabilities, like keyword and channel targeting, and will further escalate Facebook’s pursuit of YouTube’s lion’s share of video ad dollars.

As soon as these new features are rolled out broadly -- presumably over the next few months -- advertisers should re-evaluate their online video strategies.

If Facebook manages to get enough traction with its video-centric features, it will become a more attractive platform for video-heavy advertisers. But user habits are not an easy thing to change. How will consumers react to a new Facebook user experience that is so remarkably close to YouTube?

One thing is certain -- the battle between walled gardens for viewers and ad dollars is only just beginning.

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