Saving face: What Facebook’s latest changes tell us about its priorities

Facebook is arguably the single most important force in media today. That’s likely to rankle a lot of our readers (especially those whose family members don’t have a filter for what they share on Facebook) but it’s a relatively uncontentious statement.

Facebook and the other social platforms (some of which are also under Facebook’s control) are going to be the primary means by which publishers reach their audiences in the near future, and are already fulfilling that role for some.

But Facebook and Google are also essentially ad spend vacuums, with some predicting that in the first quarter of 2016 85 cents of every dollar spent in online advertising will go to those two giants. John Hermann explains for the New York Times:

“As social networks grew, visits to websites in some ways became unnecessary detours, leading to the weakened traffic numbers for news sites. Sales staffs at media companies struggled to explain to clients why they should buy ads for a fragmented audience rather than go to robust social networks instead.”

So as the social networks became the intermediaries between publishers and their audiences, it was inevitable that the ad spend would follow, leaving publishers to eke out what they can from the other 15 cents or through revenue sharing with Facebook. Part of that process requires the publishers to try to anticipate what Facebook is prioritising, a notoriously difficult process given Facebook’s opacity. Even when it explicitly lays out what it’s doing, questions still remain…

But given that Facebook has just reported revenue of $5.38 billion in the first quarter, driven largely by video and mobile advertising, we thought it was high time we try to figure out where its strategic priorities are going to lie in the near future, so publishers (ourselves included, frankly) can better align ourselves with it.

Facebook video

Concerns about the truth of its viewability statistics and widespread freebooting aside, it’s undeniable that Facebook is prioritising video.

Unfortunately for publishers, this is one area where simply producing video content of their own is no guarantee of a boost from Facebook. Creating video content is a priority for most large publishers for 2016, and they’re all pushing their video content to Facebook, as this NewsWhip article makes plain

That in turn is likely to hit the smaller publishers who simply can’t afford to create much video. Despite a growing appetite for video inventory among advertisers, making video itself is costly and time-consuming. There’s a reason smaller publishers are being left out in the cold by Facebook.

Worse still for the publishers investing in original video, there’s evidence to suggest video aggregators are the big winners in Facebook video so far. Digiday’s Sahil Patel explains:

“The truth of these video juggernauts is much of the content that gains those millions views isn’t created by them. That’s not to say it’s stolen — although some of it is, according to content creators — but for now, Facebook tends to favor aggregators of other people’s content.”

One potential bright spot for publishers is that Facebook appears to be prioritising live video, which is anathema to aggregators (even if many of the big success stories for live video at the moment seem, well, pointless). But if everyone gets into the live video game, it’s unlikely there’ll be any especially big winners – while the undeniable losers will be those who don’t produce live video and get left behind by the all-powerful algorithm.

VR and chatbots

Facebook’s foray into virtual reality is no passing fancy. In fact, some write-ups of its Q1 results suggest that investors are piling in specifically because of their ownership of Oculus. From Ad Age:

“With Instagram and video, “they’ve got these two huge tailwinds to their business,” Mark Mahaney, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, said before the results. “But if you own Facebook stock you’re not buying it now because of what they can do with video ads or Instagram, you’re buying it because of the potential with their long-term bets like virtual reality.”

It clearly sees the future of VR as being social, as its F8 conference made clear, but there’s undoubtedly room for publishers (at least those with the money to invest in VR) to get a foothold there.

The same conference also demonstrated how central chatbots are to Facebook’s future strategy, with some essentially saying they’re the successor to apps. There is still some reticence about how useful those bots will be, and until we see some case studies for how publishers can use them to their advantage we just won’t know how good for publishers they’ll be.

Personal sharing and context collapse

What does Facebook possibly have to worry about? It’s unassailable, surely.

But, as this excellent article from Anna Lauren Hoffmann explains, the most basic service Facebook offers – and the one on which its success to date has hinged – isn’t as popular as it once was. Put simply, we’re not sharing details of our personal lives as much any more:

“A situation where people aren’t sharing is anathema to Facebook’s business model, which uses our personal information to fuel its targeted advertising and marketing engines.

Facebook’s response to this problem has been to build new tools for sharing, such as the newly announced live video, instead of better tools for managing privacy – demonstrating Facebook’s prioritization of companies and brands at the expense of the needs and safety of individual users.”

In response, Facebook has launched some tools to ameliorate that problem. But, even on Facebook, there’s only so much attention to go around, and any move to put personal information back at the heart of the strategy will inevitably squeeze the amount of real estate available to brands and publishers.

That, and the move to make Instant Articles available to all publishers (and potentially allow verified users access to a ‘tip jar’ for additional monetisation), mean that it’s harder to tell where publishers will sit in the hierarchy of Facebook’s sorting algorithm.

But, on the bright side, we do know that the latest tweaks to Facebook’s algorithm is designed to deprioritise ‘clickbait’ and reward more in-depth content, which must at least be a small comfort to legacy publishers who are still wondering what their relationship with Facebook is likely to be a few short months down the line. 

By |2016-05-04T00:01:00+00:00May 4th, 2016|Analysis|Comments Off on Saving face: What Facebook’s latest changes tell us about its priorities

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