Can Social Viewing Save Facebook Watch?

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Last month, Facebook announced updated viewership data for its in-app video platform, Watch. Strategically introduced by the social network to compete with streaming entertainment giants and offer advertisers mid-roll video advertising inventory, Watch’s new daily viewer numbers and exclusive content partnerships indicate a promising future for the platform – on the surface. Reading between the lines and considering other priorities for the company, however, yield a more complicated outlook.

Looking Past the Data

While the numbers shared seem impressive at first glance – the social network boasts 720 million users who spend one minute in Watch each month – omissions in detail around the data tell a different story about engagement with the platform. As confirmed by Facebook to CNBC, the minute-per-user metric does not represent continuous watch time, meaning that users may only be spending a few seconds viewing different videos over several visits to Facebook.

Also missing from the metrics Facebook shared is the breakdown of viewership globally versus in the U.S. This distinction is important, as U.S.-focused advertisers will want to understand the true potential reach of Watch within the U.S. New partnerships featured in the announcement highlight the value Facebook is placing on its international audiences, which could be symptomatic of slow adoption in the U.S.

Regardless of the omissions in reporting, the presented scale of Watch and its potential for growth are still impressive. The question marketers and advertisers should be asking, though, is whether Facebook can foster meaningful viewership with Watch programming. A high volume of monthly viewers reached is useless to social advertisers if none of those viewers make it to the ad breaks.

A Divergence in Business Priorities

Aside from growing viewership, the social network also has to contend with shifting business priorities. The continued development of Watch programming appears somewhat at odds with the recent direction from founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has stated the company’s future focus will be around facilitating one-on-one communication within a unified messaging environment, and upholding higher standards for privacy. Where, then, will Watch fit into this vision for the future of Facebook?

To answer that question, advertisers and content producers should look no further than the company’s number two social network, Instagram. Sporting some of the same features as Watch, Instagram TV’s integration into the app’s Search & Explore section make discovering and consuming original video content more intuitive. And with IGTV, it doesn’t seem there has been the same expectation of ad revenue from video creators, which has permitted the platform to grow more naturally.

Yet, Facebook maintains it will remain a social platform at its core, and regardless of the broader vision, Watch will depend on viewers to remain sustainable. The key to increasing viewership is to invest in capabilities that enhance discoverability and shareability. Building social features into Watch, then, is the natural next step.

How Social Viewing Could Save Watch

Social networks and other video platforms, including YouTube, are struggling to move in on the streaming content territory of services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. The advantage Facebook brings is an immense existing userbase and the ability to introduce features that become part of the core experience. Notable examples of this include Groups, Marketplace and Messenger.

But Facebook hasn’t been perfect in predicting what will drive engagement within the platform. Other features and products introduced throughout its history were shuttered due to low adoption. Remember Paper, Facebook’s short-lived, stand-alone news app?

To avoid the fate of Paper, and others, Facebook Watch should focus on the core strengths of social networking while continuing to invest in original programming and entertainment partnerships. Ranking and suggesting videos based on their popularity with friends has the potential to transform original video content into must-see entertainment and save the platform.

What to do with Watch

An opaque vision for the future of Facebook and metrics that conceal true engagement with Watch should certainly give advertisers pause. But growth takes time and the social network has a long list of lessons from which to learn as it continues to redefine its priorities.

Regardless, advertisers and marketers should continue to create content that their customers and consumers at large want to engage with, no matter the platform or format. They should constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to share that content in places where it will have the most impact. If Facebook maintains its current course and continues to introduce clever features that encourage discovery and sharing, Watch may just make it in the highly competitive entertainment space.

Heather Rist Murphy

Vice President of Performance Content + Social Media at Nina Hale

Latest posts by Heather Rist Murphy (see all)


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