• Facebook’s Video Progress is Still Glacial

    Another quarterly earnings call with Facebook and yet another reminder of how glacial the company’s pace has been with prioritizing and monetizing video. Remarkably, it has been over 2 years since CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in the Q2 ’16 earnings call in July, 2016 that “We see a world that is video first with video at the heart of all our apps and service.”

    Now admittedly, Facebook has had its hands full since then putting out fires that are burning everywhere around it (many unfortunately started by its own negligence). But still…here we are almost 2 1/2 years later and if video were so paramount to Facebook’s future, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect to see some real momentum. All the more so because on the Q3 '17 earnings call, video was practically the only thing Wall St. analysts were interested in asking about.

    Instead, Zuckerberg’s and other Facebook executives’ comments on the Q3 ’18 earnings call yesterday revealed not just underwhelming progress with video, but also how surprisingly slow the company has been in understanding how video fits with its traditional newsfeed product.

    Way back in February, 2017 I outlined the issues Facebook was going to face as it pursued video. At a fundamental level, watching video is a passive experience at odds with the active experience of scrolling a newsfeed. That meant video would shift newsfeed time to the detriment of traditional newsfeed activities. So Facebook would have to build another whole experience (which it did with the “Watch” tab) to drive video engagement. Whether users, partners and advertisers would embrace this wholly different way of interacting with Facebook was a total wildcard.

    On yesterday’s earnings call, Zuckerberg touched on this, explaining the rationale for building the Watch tab. He said viewership grew 3x over past few months, but that’s no doubt on a tiny base. And my experience with Watch, which I wrote about earlier this year, was underwhelming to say the least (separate, in my class of 25 graduate media students, not one said they use Facebook Watch). That supports recent research that nearly three-quarters of Facebook users haven't heard of or don't use Watch. Zuckerberg said on the call “And while Watch is now growing very quickly, we’re well behind YouTube…” Hmm, that’s a distance best expressed in light years.

    Beyond Watch being a totally new way to engage with Facebook, the other fundamental problem is its content strategy and budget (a topic that wasn’t addressed yesterday). This past June, Variety reported some analysts believe Facebook could spend $1-2 billion on content for Watch (the company hasn’t confirmed that). If that’s the case, it’s not clear what that money’s been spent on. What we have seen is all over the board - live-streaming some sports, dedicated shows made by partners like Conde Nast, ABC and others, news shows, even standalone series like “Tom vs. Time,” among others.

    As far as I know, Facebook has never publicly stated exactly what its content strategy for Watch actually is. One can easily imagine the numerous confused meetings and follow-ups (or lack thereof) between content executives and Facebook executives. Whereas Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others tend to be very public about their priorities (though to be sure they shift), Facebook’s strategy (like Apple’s too) seems incoherent.

    As such, it’s no surprise Watch is still moving so slowly. Yet another piece missing for Facebook video has been monetization. There was some upbeat talk on the call from Sheryl Sandberg about progress being made with advertisers on planning and buying in Watch, though with quick caveats that “it’s still early.” And not a single mention of how pre-rolls, still the industry’s workhorse ad unit, figure into Facebook’s plans.

    Facebook’s tardiness with video now directly reflects in its financials. The company was growing revenue (primarily advertising of course) around 50% quarterly but that growth rate dropped to 33% in Q3. Had Facebook moved quicker on video, it would have been primed to bridge right to video ad growth in order to keep up its quarterly numbers. That opportunity was totally missed.

    Instead we’ve been seeing a lot of TV ads recently to pre-order Facebook’s new “Portal” video device, as the company chases Amazon and Google, the current leaders in home CE gear. Where Portal fits into Facebook’s ad business is unclear, and given the trust issues Facebook is facing, the timing for launching Portal could hardly be worse. It’s not hard to imagine Portal getting pulled entirely by this time next year.

    Facebook remains a company with massive potential in video. But it has been painfully slow in developing coherent plans and executing them. For sure, the game is from over, but Facebook keeps slipping ever further behind aggressive competitors.