Facebook has revamped its video offering, creating a new hub for shows called Watch. Currently only available in the US, it is being tested ahead of an expected global rollout
Daniel Danker, the man who oversaw the global rollout of Facebook Live last year, is sitting in a featureless meeting room at the company’s offices in Fitzrovia, London. On the agenda is Watch, the social media giant’s new video content platform.
Although no date has been set for a Middle East launch, its implications for the region, and particularly Saudi Arabia, where online video is consumed at global leading levels, could be huge.
“We see in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East that there are a lot of creators that are very successful on Facebook, and a lot of media companies that are doing very well in digital platforms, so I think that’s pretty exciting,” says Danker, director of product at Facebook. “It will also be really interesting to see how we can create an environment for local content to be really successful.”
For now, however, the focus is on the US, where Watch was launched to all users at the beginning of September. Housing original shows produced by the likes of Humans of New York, Refinery29, Insider and Buzzfeed, it is available through a new tab on the Facebook mobile app, as well as via connected TV apps and laptops.
“Because Watch is a platform, it is successful when creators and publishers around the world decide to make shows.”
Initially working with only a select number of publishers, “ultimately we will open it up wider,” says Danker. “But we’re starting narrower, just to make sure the ecosystem works.”
“What we’ve been seeing is, as video time is growing, people actually come to Facebook with the intent to watch video,” explains Danker. “And so Watch is our next step in the journey in satisfying that need, that desire.
“We’re starting in the US, just to see how the product is received. First, we want to make sure that creators and publishers are finding success. For them to be successful they want to really reach a dedicated, loyal audience. That’s what’s unique about Watch. Because these are shows, and because of the ‘watchlist’ feature, you can keep people coming back. So we want to see that that effect is working for creators and publishers.
“But we also want to see that it’s working for viewers, of course, and that people are really engaging with these shows beyond what they normally would through newsfeed. That’s going to be a process that takes some time. There’s the creation process and the consumption process. So we want to see that really take hold.”
Some publishers believe Watch has already had a noticeable impact. For example, Ben Lerer, chief executive of Group Nine Media, which owns Thrillist, Now This and The Dodo, told an Advertising Week panel in late-September that “we’ve done well over 100 million video views and 100 million minutes of viewing, which is important. So people are staying for longer”. The company launched 24 shows when Watch went live in the US, experimenting with different styles, genres and running times.
Experimentation will be key. Video lengths will vary, but most are likely to be short-form rather than long-form. Humans of New York, for example, has turned Brandon Stanton’s photography series into short vignettes of roughly two minutes, with those vignettes also collated into longer 15 to 25-minute shows.
“We think the kind of content that will work best is the kind of content that does two things,” says Danker. “One, taps into community, because that’s what causes video to be successful on Facebook. That’s what causes it to be distributed and shared. The second is that we recognise that most of the viewership will happen on a mobile phone. So, we can see that the kinds of videos that are likely to be successful are ones that are shorter. We estimate in the 10 to 15-minute range per episode, although we’ve seen Nas Daily do a daily one-minute video.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook is reported to be spending as much as $1 billion funding original content for Watch, suggesting it is seeking to compete with the likes of Netflix, YouTube and Amazon.
“I think of it a little bit differently,” responds Danker. “Because Watch is a platform, it is successful when creators and publishers around the world decide to make shows.
“We want to seed that ecosystem by starting with a number of shows that we’re helping to fund ourselves. They’re created by publishers we’ve been working with and essentially the goal behind us seeding that ecosystem is to find out whether there is this powerful connection between community and content and audiences. We believe that community is so important to content that it can really bring a new connection to life.”
Danker cites Returning the Favour, hosted by Mike Rowe, as an example – a series that celebrates people who have done something special for their community by doing something special for them.
Rather than charge subscriptions as Netflix and Amazon do, Facebook is once again targeting advertising dollars, with publishers able to insert ad breaks at any given point in a show. The publisher then takes 55 per cent of the revenue, Facebook the remainder.
“The key when it comes to advertising is that, for publishers to be successful on Watch they need to be able to reach a loyal audience, which is part of how Watch is built; they need to be able to monetise so that they can continue their craft; and people need to enjoy the experience,” says Danker.
“So, as we’re testing, what we’re watching for is, how do we make sure that the advertising experience is one that viewers find enjoyable in the context of the shows that they’re watching, and that it balances the publishers’ needs to generate the revenue that they need to make their shows? What is the right moment in shows to insert ads? How frequent should those ads be? How long should they be? That’s what we’re learning about now.”