Video Killed the Facebook Star

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In the inevitable onslaught of micro-analysis, handwringing, and pundit positioning that followed Facebook CEO of a major shift in newsfeed ranking, the aspect that consistently earned the most shock-and-awe commentary concerned video.

While no one at Facebook said that the algorithm change will directly single out embedded video in the news feed, such video was prominently mentioned as one of the most likely casualties of the change.

Why?

It’s the engagement, stupid

I have a more important point to make about the radical hit on newsfeed video, but before we get there it’s important to understand why the algorithm update is not aimed directly at video (or any other specific type or source of content, for that matter) and yet will hit video hard.

The key to understanding the core focus of the update is found in a Wired interview with Facebook vice president for newsfeed, Adam Mosseri. After confirming that this update is a major change, and not just a “tweak,” and that it will profoundly impact certain types of content, particularly posts from brand/publisher pages and, yes, video, Mosseri went on to clarify what the change is really about:

So if a specific piece of news or even a video we think will inspire more conversation or more interaction, that will actually do better post-launch of this change. But on average video content tends to facilitate less interactions because it’s passive in nature.

And why does that matter? Because as he said earlier in the interview, the newsfeed change is aimed at valuing “meaningful social interactions.” While a vague term, Mosseri and other Facebook representatives have made clear that the most meaningful social interactions on Facebook are real conversations between users and people in their network.

In other words, if it’s the kind of content that would generate a lively discussion among you and your friends at the office watercooler, then it’s the content Facebook wants to emphasize in your newsfeed.

Why? Zuckerberg, Mosseri, and other Facebook spokespeople point to data and research, both their own and from others, that your social media newsfeed can have a profound effect on your overall sense of well-being. What’s more, the research says that passive scrolling in a newsfeed tends to depress people, while interacting with friends on social media can actually have a beneficial effect.

And why should Facebook care about that?

Because their bottom line is dependent upon their user base wanting to return to Facebook again and again. Most of us aren’t masochists. If something is making us feel ill, we’ll eventually quit it. But if it brightens our day and stimulates our inspiration, it becomes an irresistible drug.

But let’s get back to why video is such an important part of this change, and more importantly, what Facebook’s experience can teach us as marketers and/or technology consumers.

Video all the things!

The reason why the announcement that embedded newsfeed video will take a big hit from the ranking algorithm change has caused such a stir is simple. For the last couple of years Zuckerberg has boldly proclaimed video as the future of Facebook. In fact, as recently as June 2016, he predicted that Facebook would “probably be all video within the next five years.”

Now just a year-and-a-half later they appear to be hitting the brakes hard on video.

The reasons behind such a radical shift in such a short time have important implications for how we should approach bright-and-shiny new platforms and technologies, for social media and beyond, as well as for how we approach marketing and product development.

The future is history

Image by Ken Gibson used under CC 2.0 License

A lot of us are attracted to “the next big thing.” In an era of rapid technological development, we’ve come to expect a “next big thing” on a regular basis. There is much social capital and tribal acclaim to be gained by being an early adopter of the right new thing, and for businesses, also the possibility of substantial new revenue.

For years now, video has been near the top of everyone’s “next big thing” list. There are abundant data and studies showing the rapid and continuing rise of video consumption. So Facebook can hardly be blamed for thinking that video might be the future of its newsfeed.

What we see in Facebook’s radical turn from “all video in five years” to “almost no video is better” is two things:

  1. Someone as big and smart as Mark Zuckerberg is as susceptible to next-big-thing addiction as the rest of us.
  2. Someone as big and smart as Mark Zuckerberg is just as able and likely to be wrong about the next-big-thing as the rest of us.

It’s easy now to Monday-morning-quarterback Zuckerberg for his 2016 “video all the things” prediction, especially since it was more than a prediction, it was a literal call to action for his company. Any page owner who tested and watched their metrics over the past two years saw that video by far earned the largest organic reach. Facebook was literally forcing all the video it could on its audience, and richly rewarding publishers who produced more of it.

And now they are turning off that tap.

Halt and catch fire

This sudden and rather shocking change of direction, in my opinion, bodes well for the future of Facebook. For all the appearance of hubris on the part of Zuckerberg in particular and Facebook in general, this change shows they are willing to devour humble pie if the data says they were wrong.

I also award them kudos for being able to resist the temptation to become too married to a tactic, especially one that must have involved significant investment to implement. It’s hard, even for large companies, to let go of something to which you had made significant commitment and investment, but being able to do so is a key indicator of sustainable success.

While I’m handing out kudos, indulge me in one more: I applaud Facebook for paying attention to socio-psychological data and not just raw analytics. The raw analytics probably portrayed video as a success. It wasn’t that people weren’t consuming video on Facebook. They were, and in huge amounts. But something beyond analytics tipped off Facebook that “consumption” was itself the problem.

The socio-psychological data, much of it from third-party, legitimate scientific research, painted a very different picture from the raw analytics. As mentioned above, it showed that whether content was more passive or interactive made a major difference to the feeling-state of users. A diet of passive consumption (which pre-recorded video largely is) creates a negative feeling-state.

Facebook was smart enough to realize that its prospects for long-term success lie not in increasing consumption, but in increasing user happiness. Happy users are users who will return, day after day, again and again.

No, it’s humanity, stupid!

I think that all of this points to a lesson that too many marketers still don’t get. In our rush to be data- and metrics-driven (not a bad thing!), it’s easy to forget or discount that at its most fundamental level, marketing is and always will be a profoundly human endeavor.

To me, the most successful marketers have this one thing in common. Yes, they are creative, data-savvy, analytics-aware, technologically-adept, etc., etc. But above everything else, they are astute readers of the human condition.

I predict that the shift toward valuing the experience and well-being-sense of its users will prove to be one of the most profitable moves Facebook has ever made, even if they take some short-term losses because of it.

What do you think?

Mark Traphagen is Senior Director of Brand Evangelism for digital marketing agency Stone Temple Consulting. Find more of his writing and video there, as well as on his regular columns for Marketing Land and Search Engine Journal.

Follow Mark on Twitter!

All images used under license from Shutterstock or created by the author, unless otherwise noted.

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