Facebook’s video subscription sales program: No-brainer or no dice?

Last week, Facebook announced a test in the U.S. for media companies, including BritBox, CollegeHumor, MotorTrend Group and Tastemade, to sell subscriptions to view their videos without ads through the social network, including videos only available to people who pay for publishers’ standalone subscription-based streaming services.

The subscription-based streaming video market is competitive enough, even before the launches of Disney+, HBO Max and Quibi in the next year. For media companies, any help in acquiring subscribers is welcome, whether it comes from Facebook or Amazon. However, while there are good reasons for publishers to sell subscriptions through Facebook, deciding to do so is not entirely a no-brainer for publishers.

As with any program in which a large platform plays intermediary between publishers and their audiences, there are pros and cons to allowing Facebook to play that role.

For: Facebook offers easy access to a large established audience
The primary reason for any media company to allow anyone else to sell subscriptions to their content is because they believe that a third party is well-positioned to sell a lot of subscriptions. Facebook fits the bill. Two billion people use the social network each month, and every day 140 million people on average watch at least one minute of videos on the platform. Moreover, publishers have accrued large video audiences on Facebook, so they see Facebook as a natural hub to convert a portion of those viewers into subscribers.

MotorTrend Group claims more than 3 million fans on Facebook across the auto publishers’ own accounts and accounts for its individual shows like “Roadkill,” according to Alex Wellen, global president and gm of MotorTrend Group. That established audience base made for “a natural fit,” he said. Additionally, MotorTrend Group already sells subscriptions through Amazon’s Prime Video Channels program, and yet a “vast majority” of its subscribers have signed up directly from the publisher, giving Wellen confidence that the company will not be compromising its direct relationship with audiences by selling through Facebook.

Other publishing executives familiar with Facebook’s program echoed Wellen’s stance. Additionally, since publishers will offer the same content through Facebook’s subscription program as through their own subscription-based services or other platforms’ subscription programs, the potential for Facebook’s program to cannibalize publishers’ subscriber bases is not a major concern, according to the execs. “Are we better off partnering with Facebook and enabling a frictionless user experience there or trying to convert that audience to our owned-and-operated properties?” said one exec.

Against: Facebook isn’t sharing much subscriber information
Facebook has a tenuous history at best of serving as the intermediary between media companies and their audiences. That its video subscription sales program is currently a U.S.-only test does not necessarily help to instill confidence in media companies that they will be able to rely on Facebook to acquire and retain subscribers for the long run.

While publishers will be able to acquire subscribers through Facebook, they cannot exactly consider those subscribers to be their own since Facebook will withhold subscriber information from publishers. Facebook will not be sharing subscribers’ personal information, such as their names and email addresses, nor giving subscribers the option to share that personal information with publishers, according to publishing execs familiar with the matter. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that the company will only share aggregated, anonymized subscriber information with publishers. That curtails media companies’ abilities to establish direct relationships with the subscribers they acquire through Facebook.

Even though Amazon, Apple and Roku do not share subscribers’ personal information either, Facebook’s withholding contributed to at least one publisher deciding not to participate in Facebook’s program at this time, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The subscriber information that Facebook will be sharing with publishers is pretty limited, according to execs familiar with the matter, one of whom described the information as “very bare bones.” That information will include the number of subscribers a publisher has acquired through Facebook and the number of people who have canceled their Facebook subscriptions but will not break down subscriber figures based on categories like people’s ages or gender, which companies could use to inform subscriber acquisition campaigns.

For: Facebook will make it easy for people to subscribe
To help to convert video viewers into paying subscribers, Facebook is offering weeklong free trials for people subscribing through its platform. Additionally, the company will attach “subscribe now” buttons to participating publishers’ videos when people watch them in feed, according to publishing execs familiar with the matter.

A valid question may be whether people on Facebook will be willing to sign up for a paid subscription service, especially since it’s unclear how many people have their payment information associated with their Facebook accounts. However, Facebook has addressed this by allowing people to use third-party payment systems. On Facebook’s site, people can use their credit card or PayPal to subscribe to a video service through Facebook, and within Facebook’s mobile app, people can use Apple Pay or Google Pay, depending on whether they have an iPhone or Android phone.

Against: Facebook’s program has yet to add big names, features
While Facebook had reportedly talked with HBO, Showtime and Starz about selling subscriptions to their streaming services, the fact that none of those companies have yet signed on to participate in Facebook’s program — as well as the absence of streaming services like CBS All Access — has not been lost on other media companies. “There are a few names missing where you go, ‘huh, interesting,’” said a publishing exec.

For: Facebook’s program compares favorably to Amazon’s, Apple’s and Roku’s
Similar to Apple’s, Amazon’s and Roku’s subscription programs, Facebook will be taking a share of revenue from the subscriptions that it sells. The platform’s cut is said to be consistent with other platforms’ splits and negotiable, though execs declined to say anything more specific than that. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on deal terms.

Unlike Amazon’s, Apple’s and Roku’s similar programs, Facebook’s program is not contained to Facebook’s platform. If someone has subscribed to a publisher’s service outside of Facebook, they will be able to authenticate that subscription on Facebook to view the publishers’ videos without ads on the social network, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed. And if someone has subscribed through Facebook, they will be able to sign in to a publisher’s site or connected TV app using their Facebook account to access the subscription service on the publisher’s own properties. “It will work like a TV Everywhere app in how you authenticate,” said a second publishing exec.

Against: Facebook’s program is still in the testing phase
As an indication of the program’s early phase, Facebook is said to be still figuring out what products or features it may be able to offer publishers to help them to acquire subscribers through its platform. Publishers will be able to use Facebook’s existing ad products to attract subscribers as some subscription-based streaming services already do. However, Facebook has yet to inform publishers whether it will offer any subscriber-acquisition products unique to its video subscription program, which has been taken as a sign of just how incipient Facebook’s program is. “It’s been frustrating,” said a publishing exec.


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