Why Facebook Live is ready for its closeup

This article is from Digiday’s new magazine, Pulse, a quarterly print publication about the modernization of media. The first issue examines the perils and opportunities of publishing in the age of platforms. To download the 60-page magazine, please visit the Pulse page. If you’re interested in a printed copy, please submit your information here.

Live video has struggled to gain a strong foothold on the web. Whether it was a lack of advanced technology or just a dearth of good content, live video has been the domain of TV.

Until now.

Facebook has made a serious bet on live streaming video — and publishers have been quick to adapt, with outlets from The Washington Post to TMZ, as well as a plethora of sports teams, all producing live content. Other live streaming players, be they Periscope or even sports TV broadcasters, have good reason to be nervous: Facebook Live offers publishers ease of use and great scale.

“A few years ago, we were live streaming batting practice on our website. It was neat that we were able to do that, but it required a lot of logistics and manpower,” says Bryan Srabian, vp of brand development and digital media for the San Francisco Giants. “Now that we can do [live video on Facebook] with a single iPhone and immediately reach 3 million fans — to do that in an instant is mindboggling. But that’s just where we’re at right now.”

Facebook’s embrace of live video comes from the very top. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made it a top priority and Facebook’s video team has taken the mission to heart. Whenever there is an opportunity for more live content on Facebook — such as a debate or primary night during the U.S. presidential election or NCAA March Madness — Facebook has been encouraging content producers to use its live streaming tool. It’s no accident that publishers of all stripes have been experimenting with the format.

I want my FTV
And people are watching. BuzzFeed famously got 800,000 live viewers for exploding a watermelon with rubber bands. TMZ, which has regularly scheduled live weekly programming on Facebook, sees as many as 100,000 live viewers for its content. The Denver Broncos says nearly a million people watched at least some of Peyton Manning’s retirement press conference on Facebook.

While it’s one thing to see how publishers embrace the format, live video also holds a lot of potential for Facebook as a platform and a business.

“Facebook is a bit like TV: You go to your screen and you kind of scroll down your feed and choose something to watch,” says Oren Katzeff, head of programming at Tastemade. “Live creates this sense of appointment viewing, which is unique from an audience standpoint and something that no one else can do at the scale they’re able to.”

This is especially important when considering how much time people spend watching video on Facebook. On-demand videos on Facebook typically run just a minute or two. Facebook counts a video as viewed as soon as it has played for just three seconds, so it’s difficult to gauge their staying power. With live videos, which usually run longer, there’s more potential for viewers to stick around. That translates into more time people are spending on Facebook and not another platform.

“We want to do things that people are going to find enjoyable,” says Fidji Simo, director of product for Facebook. “But yes, we always try to get people more engaged on the platform.”

To be sure, users are already spending a lot of time on Facebook — especially on mobile, where it accounted for nearly 16 percent of mobile traffic inside North American homes last fall, according to broadband services company Sandvine. If more users come to Facebook and spend more time watching live content, that number will only increase.

Early Facebook data suggests this is already happening. Users are watching live broadcasts three times longer than on-demand videos, and comments on live videos are on average 10 times higher, the company says.

“The advantage in live is that it’s often around breaking news, so people would be predisposed to going to Facebook to find out what’s going on,” says Chris Dorr, executive director of the Global Online Video Association. “It will also allow users to see what’s being experienced by their social graph and the world at the same time.”

The opportunity for Facebook
Facebook’s dive into live video is a clear attack on Twitter’s Periscope. Publishers with millions of Facebook fans would rather put live content there than try to convince them to open a separate app. But Periscope is not the only social platform that should be worried. Facebook has come out with new features including filters and the ability to doodle while going live, clearly targeted at users who do similar things on Snapchat.

Facebook’s Simo won’t directly comment on whether those new interactive features are designed to get people to spend more time on Facebook versus other platforms but adds, “Facebook is where the audience is; it’s where your friends are. We’re focused on just making the experience better.”

Now Facebook is upping the ante by improving quality of live video for its platform. It’s now possible to stream TV-like live videos — with multiple camera setups — directly on Facebook. The opportunity to do more polished live streams could prove to be engaging for users who would rather not watch a video shot on a smartphone or tablet.

“There is a lot of upside to doing more live streams,” says Jigar Mehta, vp of digital operations at Fusion. “But we still need to make sure that we have the raw feeling of going live. If it doesn’t feel native to the platform, Facebook users are going to reject it by not sharing and commenting.”

And yet, that doesn’t mean straight TV broadcasts are out of the question for Facebook. While the company recently dropped its bid to live stream regular-season NFL games, it certainly has the technology, money and audience to do big live events. And it wouldn’t be surprising if the company makes another serious bid in the future.

“It will allow them to make a case to advertisers that they are a valuable first and second screen,” says Micah Gelman, director of editorial video for The Washington Post.

Which would be good news for video publishers on Facebook, too. Right now, video on Facebook is in the audience-development stage. The revenue path is still uncertain for publishers as Facebook tests how to integrate advertising into its video and how to share that revenue with content creators.

Live video, especially now that it’s prioritized under Facebook’s new video section on its mobile app, could provide a clearer path to video ad revenue.

“Eventually, publishers are going to want to know how much time they should be spending on [Facebook Live] and other things that require staff,” says Gelman. “While we are very eager to participate, that’s always the question hanging in the air: Where’s the financial return on this?”

Advertisers are certainly interested in seeing whether Facebook Live has legs. Live video is the most expensive programming on TV, with advertisers willing to pay top dollar to reach attentive viewers for sports and other major live broadcasts. If Facebook can develop its own live product the way it has grown in-news feed video, it has a similar opportunity to capture more video ad dollars.

Right now, advertisers are more interested in the potential for doing live branded content than a new way to buy media on Facebook, according to Topher Burns, group director of distribution strategy at Deep Focus. “Media companies are going to need make decisions faster [with Facebook Live] than advertisers,” he says. “Brands can often wait and see what’s working and where the data goes.”

Facebook, meanwhile, is aware of the revenue potential for live video if done right, says Simo: “We know that it’s important to them, and we are working with a small number of partners on finding a model that could work.”

This article is from Digiday’s new magazine, Pulse, a quarterly print publication about the modernization of media. The first issue examines the perils and opportunities of publishing in the age of platforms. To download the 60-page magazine, please visit the Pulse page.

Image via catwalker / Shutterstock.com


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