Forever or not: what wins mobile video

A few weeks ago I wrote an anecdotal post about my early experiences with Facebook Live, and how what I perceived as its synchronous, ephemeral nature ran against the grain of the async viewing experiences users want.

Of course, as I learned from a few readers following that post, Facebook Live isn’t ephemeral by default -- it lets the user delete a live video or save it to their timeline following recording. This is part of the last post I just got plain wrong (and it’s what I get for trying to type out a quick post on a flight without wifi,) but in that subjective take, there’s an interesting read on consumers’ value perception of live and whether ephemerality-by-default is an inherent part of that value.

In this week’s post, I’ll revisit Facebook Live within the context of the mobile video ad market and the different content strategies companies are pursuing to win it. It’s my view that user-generated video (UGV) will differentiate mobile platforms in the coming years, and that despite Facebook’s early lead in the mobile advertising market, their hegemony is threatened not by content acquisitions from network operators, but by the best platform at supplying UGV: Snapchat.

Mobile video means money

To start any discussion of live video, it’s important to lay out the endgame, in this case, the mobile video brand advertising market. Here’s a good summary from Bloomberg of what’s at stake:

“Companies like AT&T are embracing mobile video for a simple reason: It’s the fastest-growing video type by consumption, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Already, 14- to 25-year-olds watch more video on computers, tablets, and smartphones than on traditional TV, Deloitte says.

Advertising should bolster mobile-video revenue, which globally will reach $25 billion by 2021, up from $12 billion today, as the number of mobile-video users more than doubles to 2 billion by the end of 2022, says researcher Strategy Analytics.”

Or, without the numbers: mobile video attracts younger audiences which attract ad spend.

Facebook got the early jump on the mobile ad market, but it’s clear now that if they’re to maintain this position, they’ll need to supply the most engaging mobile video content available.

What we watch on our phones

If mobile video is the market, what are media companies doing to win it?

On one hand, you have the telecom operators who, faced with a maturing wireless business, are looking to buy their way into mobile video, Verizon with its go90 media properties (from AOL and Yahoo) and AT&T with its premium content (from Time Warner Cable and DirecTV.)

On the other hand, you have the social platforms -- Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat -- pushing a hybrid publisher-user content model. The first side of this includes pursuing exclusive content deals: Twitter with its NFL rights, Facebook Live with its media and celebrity deals, et al. These deals are an important part of keeping users engaged, but their higher goal is to prop up the other side of these platforms’ content models: getting actual users to generate their own video content.

User-generated content is so valuable to internet companies because it’s content that’s proprietary-by-default to the platform on which it was created. When a user uploads a video to Snapchat or Facebook, that video is an exclusive differentiator for that platform unless the user manually shares it elsewhere. (This certainly happens but it’s an edge case.) Social platforms understand that as good as viral cat videos are at reach and engagement, they aren’t differentiators for their service.

In mobile, it’s user-generated video that’s king; everything else comes second. Social platforms have noticed this UGC dominance and responded. Snapchat featuring user stories above publisher content is one example. Facebook’s news feed change promoting content from friends and family is another. And so as platforms prioritize user-generated video within feeds, a new problem emerges: how to get users producing this content in the first place.

How platforms incentivize user-generated video

For the average user, sharing a video of oneself is a terrifying prospect. More than a status or a tweet or a photo, it’s video (especially live) that’s the hardest medium to curate, the hardest form to mold into the picture of self that we want to put on the internet. Zuckerburg acknowledged the pressures users face in creating video content in an interview earlier this year...

“People look at live video and they think [it] is a lot of pressure because it’s live; it takes a lot of courage to go live and put yourself out there.”

...he then goes on to address how he sees those pressures decreasing with app developments...

“But what we’re finding is the opposite, a lot of the biggest innovations have been things that take some of the pressure out of posting a photo or video.”

So what are these “innovations” that ease the pressure of posting video for end users?

For Facebook, they’re advancements like improved latency (to ensure video really is live for its audience) and live-streaming reactions floating across the screen like warbly sheet music (to validate users’ content.) Both are efforts to get the technology to a place where users can just have a live conversation with their followers sans curation.

While this has worked for a small subset of early adopters, the early stars of Facebook Live, for the larger majority of Facebook users, there’s an essential UGV incentive that, though present in the Facebook Live offering, isn’t salient enough to make users comfortable with the medium. Ephemerality.

All we are is pixels in the wind

Ephemerality is the third and, to date, best way to get users to share video. It’s a simple agreement with users. Want to share personal, uncurated content? Go ahead. It will be gone in twenty-four hours.

This is what Snap (nee Snapchat) has done so well. It’s not just that everything you publish within their application is ephemeral, it’s that from day one, everything associated with their brand has laddered up to this larger theme of ephemerality -- even with a hardware product launch like Spectacles. The result is users who default to Snapchat when they’re looking to share uncurated content of themselves, being themselves. When they’re looking to share video.

The numbers speak for themselves. As of earlier this year, a third of Snapchat’s daily users were publishing to their story once a day. It’s hard to know what percentage of that cohort includes users who uploaded video, but a safe bet it’s higher than the portion of Facebook users doing the same.

It’s in contrast to this Snapchat bugle call of “ephemerality is everything we do” that Facebook Live’s optional ephemerality wans. It’s a tough position for the company. Facebook’s traditional value prop has been permanent web identity, yet now they find themselves trying to win a UGV supply game in which the best thing you can give users is a twenty-four hour content lifetime.

It’s this dichotomy -- permanence vs. ephemerality -- that’s surfaced not only within Facebook’s go-to-market strategy, but within their Live app itself. As a user, you have to make a decision every time you use the app. Either make your content ephemeral (by not saving it to your timeline) in which case it’s truly live and synchronous, or make it permanent, thereby making it asynchronous (and increasing your audience size) but forgoing the ephemerality compact you likely associated with “live”in the first place.

It’s a difficult decision to think through as a user. The easier option is just to record everything on Snapchat, where the decision is made for you. Put up whatever. It’s gone in a day. Simple.

Facebook has a great technical app with Live, but if they’re to get back into UGV in a meaningful way, they’ll need to make the hard commit to ephemerality. When users start to record everything, there’s only so much they’ll want to stay on the internet forever. For-eh-ver.