A 20-something magician performing on the streets of Thailand and Jamaica. Three Australian brothers who shock bystanders with devious pranks. A conservative commentator in Mississippi who rants about America’s priorities from his car.
These are some of the video makers who in recent months have started making serious money from Facebook Watch, the tech giant’s answer to YouTube. Julius Dein, the magician, said his videos had attracted revenue in the “six figures” since July, when he became able to run ads on them. The prankster brothers, known as the Jalals, said they had earned more than $500,000 since August.
— Facebook Watch (@FacebookWatch) December 13, 2018
While Facebook grapples with growing regulatory scrutiny and a string of crises around data misuse on its platform, its ambitious growth plans have not slowed. The company’s revenue, which now tops $40 billion a year, has increased by more than 30 percent every quarter since it went public in 2012. The tech giant has acknowledged that growth will slow over the next few years. So siphoning some of the more than $60 billion in advertising money that’s now directed toward TV and bringing it to Watch has become a central goal.
But creating a space that can attract that money has been a challenge for Facebook. Since beginning Watch in August 2017, the company had limited the number of pages that could run video ads to a tightly curated set of entities, including well-known publishers, TV networks and celebrities like Jada Pinkett Smith and Tom Brady.
That has now changed. At the end of August, Facebook started to allow more pages to run ads on videos that were at least three minutes long. The number of Facebook pages that can run video ads has gone from about 3,700 on Aug. 1 to more than 23,000 this month, according to data shared with The New York Times by OpenSlate, an analytics firm that helps advertisers assess online video content.
While Facebook has invested in plenty of original programming and established shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” this year, it has also opened up Watch to much more do-it-yourself content from comedians, video bloggers and other digital entertainers. In other words, the YouTube crowd — though the number of videos on Watch is a small fraction what’s available on YouTube
“They need premium, hit, intellectual-property-driven stuff to fuel the idea that this is TV-style content,” said Ben Lerer, the chief executive of Group Nine Media, which oversees brands with popular Watch shows like “The Dodo” and “NowThis.” “But then they need the volume that comes from News Feed content coming into Watch. That’s a balance that’s really delicate.”
With more pages showing video ads, there are more places for advertisers to run their messages, and more opportunities for Facebook users to get access to videos on the platform.
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Among the most popular of these pages are entries from mainstream companies like Disney, BuzzFeed and Vice, according to OpenSlate. But in October and December, the most popular pages included a provocative group of bare-chested performers known as Magic Men Live, and others with names like “Insane Stunts,” “Jesus Today” and “Nurse Blake.” There was little in the way of news and politics.
Facebook said on Thursday that more than 75 million people around the world spent at least one minute on Watch every day, and that those users then spent at least 20 minutes there on average. Ms. Pinkett Smith’s “Red Table Talk” is its most-followed show and has the most active Facebook group, according to the company.Fidji Simo, who leads Facebook’s video efforts, said that most users were getting access to Watch by clicking into it from the platform’s main site rather than through videos on their News Feed.
“Seeing how many people are coming in and watching for an average of more than 20 minutes has definitely been encouraging,” Ms. Simo said. “We’re really seeing this content create communities and social engagement on the platform.”
When advertisers buy the commercials that appear before or during longer videos, they don’t know if users are specifically in the Watch section of the site or if they’re seeing the video in their News Feed, sandwiched between updates and photos from friends and family. For some, the distinction is important.
“One’s a more lean-forward experience, and one’s a more lean-back experience,” said George Manas, who leads performance marketing across Omnicom Media Group agencies. “We’re concerned that because it’s running across both environments, it’s creating challenges in measurement and, frankly, just in quality control because the user experience just isn’t the same.”
Graham Allen, the 31-year-old host of “Rant Nation With Graham Allen,” a Watch show from Conservative Review’s CRTV, said the viewership had made up for a sharp drop in traffic to his personal page after Facebook shifted its algorithms to favor its video offering.
“Most people don’t even realize that the majority of videos they’re watching now on their News Feeds are from Watch pages,” Mr. Allen said. “I don’t know if that was intentional from Facebook, to make it a seamless transition, or they just didn’t think it through enough, like, ‘Wow, people might not be able to know the difference.’”He added, “As far as video content goes, if you don’t have a Watch page, you’re kind of dead in the water right this second.” The ad revenue has been welcome, he said, noting that he was previously more reliant on outside deals with sponsors.
Mr. Dein, a 24-year-old magician from London who posts videos of street performances around the world, was able to start running video ads on his page in July. He said Facebook’s rules affected the kind of videos that performed well, noting that ads can run after a minute as long as the video is at least three minutes long.
“With me, since I’m magic, I’ll make sure the ad is on an exciting moment of the video,” Mr. Dein said. “If I’m about to cut my finger open for a magic trick, the ad plays just as the knife goes down.”
Mr. Dein said he had found it harder to produce “super-viral videos,” like one he posted last year about homeless people reacting to magic, which he said had been watched more than 200 million times. But he said it made sense for Facebook to mimic YouTube and adopt longer-form content to appeal to advertisers.
“If someone’s watching a vlogger like Logan Paul and tuned into that person, they’re paying more attention to the ad, whereas if someone is watching a seven-second clip, they don’t care about the video or the ad,” he said.
Max, Rebeen and Arman Jalal, who live in Melbourne, Australia, have amassed millions of fans on Facebook and YouTube through their unique and sometimes shocking brand of prank videos. (The brothers were once arrested after faking a series of terror attacks.)
The Jalals, who are in their late teens and early 20s, have been able to run ads on some of their videos since August, they said in a Skype interview. One Watch video that they posted in September, featuring a nun frightening people in places like a parking garage, attracted more than 130 million views and earned the brothers $140,000, they said.
While the data from OpenSlate data shows little news content among the most popular Watch videos, Ms. Simo said that was not a “deliberate strategy.”
“News content tends to be on the shorter side, so we’ve seen a lot of news partners have a lot of one-minute videos,” she said. Advertisers are also able to opt out of categories that tend to be closely related to news and politics, like “debated social issues” and “tragedy and conflict,” she said.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said on an October earnings call that Watch had “really hit its stride.” Still, it’s not yet a hot commodity among ad buyers.
Mr. Manas of Omnicom said that while the service had potential, advertisers were still figuring out how people react to ad breaks in social videos. The agency also wants more control over choosing the specific videos for its clients’ ads, rather than simply being offered genres or other bundles.
Advertisers are also already spending plenty of money with Facebook on display ads and even other video ads, including sponsored posts that appear on the News Feed, said Susan Schiekofer, chief digital investment officer at GroupM, the media buying arm of ad giant WPP.
There are also numerous other online platforms offering original content, from Amazon, Netflix and Hulu to Snap and Google.
“The burden of proof is on Facebook’s end to be able to illustrate to people that they are providing a longer-form video experience,” Amanda Grant, GroupM’s United States head of paid social, said.
Still, Facebook has sought to learn from the mistakes of YouTube, which saw advertisers flee last year when their messages were found on videos promoting racism and terrorism. Facebook has sought to vet the pages that can introduce video ad breaks — the art of “brand safety,” as the industry calls it. OpenSlate, which helps brands with their YouTube ads, also recently introduced a product for Facebook that gives advertisers more control over which videos feature their ads.
“There’s a role for the highly produced content, but it’s more of the sizzle, not the steak,” said Mike Henry, the chief executive of OpenSlate. “Success for these guys will come from scale and diversity of content.”
“If Facebook gets this right and can generate scale of inventory and scale of audience, they have the opportunity to combine sight, sound and motion with incredible user targeting,” he said. “And that’s the holy grail.”