A bunch of publishers are about to find out that Facebook's algorithm thinks their video content is worthless

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  • Facebook’s algorithm could mean the beginning of the end for a certain type of video of the News Feed.
  • The company has said it will penalise “passive content” in favour of content with which people can have meaningful interactions. But no one knows how that will play out.
  • Some publishers that have perfected racking up cheap Facebook views are likely to take a hit. In the meantime, several publishers see the algorithm tweak as ultimately benefiting Facebook Watch.

Some top web publishers are predicting that Facebook’s major algorithm reboot will be the death knell of short-form video on the News Feed as the company prioritises Facebook Watch.

While some are championing this strategic shift, given how hard it is to make money from short News Feed clips, others worry that Facebook’s algorithm is about to determine that a slew of video producers are no longer welcome.

What’s driving all this is Facebook’s two-pronged strategy. First, the algorithm tweak promises to prioritise posts from friends and family, with the idea of reinvigorating the “social” part of the social network.

Second, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said he wants to rid the News Feed of content that people don’t engage with – what he called “passive content.”

Of course, only Facebook’s engineers know what it deems to be engaging. That has some media companies suddenly worrying: Is my content “passive”?

Meanwhile, Facebook is encouraging people to go to its fledgling Watch tab, with on-demand original video, to watch lots of videos on purpose.

Some say short-form News Feed video was never going to last

Presumably, once the full algorithm change takes effect, Facebook will grade video content on how much time people spend with it and whether they share or comment on it. But it’s not clear right now what exactly will go into that grading system.

One publisher told Business Insider that “likes” would now be less important in Facebook’s engagement calculation.

And while shares still matter, the algorithm will give more weight to videos receiving comments – longer ones in particular – said a person familiar with the matter.

Either way, racking up empty-calorie view numbers on Facebook suddenly seems less viable.

To Bryan Goldberg, the CEO of Bustle, videos designed to pop in Facebook’s News Feed never had legs.

“Facebook’s presentation of video always felt forced and non-sustainable,” he told Business’s Insider. “Publishers should be creating long-form video. The short-form-video craze was obviously never going to work.”

That’s because there weren’t many ways to attach ads to short videos that pop into people’s feeds.

“No one’s monetizing that short-form video anyway,” said Ben Lerer, the CEO of Group Nine Media.

Lerer was quick to note that his company is still bullish on producing short form video on Facebook, which he sees a key vehicle for connecting with an audience. When it comes to monetisation, he predicted that Facebook’s algo move would mean a renewed focus on Watch – which should be a good thing for quality publishers.

What is ‘video’ anyway?

As recently as 2016, Facebook regularly touted that its platform was generating 8 billion video views a day.

That figure was mostly a shot at its ascendant rival Snapchat. But it also served to point out how fleeting some of Facebook’s video viewing was, especially as it came to light that Facebook counted as little as three seconds of screen time a “view.”

As Facebook started to talk up those numbers, publishers like BuzzFeed and Mic also started boasting of video operations generating millions, if not billions, of views.

You don’t hear that talk much these days, probably because many have been critical of some publishers seemingly figuring out how to rack up video-view numbers with, let’s say, less-than-content-rich videos.

That’s the kind of passively consumed content many expect the Facebook algorithm to whack.

So what do passive videos look like?

Take this Elite Daily clip that has amassed close to 1 million views in less than one day. It’s essentially a 45-second GIF of Anthony Anderson of ABC’s “Black-ish” crying.

Similarly, here’s a cute video of an otter jumping around from LADBible, the UK-based publisher that, according to the analytics firm Tubular Labs, regularly generates more views than most publishers on Facebook.

It’s not exactly an episode of “Game of Thrones.” But it does have over 4 million views and nearly 20,000 shares. Is this “passive,” or active?

Peter Heneghan, LADBible’s head of communications, said the male-skewing media brand welcomed Facebook’s move.

“We’ve created content for our audience that is inherently social,” he said. “Our best editorial is based on positivity … This, in turn, encourages meaningful connections between friends and family.”

It gets even grayer for newsy publications such as NowThis and Mic. While both have built up large video followings on Facebook, their content at times isn’t technically “video.”

For example, below is a Mic Facebook video focused on net neutrality. It cleverly explains the complicated subject using bright animation. But there’s no traditional video footage, per se.

In fact, its use of sophisticated animation means it most likely costs more than the average Facebook clip – and probably more than some of the quick-hit, photo-driven Facebook videos Mic has produced in the past. The question is whether the new algorithm will judge it as a premium video.

These NowThis videos about James Franco and Donald Trump comprise mostly photos, text, and music – but NowThis doesn’t appear to have any original footage.

Lastly, here’s a similar “no video” video from AJ+.

Each of these videos has been shared widely, seemingly indicating that people are responding to them. How Facebook will come to treat them is a big open question.

Several video producers have defended these formats, saying social-media feeds, unlike typical slick TV productions, require different types of mobile storytelling.

“I don’t think this is about specific formats,” Lerer said. “This kind of content should be native to Facebook. I don’t think you’ll see short-form video go away in the News Feed by any way, shape, or form. There may be a new set of best practices and tactics.

“But if to Facebook ‘premium’ means content that stokes conversation and emotion, we meet that better than anybody.”

If Facebook is serious about Watch, now’s the time to go for it

Several publishers think that if Facebook clears out a lot of video from its News Feed, that would help Watch become more distinctive and its purpose clearer.

“Facebook has suggested it will reward intentional content viewing and deprioritize accidental or passive consumption on its feed,” said Matthew Segal, a founder of the social-news startup ATTN. “This is good news for publishers who meticulously produce video with a goal of reaching a specific, passionate audience. Publishers who tend to trick their audience into viewing content with video GIFs or animal reactions will probably take a hit.”

Facebook has clearly made longer-form video a priority for Watch, and quality content producers should therefore excel. But that won’t be an easy pivot for companies that have mastered churning out quick-hit News Feed clips.

“My fear is that this change will be an excuse used by a lot of media companies that spent all kinds of money without building a brand or telling stories,” Evan Gotlib, the senior vice president of sales at the women-focused web publisher LittleThings, told Business Insider. “They will say, ‘Oh, it’s Facebook’s fault.'”

“If you’re in the business of using video to tell stories, you should do great,” Gotlib added. “If you don’t do that, you may not be in business anymore.”

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