In April, Digiday granted anonymity to a Facebook Watch video creator who’s built up over a half million followers on the platform. Free to speak candidly, the creator laid out a list of grievances with Watch, starting with their frustration with its lack of stability. “There are so many changes on a month-to-month basis; it’s really a hard environment to thrive in,” they said. “Some months, it’s great on Facebook. Some months, they’re doing an update or tweaking the algorithm.”
This has affected both the creator’s viewership and take-home revenue. “I’ve seen weeks where you’re making a couple of thousand dollars and then suddenly you’re like, what the hell?” they explained. “It went from $500 one day to $7 the next day.” The situation has gotten so bad that the creator is considering the unthinkable: redirecting his viewers to YouTube. Given Facebook’s efforts to lure creators away from YouTube, my guess is that the executives in charge of Watch didn’t take much pleasure in reading that interview.
When Facebook Watch launched in 2017, its aim was to serve up premium, episodic content, and most of Watch’s video inventory had been commissioned directly by Facebook, with the social media giant providing upfront money to cover production. But last year Facebook opened up Watch to all publishers and started giving creators — at least the ones that meet a minimum viewership threshold — a cut of the advertising that appears next to their videos.
Now, publishers with limited video production budgets find themselves asking the question: Facebook or YouTube? While crossing-posting videos to both platforms is an option, it’s difficult to create content that would cater to both Facebook and YouTube’s audiences. Facebook utilizes silent autoplay, and most users encounter video while scrolling through their Newsfeed. Because of this, videos that succeed on Facebook tend to grab your attention quickly. YouTube, because it’s a destination for intentional viewing, allows for more breathing room and exposition. A video that succeeds on one platform is unlikely to do so on the other, and vice versa.
So, which platform should you prioritize? Well, we should start with the central claim made by the anonymous Facebook Watch creator above: that Facebook is unreliable. Anyone who’s been following the media industry’s travails knows that, when it comes to news partnerships, Facebook is a capricious actor that shifts strategies on a dime. One minute Facebook’s providing you with hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover your production costs and prioritizing your videos in the Newsfeed; the next, you’re laying off your entire staff and selling your company at a fraction of its initial valuation because Facebook decided not to renew a contract.
Facebook has enacted plenty of pivots with Watch. In its early days, Watch was meant to be a destination for premium programming, comparable in quality to what you’ll find on linear television. But, as one Facebook executive later admitted, the platform couldn’t drive much viewership to this type of content. “As the pressure kept mounting, there was a sudden shift in strategy,” the anonymous executive said. “We were going to rip the Band-Aid off and now all of the video was going to be in Watch. It felt counterintuitive to the narrative we had been building up in the market.”
Over the past two years, publishers have had to constantly adapt to Facebook’s shifting strategies for Watch. In March 2018, it began to move away from funding short form shows, instead placing its money on longer videos. Later that year, it asked publishers to develop content that would appeal to older users, particularly “post-college millennials around parenting age and older.”
That’s not to say YouTube doesn’t shift its priorities — both in how it features content and where it delivers ads — but most publishers consider it more consistent. “YouTube has been a fairly reliable place where the rules have become somewhat codified,” said Scott Mebus, vp of entertainment for Inc. and Fast Company, last year. “It’s not as nebulous as Facebook and it’s not going to change every month.”
YouTube videos are also more compatible with the open web. A publisher can embed them in articles, link to them on social media, and promote them in newsletters. Most importantly, YouTube videos are properly indexed on Google search. While the YouTube recommendation algorithm plays a major role in generating views for a video, publishers can at least have some outside influence on the video’s success. The success of Facebook videos, on the other hand, is almost entirely dependent on the Newsfeed algorithm. While it’s possible to link to and embed Facebook videos on outside websites, this practice is far less common.
Then there’s the monetization aspect. While some publishers have reported Watch revenue in the annual seven or eight figures, others have found it wanting. One publisher estimated that it generated $264 for every million video views on Facebook, versus $2,200 for every million video views on YouTube. “For them, a Facebook video view is essentially worth 12 percent of a view on YouTube,” wrote Digiday’s Sahil Patel.
Ultimately, a publisher’s decision over which platform to prioritize rests on a number of factors, and those media companies that have seen prior success on Facebook might consider doubling down on the platform. But, on the whole, publishers place more trust with YouTube and consider it a more faithful steward of their content. While Facebook might one day find a winning formula for driving intentional viewership to Watch, the audience just isn’t there, at least to the extent that it is on YouTube. When it comes to driving both views and revenue for video, YouTube is still king.