Among the 1.2 billion people on Facebook, there is a select group on a secret mission.
No one knows exactly how many there are, but even 1 percent of users is a focus group of 12 million. They could be from anywhere in the world, and they probably haven’t noticed that their Facebook account is any different. But per industry sources, this group is unknowingly testing autoplay video within Facebook’s News Feed—and their response will have major implications on the company’s ad business.
This is how Facebook tests new features, parsing out the work among a subset of users, refining and tinkering while gauging reactions. Introducing autoplay video, a product that has been delayed multiple times (though Facebook won’t talk about it) is potentially one of the biggest changes the site will ever undergo. And handing this new video format to advertisers is an even weightier decision.
Some industry insiders who work closely with Facebook told Adweek that they have seen glimpses of the video product. One social marketing exec said Facebook is debating whether to limit autoplay to just mobile over desktop. Either way, the decision of when to roll out autoplay has been a moving target, and the delivery date now seems more likely in early 2014, these sources said.
Facebook is tip-toeing into a potentially disruptive new digital advertising medium. If users accept autoplay video—not just for friends’ pet videos but for the likes of Pepsi and Crest spots—then marketers get a prime-time ad placement in what COO Sheryl Sandberg calls Super Bowl-sized audiences, daily. “Any time there is a new ad product on a platform the size of Facebook you would be shortsighted not to want to lean in. Facebook will have no problem selling these ads,” said Alexandra Shapiro, head of digital and marketing at USA Network, where she handles social campaigns for syndicated shows like Modern Family.
In fact, some advertisers have been frustrated with Facebook’s video delays, as big movie and auto brands had hoped to employ them as part of key launches this fall.
It should be noted that Facebook already has ads with embedded videos, and in the coming weeks Instagram will see its first paid posts, including videos. And the company can seemingly afford to wait at least a few months before releasing the News Feed video, considering it topped $2 billion in revenue for the first time in the third quarter.
CFO David Ebersman told analysts during the earnings call that Facebook has topped out—for now—the amount of ads it will serve users, which now is about 1 in 20 posts. Many believe Facebook already is pushing the limits of what users will tolerate in terms of marketing; per a new Adobe report, total ad impressions on Facebook were up 85 percent in the third quarter year over year.
Still, ad industry execs say that the autoplay video in the feed would be an easy fit for entertainment advertisers. But other brands would need to be cautious not to just repurpose their TV campaigns into Facebook clips.
“It’s a completely different category,” said Amir Kassaei, creative chief at DDB. “I don’t know if anyone has an idea how to develop a social type of video format that is interesting. The format alone will not be enough; it’s about the content you have and relevance.”