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How Facebook's Autoplay Videos Are Ushering in a New Era of Silent Storytelling

The impact goes beyond your news feed

Online consumers are increasingly being fed videos whether they want them or not. Getty Images

Getting aurally blasted by a loud, autoplaying video ad while you're browsing online is certainly one of the more annoying experiences you can have on the Internet.

But when the volume default setting on such an ad unit is set to mute—giving viewers the choice to unmute—and when the video is embedded rather than storming the screen, the annoyance factor drops drastically. This is what Facebook has done with its silent autoplay in-feed videos, a format that has advertisers eagerly investing, and it's an approach that is also attracting plenty of competitors.

"Every client I know of that is creating [video] content is at least finishing out a Facebook version," said Rye Clifton, director of experience at ad agency GSD&M. "This isn't to say that people have started gaming the medium like Geico's unskippable five-second YouTube spots, but we're thinking about how silent video works on Facebook, Instagram, Vine, and in animated GIFs—all require a subtle difference in storytelling."

Facebook launched its in-feed silent autoplay video ad service in December 2013. Twitter unveiled a similar system last January, Instagram got on board shortly thereafter, and Geico's unskippable video ads debuted in March.

CNN also recently introduced an autoplay video-ad function to its website, Mike Proulx, evp, director of digital strategy and tech innovation at Hill Holiday, pointed out.

"Publishers [also] need to monetize [and] are going to chase the ripest revenue streams and build out their ad tech accordingly," Proulx added.

Right now, that ripe revenue stream exists, at least partly, in Facebook's autoplay ads. Though William de Lannoy, director of communications strategy at creative media shop Noble People, suggested that it's not so much the ad format that's new, but the business model behind it.

"Autoplay video experiences without sound aren't new," de Lannoy said. "They've been happening in the banner space for 10 years. The difference is that the ad networks and ad-tech companies selling in-banner autoplay video were, and still are, shady about distinguishing those video plays from video plays within pre-roll or other true video placements."

Facebook is different, de Lannoy said, because it's transparent about its process and provides advertisers with relevant metrics. And those metrics are delivering promising results.

"A recent study showed that native Facebook video ads have higher interaction rates than videos on any other platform," said Greg Manago, creative development and production lead/executive producer at MindshareContent+ and Entertainment, an arm of Mindshare. "And because Facebook's nature as a platform of social sharing, Facebook native videos are shared more than YouTube links."

Hannah Beesley, social director at ad agency Iris Worldwide, said social platforms have an edge because they're set up as content-discovery platforms. "Other areas of the Web have to work so much harder to grab attention," she explained.

Social Video Makes an Impact on TV

To grab that precious consumer attention, Facebook has learned from the biggest ad medium in history: television. The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company's silent autoplay video ads mirror aspects of traditional television promos both in terms of reach and style.

"Facebook offers advertisers what they loved about mass media—reach, frequency and time spent—along with sophisticated targeting," said Mitchell Reichgut, CEO of ad company Jun Group. "Advertisers simply cannot ignore [Facebook's] massive scale, and Facebook's video approximates television in that it appears in between content."

Despite such similarities, television isn't looking like a place where silent autoplay video could thrive—which is ironic, because television is pretty much the first and ultimate medium for autoplay ads.

"That's why brands are now creatively embedding themselves into actual TV programming with less singular reliance on the standard commercial pod," said Proulx of Hill Holiday. "But the bigger question is what's television today, anyway? Brands today need a comprehensive video strategy that transcends media channels while creatively respecting their uniquely native opportunities."

And one of those key media channels is Facebook and its pioneering autoplay platform. 

"The fact is, autoplay is here to stay," said Beesley. "And [it's] far from being the shouty, uninvited guest to the party. The right content mixed with the sophisticated targeting can prove valuable for both brands and consumers."

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