Facebook Plays Favorites With Autoplay Video Feature

Early look at test profile reveals platform's priorities

Experimenting with new ways to display video in the News Feed, Facebook is also apparently playing favorites in deciding what content gets enhanced features like autoplay.

A sneak peek at the new video autoplay function, which is being tested by select users, shows that Facebook videos shared by friends will play automatically, but videos from sites like YouTube are displayed more subtly.

The preferential treatment for homegrown content is exactly what industry watchers expected from Facebook as it competes for digital video ad dollars.

Facebook user Benjamin Greger is one of those testing the new video format on mobile. Videos in his mobile News Feed show up the way Facebook explained when announcing the tests in September. Some videos automatically start when Greger stops scrolling above them. They expand when clicked and unmute.

When the videos collapse from full-screen view they retreat smoothly back to their original size and continue to stream within the feed.

This new look is potentially the biggest change to Facebook in years. The redesign shows the priority the company is placing on social video, which right now is a clunky experience for its users.

Under the new format in development, only videos uploaded through the Facebook platform are displayed with autoplay. YouTube and Vimeo clips shared from the outside still show up as thumbnails with links.

“Facebook is giving themselves priority,” said an industry source with knowledge of Facebook’s new video plans.

By highlighting videos shared directly on Facebook, the social network is making the case that it is the best place for brands to upload their creative content.

“With features like autoplay, brands start thinking that maybe they need to be uploading to Facebook, investing more there rather than sending assets to YouTube,” he said. “The autoplay will suck viewers in.”

Imagine a Nike video post of LeBron James: That’s the kind of content marketers are thinking about as ideal for autoplay sharing on Facebook.

For now brand pages are not part of the tests, however. The only videos that get autoplay are those that are uploaded through Facebook’s API, the company said.

Platform apps like Instagram, owned by Facebook, and Cinemagram are capable of autoplay, Facebook said.

Facebook is not the only company that carefully controls how content shows in its feeds. Photos from Instagram only show as links on Twitter instead of as full images.

Sponsored autoplay video posts are seen as the next great revenue stream for Facebook. Digital video ad spend is expected to grow 40 percent next year to $5.72 billion, according to eMarketer, and Facebook has yet to offer ad products to rival the likes of YouTube.

“Sponsored video posts will get crazy amounts more ad revenue in mobile than plain sponsored posts,” said the industry source.

Greger said he already sees differences in how he engages with autoplay videos. The fight for his attention on Facebook is illustrative of the broader industry rivalry.

When YouTube thumbnails show up in his feed he clicks on those and navigates away from Facebook, he said. That means if Facebook were to highlight YouTube videos even more, with say features like autoplay, that would just give people like Greger more reason to click away.

If Facebook’s videos are more compelling and easier to view, which the tests show they will be, he spends more time right where he is.

“This will probably will keep me on Facebook a little bit more,” Greger said.