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Facebook Video Needs Serendipity Even More Than It Needs Midroll

Facebook was just being Facebook last week, making a decision to rely on midroll (rather than preroll) ads for their videos, only to realize that the vast majority of their videos were less than 90 seconds and thus not ideal vehicles for midroll.

What to do, what to do … Well, if you’re Facebook, that’s easy. You reconfigure the algorithm in your news feed to favor longer length videos. Advertisers be damned and problem solved.

Or is it?

Facebook struggles with video for many reasons, the primary one being the lack of user-initiated discovery and the ability to browse, i.e., serendipity. YouTube, for all its faults, still has the charm of a 90s era record store, where you can wander among the shelves at your leisure, hoping to discover a hidden gem. And while YouTube’s search and discovery system is far from perfect, it’s world’s better than Facebook’s, which is easily the worst example of UI on any major app today.

To wit: have you ever seen an article (or even a photo) a friend posted, only to find that it had disappeared when you returned. No problem, just search for your friend.


Type in “Jane Doe” and Facebook will likely show you a dozen Jane Does, none of whom are the Jane Doe you are actually friends with. To locate her page, it is often easier to go to Google.

Facebook video suffers the same issues. You can’t just search for a specific topic to find videos and even if you do find something you like, it’s not easy to find the creator’s other videos and spend time going through them, something that’s necessary to create a connection with the viewer.

Then there’s the “why” of Facebook video.

People go to YouTube to watch videos. That’s the only reason they’re there. But people go to Facebook for a variety of reasons, and “spending an hour watching video” isn’t usually among them.

That’s a challenge Facebook is going to have to deal with. Especially because viewers who are watching video on Facebook are not doing other things on Facebook. Things that make Facebook money.

In Facebook’s ideal world, video would be additive—users would watch Facebook video in addition to everything else they do on the platform. Only we don’t know how realistic that really is. Mostly because it’s antithetical to why people use Facebook in the first place, which is to interact with friends and see their vacation photos and (increasingly) debate political opinions. That’s not exactly the ideal prelude to watching a half hour’s worth of video, especially given an interface where videos more or less randomly pop up in the user’s news feed.

One way for Facebook to solve this would be to give video its own unique section and give that section a functional search and discovery.

Right now, Facebook has a video tab on its mobile app, but (a) it sits next to the completely useless “Marketplace” tab in the app’s No Man’s Land and (b) it’s not really searchable—there are a couple of videos in the feed, few of which are from publishers you actually follow.

There’s a filmstrip bar up top where you can see see a (non-searchable) list of videos from publishers and brands you do follow, but sin of all sins, they all autoplay—each and every one of them—with the volume at full blast as you scroll through the list. It’s a wildly inferior experience overall, especially when compared to YouTube.

What Facebook Needs To Do

When it comes to which stories appear in your News Feed, The Mighty Algorithm does a decent enough job. It may not be the ideal experience, but it’s pretty good, and you don’t hear a lot of griping about it.

But video is different and Facebook needs to come to terms with that. It needs to let the long tail live, to give people a chance to find and discover videos and see the full body of a specific publisher’s work, not just the parts the algorithm wants to show you. It needs to recreate the experience of being in a Virgin megastore circa 1991, spending the better part of an afternoon just browsing and listening. If it can do that—all while getting viewers to continue watching after the midroll ad comes on—then it just might have a product that can take on YouTube.

Just be forewarned that’s a tall order indeed.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Facebook is looking to launch an all-video app for Apple TV and other streaming set top boxes to bring their video to TV. Great, but unclear where that programming is coming from: most of the network/studio shows people want to watch have been scooped up by Netflix, Amazon and Hulu and it would be a huge undertaking to get enough original programming to launch what is essentially an On-Demand network. It’s not so much new programming–they could get by with 20 hours/week, it’s the library that’s an issue. Still, with pockets as deep as Facebook’s nothing is impossible.