The Wall Street Journal had a big piece on Monday diving into the history of Facebook’s live video strategy. It suggested Facebook moved so quickly it made a lot of mistakes and caused itself problems that might not have arisen had Facebook taken its time. But the piece also reinforced to me that Facebook’s live video strategy has been somewhat misguided and this might be one area where Twitter is doing better.
Long-Term Skepticism on User-Generated Live Video
Readers with elephantine memories may recall a post I did when live video was first becoming a hot topic among the big online platforms about a year ago. I argued that, though live video felt for many of these platforms like a logical evolution of their progression through various forms of media, live video had some serious shortcomings when it came to mainstream adoption. Specifically, I argued most people simply aren’t frequently in situations where what they’re experiencing is worthy of being broadcast to all their friends.
Borne Out by Recent Experience
Based on my own anecdotal evidence and some informal polling on Twitter, I feel fairly justified in that view, having seen almost a year’s worth of Facebook live video. I see relatively few live videos on Facebook, even though I sense Facebook is showing me every possible video it can from my friends. What I do see is almost all coming from one neighbor (who is pushing a weight loss business) and a relative who frequently live streams video gaming sessions. I wondered whether my experience was unique and asked a couple of questions on Twitter then:
As you can see from that first question, by far the biggest category people are seeing in live video on Facebook isn’t their friends sharing everyday events but brands and professionals sharing live video. As I wrote in the piece last April:
This is why I suspect we’re seeing so many celebrities gravitating towards live video and dominating live video both on Facebook and other platforms – activities which might be humdrum in ordinary people’s lives take on new significance for fans and followers of these celebrities. Live video can provide a sense of access into celebrities’ lives which other media can’t and that’s part of its power – it’s arguably extending what Twitter has already done in this area in a way that’s even more intimate. But this is also why I suspect live video will likely continue to fizzle as a broadcast medium for regular people and will, instead, likely come to resemble more and more the forms of live video we’re already used to from television and other existing media – highly produced and starring celebrities rather than truly “raw” as Zuckerberg and others suggested this week.
Among those who are seeing content from their friends, as opposed to brands, around a third are sharing ordinary everyday things (and I can’t imagine anything more boring), while another third or so are sharing special events like concerts. Just a quarter are promoting a business. These are just informal polls but, from everything else I’ve seen and heard, it appears Facebook’s live video strategy hasn’t quite turned out how it hoped. Usage is lower than anticipated, despite its massive promotion both to would-be broadcasters and viewers (and even in the real world with advertising).
Twitter takes a Different Tack
Twitter on the other hand, has taken a slightly different tack. Yes, it absolutely has invested in the very same user-generated live video as Facebook through its Periscope product, but the fact it hasn’t really generated a massive audience aside from occasional major events is further validation of my theory. But the other big area where Twitter has invested is professionally produced live video, especially in sports. Twitter now has numerous partnerships with sports leagues (including a high profile deal last year with the NFL) but also has some others with Bloomberg, Cheddar, and a number of other news and entertainment outlets. It has broadcast some major events, including political speeches and awards shows as well.
These events have already proven far more popular on Twitter than any Periscope content is ever likely to be, for a simple reason: this is high quality, familiar content and watching it on Twitter is one of the most painless ways to experience video there is. There’s no cable provider authentication, no hunting around for the right channel and, best of all, no payments to be made – it’s free. What’s more, though most of its live video so far has been accompanied with a fairly low-quality stream of tweets, it has recently begun to curate top tweets around these events more effectively, which does a better job of highlighting the core value of Twitter itself. The big challenge continues to be monetization, since much of this content is licensed from other sources which already sell most if not all the ad slots associated with it.
Facebook appears to be learning from Twitter’s experience and has been working to sign deals with sports leagues of its own. That’s a double-edged sword, because Facebook has already become known as a home for quite a bit of pirate video (for example, Spanish soccer league matches) but it makes a lot of sense, especially in light of of Facebook’s massive global audience. The right deals for the right content could provide yet more reasons for people to engage with Facebook and spend significant time there. If Facebook creates the right social viewing features for interacting with friends while watching, it could create some really good experiences.
I don’t think we’re about to see Facebook abandoning its user-generated live video strategy. I do think we’re going to see a smarter and broader strategy around live video and that’s a good thing. Live video certainly has a role in these online platforms but I think the forms of live video that work will be similar to the live video we’re already used to seeing and a lot less like a live version of our Facebook or Instagram posts.