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Facebook is testing a service that agencies are worried users will hate

Facebook News Feed displayed on a smartphone
Nicolas Asfouri | AFP | Getty Images

Facebook is testing out adding automatic sound to its autoplay videos, but some ad agencies are saying that users are likely to hate the sound-on experience, thus making widespread adoption difficult.

"When you think of user behavior within Facebook, users are typically scrolling through the News Feed keeping up with what's happening," said Kevin Del Rosario, associate director of social media at digital agency Huge. "It's intrusive getting the sound and video all at the same time."

Mashable reported earlier this week that some users were hearing audio automatically on their videos. Currently, Facebook videos play when you scroll past them, but there is no sound. Facebook confirmed that they were testing out the feature on some people using its mobile platform in Australia.

"We're running a small test in News Feed where people can choose whether they want to watch videos with sound on from the start," a Facebook spokesperson said via email. "For people in this test who do not want sound to play, they can switch it off in Settings or directly on the video itself. This is one of several tests we're running as we work to improve the video experience for people on Facebook."

When the select users scroll through their News Feed, they will see a small sound icon on the bottom right-hand side. They can then tap the symbol on or off to have sound play throughout the duration of their News Feed session. Another version has sound automatically playing as long as the volume is turned up on your phone. Regardless, audio will only play if the phone is not muted, and there is an option to switch the sound to "always off" in the Facebook settings.

Facebook said it's seen about 66 percent growth in average daily video watch time per person. The company said about half of users watch Facebook video with the sound on already.

Permanently adding sound to its videos could be an uphill battle for Facebook. While people come to its digital video competitors such as YouTube ready to watch clips, the social network's users are coming to the platform to catch up on text or photo-based news from their friends.

"Since consumers are mobile first, many do not necessarily have headphones in while scrolling through their feed," said Lindsay Sutton, vice president and group director of social strategy at digital agency DigitasLBi. "And auto-audio could be an interruption to their passive viewing experience — picture a commuter on a busy bus — therefore causing them to not view at all."

However, media companies and brand publishers like putting their videos in the News Feed experience because it fits organically with user content. Because the automatic sound option is not available now, Huge's Del Rosario said some companies are adding subtitles to Facebook videos to get their message across. Still, that isn't a guarantee that someone will stop and watch. Having sound right away could capture people's fleeting attention.

But there is a fine balance between grabbing someone's eye with digital advertising and turning them off by being too in their face. Studies have shown that users react negatively when videos start out with loud audio, Huge's Del Rosario said.

"It's about what's the right message to send in the first three seconds and how to come across as not intrusive and be relative to your audience," he said.

DigitasLBi's Sutton said advertisers should pay attention to Facebook's sound experiments. If adding audio changes how and how much Facebook's users watch video, it could force brands to change their strategy.

"First and foremost, we need to design/create with the consumer in mind," she said. "We can't force our message into their lives, it must be seamless. If forcing audio becomes an intrusion and then video consumption in general drops, then we have to watch for that. However, if we notice that consumption doesn't suffer, then we can start thinking about how our creative weaves audio back into the picture."