Facebook says its YouTube competitor is growing, but advertisers want more details

Key Points
  • Facebook says that Facebook Watch now has more than 720 million users monthly and 140 million daily who spend at least one minute on Watch.
  • But advertisers are taking note that this minute doesn't necessarily need to be watched consecutively and could be a combination of scattered seconds throughout the course of a day or month.
  • Advertisers want Facebook to work on its "discoverability."
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes his keynote speech during Facebook Inc's annual F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 30, 2019.
Stephen Lam | Reuters

Facebook is out with some new numbers that show just how much its YouTube competitor, Facebook Watch, has grown in recent months. Though numbers are up, advertisers say they want more specifics on the data, as well as better functionality for users to discover videos.

Watch, which includes both original programming and uploaded video from users, launched globally last year after being introduced in 2017. The company said Wednesday that Watch has more than 720 million visitors monthly and 140 million who spend at least one minute on the service per day. It says on average daily visitors spend more than 26 minutes in Watch every day. By way of comparison, Google-owned YouTube says more than 1.9 billion logged-in users watch video there every month.

However, advertisers cautioned that some of Facebook's statistics may not be as clear-cut as they seem. In particular, the stats about amount of time users are spending on Watch may not be consecutive, Facebook acknowledged.

The company also said that the number of publishers and individuals using "ad breaks" to monetize videos has tripled in the last year and is introducing new capabilities around social viewing and new original programming.

The company's push for growth in video comes at a competitive time for digital video, with YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, streaming platforms and more competing for eyeballs and ad dollars.

The numbers

Advertisers should read between the lines when it comes to Facebook Watch's numbers, said Heather Rist Murphy, a vice president of performance content and social media at media agency Nina Hale.

"The way the data is presented, it doesn't mean that viewers are watching one minute consecutively," she said in an email. "The minute of watch time is likely a combination of a few seconds here and there throughout the course of a day or a month. We know Facebook is able to break down video view times to as small as three seconds for advertising purposes."

Facebook confirmed to CNBC that these figures do not necessarily reflect consecutive viewing.

In terms of pure reach, Michael Stevens of GYK Antler said it's good to see the high figures but noted that a minute is a short amount of time. Stevens is an executive director of strategic planning and account services at the marketing agency.

"Getting 720 million people onto your platform every month is impressive and having over 140 million in the platform on a daily basis is again very impressive from a reach standpoint, however, these numbers lose their appeal when you are talking about people who are only watching one minute of video," he said.

He said that if daily visitors are spending on average 26 minutes watching videos in Watch, it indicates a strong population of consumers who are interacting a lot on Facebook Watch. But he'd like to see a deeper breakdown of consumers who watch more than certain increments, like more than five minutes or 10 minutes, to "really understand the power of the platform."

Facebook's head of content planning and strategy, Matthew Henick, said Watch is about "intentionality" and finding videos users actually seek out and want to see. Those users tend to be more willing to watch a higher ad load, he said. The company said more than 70% of mid-roll ads are viewed to completion on Facebook.

How it's stacking up against the competition

Facebook Watch may have a thing or two to learn from another Facebook-owned platform, Instagram.

"Really, their biggest competitor is themselves," said Murphy. "Instagram TV seems to be a more user-friendly way of discovering original video content. With IGTV, it doesn't seem there was the same expectation of ad revenue from video creators, which has permitted the video format to grow more naturally."

She added Facebook's reach — it claimed to reach nearly 2.4 billion users a month in its last earnings report — is its biggest advantage over other platforms.

"Using the Facebook app is already part of people's daily lives. Going forward, Facebook should focus on the discoverability of its Watch content, which is likely what the social features are intended to do," she said. "IGTV has exemplified this by quickly developing into a natural part of the Instagram user experience through the Discover tab."

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Neil Patel, who runs his own agency, Neil Patel Digital, said at this point YouTube's content tends to have a longer tail, since users seem more trained to search for specific topics, whereas they're more accustomed to browsing on Facebook Watch without a specific destination.

At this point, Patel's clients are seeing better results and more return on investment on YouTube than Facebook Watch. He and his clients are looking for more ways to drive people back to a website or to convert a sale, which he says is much harder on Facebook Watch at this point than it is on YouTube.

But Patel is optimistic Facebook Watch will be "amazing."

"It'll just take another 16 to 24 months," he said. "YouTube wasn't built overnight."

The content

Facebook also continues to invest in a range of content. On Wednesday it announced global partnerships in entertainment and sports, like one with the International Cricket Council. It also has plans for new original content, including an adaptation of MTV's "The Real World," which is premiering Thursday in the U.S., Mexico and Thailand, with more planned for this summer and fall.

Murphy said the focus on new global partnerships — like a partnership with Germany's "ProSiebenSat.1" — show there might be more of an opportunity to draw viewers outside of the U.S.

"We've seen other video platforms struggle to gain a foothold in the U.S. entertainment space, so going global may the better move," she said. "It's great that Facebook is investing in creating original series and repurposing popular series, but we will still have to wait and see if these investments pay off in growing viewership."

Jeff Ragovin, chief growth officer at Social Native, said if Facebook's focus is on longer-form videos for Watch, a minute isn't long enough to show user intent and engagement.

"Facebook has an advantage on the competition because whatever products they build come with a built-in community and organic exposure through the platform, however ad revenue and monetization is still underwhelming," he said in an email.

Given the range of video services available for consumers, Ragovin added Facebook has a much higher level of competition than they're used to.

"Will cult-classics like Buffy and Angel cut it, or will Facebook need to step up its game?" he said. "We think the latter. Our advice to Facebook: Tap into the power of your users [and] empower them to be creators, consumers and advocates of the platform."

The social aspect

With new features like a way to easily find groups based on videos a user is viewing in Watch, Facebook is putting an emphasis on group engagement. In its blog post, Facebook said it has found people are eight times as likely to comment on videos in "Watch Party" (its way of letting people in groups watch videos and chat together in real-time) than watching on their own. "Popular with Friends" also lets users see whether friends liked or reacted to a video to help them find new videos.

There's no advertiser component for the "Popular with Friends" section now, but Facebook's Henick said this is a way of further connecting users with the content and showing deeper engagement and could at some point be a point of interest for brands.

Nina Hale's Murphy said theoretically, having more social functions behind video might seem more attractive for advertisers and content creators.

"What we don't know at this point, however, is whether people will utilize the new features," she said.

If it's a home run for users, advertisers might also be clamoring to find a way in.

"As advertisers, we are always looking for more ways to connect with our consumers and being able to see how a group of consumers react to a video can be very insightful," said GYK Antler's Stevens. He said features such as Watch Party "can be an exciting opportunity for advertisers to gauge immediate reaction."