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What Facebook's Autoplay Ads Mean For Engagement

ImageSince its inception Facebook has flirted with fickle fans threatening to boycott its services in protest of user interface tweaks and service changes. Usually within days all is forgiven and forgotten - Facebook’s consistent growth year-on-year certainly doesn’t suggest that those disgruntled users are following through on such threats. At least not yet. But then Facebook hasn’t introduced autoplay video ads into users newsfeeds yet.

Introducing ‘chat’ functionality, adjusting photo sizes and continually evolving the UI are all fairly minor changes that have caused equally minor rumblings of discontent amongst the community. But it seems Facebook is upping the ante. Introducing bigger, more intrusive, more disruptive and higher risk functionality to its service. In December 2012, Facebook sparked mass controversy  when it changed the terms of service for Instagram, the photo-sharing app it had purchased just three months previously. The changes allow advertisers to freely use any image that’s uploaded to Instagram as well as the name with which it is associated. They’ve also removed a user’s ability to, at least ostensibly, vote on Facebook policy governing how the site is run.

No longer are we just seeing scarcely populated, frivolous Facebook groups demanding Facebook desist in its meddling or vaguely displeased murmurings from the bowels of the Internet. These aren’t misguided, melodramatic, disillusioned individuals sick of Zuckerburg’s interference. We’re starting to see serious estrangement on a vast scale from influential sources. So news that Facebook will be introducing autoplay video adverts into newsfeeds by April could be the tipping point.

Recent changes to the newsfeed suggest Facebook is gearing up for the inclusion of video ads with extra sub-feeds, bigger visuals and better synergy with mobile have been introduced. Perhaps the plan is to get users onside by facilitating the creation of better user-generated video content that seamlessly integrates into the social experience, and hoping the odd video ad slipped in won’t seem too intrusive. Perhaps, if the ads are better targeted, they’ll actually boost page engagement?

It has been reported by Ad Age that video ads will be capped to fifteen seconds long and will automatically start playing when viewed, inclusive of audio. Some quick research into the topic of autoplay ads doesn’t reveal much love for them. Some suggest that inclusion of them means you hate your customers. Others describe them as an abomination. Much of the vitriol stems from the brazenly corporate nature of autoplay ads. They have the audacity to infiltrate an intimate browsing experience, often with the intention of selling to you. They have a jarring and alarming impact and regularly advertise content that is of no interest to the end user. Incredibly disengaging, in other words. People don’t like being sold to at the best of times - an assault to the senses makes things worse.

Facebook’s saving grace seems to be its ability to ensure users only see video ads relevant to them. The addition of multiple feeds initially seems like a really handy way of categorizing and prioritizing content that you’re most interested in. The ability to filter your feed so you just receive updates on sports or music or gaming is great. The cynic inside me quickly realized that this is also an ideal situation for targeted autoplay video ads. If we’re browsing our sports feed and we’re greeted with a sports-related advert we might be more welcoming to it and more engaged. Might. It’s likely that a period of experimentation will be needed for advertisers to determine what kind of ad work best - brands that choose to advertise this way are walking a similarly fine line between engaging fans and infuriating fans. Getting the balance right will be key.  

So are we being prepped for autoplay video ads on Facebook? Undoubtedly so. Will we stand for it? Probably, if the user experience is slick, the ads are relevant to us and they are easy enough to bypass. I feel that mandatory audio could be a step too far for most users, but will Facebook care? It’s easy to forget that the people on Facebook are essentially the product and advertisers are the customer, as the frequently repeated adage goes. Facebook’s multi-feed addition just make advertising on the network and even more targeted and attractive proposition. If millions of dollars come rolling in at the expense of a decline in growth or even a decline in active users, I think Facebook will take it on the chin. And with over a billion active users, they can probably afford to. 

How do you feel about autoplay ads on Facebook? Would it deter you from using the social network or is it the logical next step in an inevitable evolution of Facebook? I’d be keen to know your thoughts.

image: video ads/shutterstock

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