Facebook announced video for Instagram today, a way to shoot short, 15-second video clips. It's a clear attempt to catch up on the popularity of Vine, the short-form video app Twitter launched in October of 2012. Vine has grown to 13 million users, but more importantly it's become a favorite of advertisers, with more than 50,000 brands reportedly using it already.
Last week Facebook rolled out support for hashtags, another feature pioneered on Twitter. Like video, hashtags have been a crucial element of Twitter's advertising business. It's a way to focus attention around big events like the Superbowl and the Oscars. Hashtags organize the real-time conversation and create an anchor for people to connect to trending topics and campaigns. And that's what marketers want, to be part of the big discussions.
Compare this to Facebook's approach to advertising, which has been all about targeting based on your personal data and social connections. The company made a big pitch to advertisers that it would create a new type of marketing where the words and photos shared by its users would become native ad units. The one most tied to Facebook's DNA was "Sponsored Stories".
As it turns out, people hated this. Facebook's ad model converts you into an unwitting pitchman for a product you may or may not love. Sometimes this means you spam your friends and family over and over with the same post, which has been purchased and promoted to the top of their news feed. Other people become unwilling mascots for large quantities of sexual lubricant they never purchased or intended to promote.
Facebook seems to have recognized the problem. Just two weeks ago, it eliminated more than half its advertising products. Sponsored stories got the axe. The idea behind them is still being integrated into all of Facebook's marketing efforts, but it's clear the company is turning towards a more conventional approach.
As Ryan Holiday points out, Facebook recently opened itself up to retargeted ads from around the web. It's probably a nice addition to their business, but as Holiday argues, "Facebook is effectively admitting that its own data is worthless. All the knowledge it has on its users is not as valuable as simply knowing what sites someone has visited outside Facebook."
Video could be a game-changer for Facebook. Advertisers are willing to pay much higher prices to show consumers a short clip than they would for a display ad, no matter how tricked out it is with social context. When you combine video with real-time conversation and massive audiences, you get a form of broadcast advertising. The biggest slice of the traditional advertising pie that companies like Facebook and Twitter can take from is the $80 billion annual TV spend.
Twitter has already begun to form deep partnerships with big players in television like ESPN, A&E, and Bloomberg, and hashtags are a becoming a major part of promoting live events. At a recent event in New York it showed off the integration of sports highlights and Vine. The recent announcements from Facebook show it recognizes that leveraging personal and social data often makes for uncomfortable advertising. With the addition of hashtags and video, Facebook is gearing up to take on Twitter in the big battle for real-time, broadcast style advertising dollars instead. Brands are already jumping on board. As Quartz points out, its no accident that Instagram's video clips are 15 seconds, the exact same length as the average TV commercial.