Is Facebook’s New Video Policy Killing User Experience?

July 21, 2017

If you haven’t noticed, Facebook just got noisier. A few weeks ago, I showed up at the office bright and early after working from home the previous day. I booted up my laptop and checked my smartphone as usual, only to have a video recipe for peanut butter fudge sugar cookie cheesecake bars with bacon frosting (or some other similarly fattening dessert) blare at 100 percent volume, telegraphing my gluttony to the entire office. Thanks, Facebook.

Turns out the stealthy “magical elves” of Facebook had turned on the feature that instantly plays Facebook videos—with sound—while you scroll. The move sparked a departure in tactic for the social media company, which up to this point focused on creating a smooth and enjoyable user experience. Now, ads for cars, nursing homes and anti-itch creams rang out in mellifluous tones at every swipe, along with a seemingly endless soundtrack of crazy pet vids and how-to’s.

The Social Side of Auto-Play

I caught up with our social media team to get their take on Facebook’s auto-play feature. “I actually love this feature (when I occasionally do have my phone on loud) because it draws my attention to videos that I may not have watched if they just had captions,” says Social Media Coordinator Mackenzie Drolshagen. “I think it’s a great thing for Facebook advertisers, because you could potentially be drawing an audience who (like me) may not have watched the video if the sound had been off.”

How Disturbing is It?

In truth, the shift isn’t as jarring as my experience with that diet-busting recipe: Video auto-play has been around on Facebook for years, with plenty of disgruntled users querying forums how to turn off the feature. The major change is in the audio, which now turns on and gets progressively louder every time you scroll past an ad or video post.

Of course, this assumes your phone isn’t on vibrate or mute. In a random poll of our offices conducted by Mackenzie, every employee said they regularly keep their phones on silent (at work or home) unless they are expecting a call. “I feel that this feature doesn’t really impact FB users or will cause them to shift away, considering the majority probably keep their phones on silent all the time,” says Mackenzie. While I couldn’t easily track down industry statistics on what percentage of smartphone users keep their phones on vibrate, that number is likely high given that “phantom cellphone vibrations” are a thing.

The Rise of Subtitles

Captioning isn’t just for hearing impaired individuals and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon knockoffs anymore. According to anecdotal evidence collected by Digiday, 85 percent of Facebook users watch videos on silent. Considering that the company reports 100 million hours of video watching per day, that’s a lot of potential captioning.

Our social media team universally agrees on the importance of including subtitles in Facebook and other social media videos. “To be able to cater to page fans that DO have their phones on silent, you should absolutely have subtitles included in every video you post,” says Mackenzie. Social Media Manager Nick Christensen expounds on why captioning is essential to a positive user experience.

Many users are utilizing Facebook, especially on the mobile side, when they’re not necessarily in areas where they can listen to videos. Video performs wonderfully on Facebook, but it’s not always easy enough to bust out headphones or hear what’s being said when you’re out and about. (Heaven forbid we take our eyes off our phone and put it up to our ear and miss out on the visual aspects we love so much! That’s just bad user experience.) And that’s to say nothing of the 5 percent of the global population who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Because of these factors and others, there’s been a bigger push on brands and influencers to include subtitles in their videos. It’s almost guaranteed that engagement increases when subtitles are added to videos, especially when the average user spends 3 seconds on a video before swiping past it to see other content.

Content writers, take note: subtitling may be the job wave of the future. “Including subtitles in video… captures users more than a traditional photo/link or non-subtitled video,” says Nick, “and there’s a greater chance that they will interact and engage with the content.”

Conclusion – Is Facebook Auto-Play Bad for Business?

Not every Facebook member is on board with updates. For example, plenty of users complained when the site’s mobile app started converting comments to bubble threads, or when color block posts became the norm. Yet Facebook still boasts nearly 2 billion users. I don’t see them jumping ship because of auto-play hassles that can be easily avoided with the press of a vibrate button.

For marketers, Facebook’s video policy opens the door for a new audience of social media users to be exposed to (and potentially continue watching) promotional clips. While an overabundance of auto-play videos could eventually cause viewing fatigue, right now advertisers can reach the world’s largest social network. Just don’t forget the captions!