Some call Snapchat and Facebook the future of television, while others see them as major challengers to YouTube. In either case, these social networks are changing the way viewers consume shows by courting media companies to produce premium content for their respective platforms, and these companies are finding different ways to grow audiences for their programs.
Snapchat began working with studios to host premium content on its Discover section in 2016 and has aired 50 shows to date. Facebook Watch launched in 2017, and now hosts hundreds of shows that cater to almost every taste. It’s a win-win situation for both the platforms and content creators, as Snapchat and Facebook get quality content to keep users engaged and media brands gain direct access to their user bases. Snapchat in particular has 187 million daily active users, who are largely comprised of millennial and Gen Z audiences.
Neither platform is likely to overtake broadcast television, but that’s not their goal. Instead, creators are turning to these platforms as additional means of engagement and to grow their brands. Shows on Snapchat tend to be short, lasting less than five minutes, and are all created specifically for the platform. A number of them complement existing broadcast news programs and talk shows such as The Late Late Show With James Corden, which posts show-related comedy sketches, while others have no relation to any other shows. Snap Inc. announced in February that it is furthering its investment in premium content.
Vertical Networks, a mobile-first digital content studio founded by Elisabeth Murdoch, has several shows on Snapchat, with one of the best performing ones being Phone Swap—a dating show where the two people agree to snoop through each other’s smartphones before deciding on whether to go out a second time. The show began its second season in March, and its first season averaging about 10 million views per episode, attracting 14 million people at its peak.
Vertical Networks CEO Tom Wright describes the company as “mixing math with creative,” with the aim of making story-driven content that is refined and optimized for individual platforms through data analysis. Vertical primarily makes shows on Snapchat, but it also has one Facebook Watch program, and they’re all made with the intention of creating an initial audience base on social media before moving to longer-form platforms like television.
“Our focus is on reaching mass audiences and creating global franchises that we believe can become worldwide hits,” Wright told AListDaily. “Outside of premium mobile environments, we don’t see any places where we could do that kind of thing.”
In addition to their massive scale, Wright said that Snapchat and Facebook are ideal platforms for premium content because they both have curatorial elements to them, creating a quality threshold so that premium content doesn’t get mixed in with lower quality videos. Wright also appreciates how these social platforms are meritocracies, with content gaining popularity almost entirely through word-of-mouth.
Neither Snapchat nor Facebook promote any of its premium shows outside its normal process for surfacing content to relevant users and alerting subscribers to new episodes. Facebook Watch has a banner for featured shows, but its programs still rely heavily on word-of-mouth. However, creators on both platforms can help grow popularity by engaging with fans on their official Facebook pages or other social networks.
As a result, many of these shows have a feel that is distinctly different from television. Snapchat shows are all presented vertically so that they take up the whole screen on mobile devices, and are told quickly, sometimes through multiple snaps (photos and videos). Facebook shows such as Comeback Kids: Animal Edition, Returning the Favor, and Make Up or Break Up are usually longer and are meant to be viewed in landscape mode, but what they all have in common is that they’re designed to be shareable.
Comeback Kids, which tells tales about animals overcoming hardships, began its second season in March and is one of five animal-themed shows produced by The Dodo, part of the Group Nine Media network. The Dodo launched on Facebook Watch with 19 million followers on its main Facebook page as its base and grew its Watch audience organically from there.
The show’s first season has collectively attracted over 140 million viewers on Facebook alone, and The Dodo ranked as one of Tubular’s Top 10 Facebook Video Publishers for February 2018. But unlike Vertical Networks, The Dodo puts some of its shows to YouTube, Twitter and other platforms two days after episodes premiere on Facebook.
“We’ve spent the last few years really leaning into Facebook, learning about our Facebook audience and identifying what works best on the platform,” said Joanna Zelman, executive editor of video at The Dodo. “YouTube is newer for us, so we’re experimenting with different types of stories to see what that audience is most excited about. We’ve seen enormous growth on YouTube YOY in terms of watch time, subscribers and video views.”
According to Zelman, The Dodo’s YouTube audience has a higher concentration of males in comparison to Facebook, with about 50 and 30 percent respectively. YouTube also has a more international audience, so growth on that platform hinges more on having a universally relatable voice. Additionally, The Dodo found that human-centric content tends to perform better on YouTube, which inspired the studio to create its first YouTube-specific show that highlights famous pets and their human companions.
Although both Facebook and YouTube have tools for speaking with audiences, Zelman said, “YouTube affords us more opportunities to break down the fourth wall and engage directly with the audience.” Specifically, The Dodo asks its fans for opinions and feedback to guide its posting strategy, and it recently started using the YouTube community tab feature to interact with its audience.
Both Vertical Networks and The Dodo use remarkably little to no cross promotion to grow their audiences apart from the social platforms’ recommendation systems. Wright takes pride in the fact that all of Vertical’s programs grew to have millions of viewers on their own, with no supplemental marketing done except perhaps a tweet to let fans know that a new season was starting.
Wright also said that Vertical doesn’t do any post episode engagement with its viewers. Instead, shows rely on conversations occurring naturally. For example, Phone Swap generated about 60 thousand related tweets in its first season based solely on viewers discussing episodes with each other.
“The shows we create drive incredible word-of-mouth, but it’s not about proactive marketing outreach,” said Wright.
But in a sense, given Vertical’s long-term goals, its Snapchat shows are marketing future programs based on their core concepts. That’s a markedly different attitude compared to shows such as Returning the Favor on Facebook Watch, hosted by Mike Rowe, who travels the country to spotlight people who are making a difference in their communities. Rowe is the former host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel and was once a Ford truck commercial spokesperson. That fame earned him a large following on Facebook, and he actively engages with it on a regular basis to help promote the show.
But to grow beyond that initial fan base, Hudsun Media CEO and Returning the Favor executive producer Michael Rourke said that audience participation was the key.
“All of our heroes featured on RTF are nominated by the community, and they post videos, photos and articles in our Facebook group. We say that our show is for the community, by the community.”
According to Rourke, Watch is ideal platform because show producers get immediate feedback on shows through comments, which lets them know what works and doesn’t.
Rhett Bachner, president of B17 Entertainment’s Thumb Candy Media and production on Make Up or Break Up, tells a similar story. With Make Up or Break Up, audiences vote in real-time on whether a couple should stay together or call it quits.
“Real-time feedback is such a powerful tool,” said Bachner. “We know fairly quickly if a new idea is or isn’t working, but you have to be willing to try new things. The community appreciates being heard and you can see the results.”
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building an audience on social platforms. Although reality shows appear to be some of the best performing programs, Vertical also produces a scripted interactive mystery show on Snapchat called Solve, and its premiere episode pulled in 4.6 million viewers.
But even though Vertical has impressive viewership numbers, Wright said that it focuses on different metrics to determine a show’s success. The company emphasizes loyalty, quality of time spent with the show and engagement—which factors in top snaps per user, time spent per episode and subscription rates. These factors indicate an engaged audience, and they’re also qualities the Snapchat platform rewards.
“Scale is exciting, and we love that we have the audiences that we do, but we’d like to create brands that people care about,” said Wright.
Both Vertical and The Dodo agree that it all comes down to understanding audiences and the demands of each individual platform, whether it be Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram or Twitter.
“There’s no silver bullet,” Wright explained. “If you make really good content, you’ll find a meaningful audience. Between Facebook and Snapchat, there are different audiences and different behaviors. A piece of content that is built for Facebook would perform terribly on Snapchat and vice versa.”
Wright describes the Snapchat audience as “impatiently curious,” and brands can either fight that by trying to force content that they think they should be consuming, or embrace it by tailoring content to what gets viewers excited.
“If you’re going to try to stimulate and retain that audience, you need to commit resources and have a deep understanding of who you’re looking to engage,” said Wright.