Instagram pins hopes on IGTV's vertical video
If you’re going to invite a bunch of Instagram’s biggest “influencers” to an event, you better make it Instagrammable to the extreme.
And artisan food, fancy coffee and quirky sets were all in place at IGTV's San Francisco launch.
The longer-form, vertical video service - which will work as a bolt-on feature to Instagram as well as having a standalone app of its own - is enormously important to parent company Facebook.
Facebook's main service is increasingly seen by teenagers and 20-somethings as a place better-suited for their parents, or even grandparents.
They gravitate instead to Snapchat for quick social media fixes, and YouTube for more substantial viewing.
They avoid glitzy productions from traditional broadcasters, and instead favour the “hey you guys!” intimacy of the internet's creative stars.
And who can blame them, the appeal of video created by teens in bedrooms rather than adults in boardrooms is quite obvious.
With IGTV, Instagram, as it has done in the past, is copying features pioneered by others. It assumes that its immense scale and resources can make its version the winner, even if it is well late to the party.
The app has already successfully cloned Snapchat’s Stories feature - where users post a string of updates that disappear after a day.
Going after YouTube’s creators and Snapchat’s Discover tab is a logical and expected step.
IGTV will not feature ads to begin with, but Instagram chief Kevin Systrom acknowledges that will probably change soon.
It would be crazy not to.
Video adverts typically command a higher fee than other types of online display ads. Research firm eMarketer predicts $18bn will be spent on digital video advertising this year - a 22% increase on 2017.
The new service provides a way to get a bigger slice of that pie.
“What Facebook has found is that pre-roll ads don’t work all that well for short videos because people just scroll on and don’t bother watching them,” said Joseph Evans, from Enders Analysis.
“Short videos don’t have any space to have a mid-roll ad. A post-roll ad is a non-starter because people just scroll away.
"So what you need if you want to video ad inventory is you need longer videos.”
Facebook lags behind YouTube among the 18-to-24-year-old crowd that marketers love, according to a US study published in March by the Pew Research Center.
Importantly, those viewers are not just idly scrolling through YouTube, but staying there for long periods of time - watching plenty of advertisements as they go.
Instagram may be further behind, but its audience is still growing quickly.
And notably, Pew's study indicates the 18-to-24s are more likely to use it several times a day than YouTube.
However, shifting the service further away from its photo-centric roots could be dangerous.
“There’s always a risk that in a push to make more money out of Instagram - which I think this increase in video time primarily is - that they undermine what made it so popular in the first,” said Mr Evans.
IGTV's fate will ultimately be determined by whether existing Instagram stars and others are willing to put in the effort required to make compelling vertical videos.
Tellingly, the creators brought in to promote the launch said they would still use YouTube and would wait and "see what works".
But Instagram's job may have been made easier by controversial policy changes made by YouTube, which raised the minimum requirements for channels to make money from their work.
IGTV won’t be offering creators payments to begin with, but it hasn't ruled out the possibility when ads are added.
I worry, however, about the quality of what will be served up.
Facebook Watch - the on-demand service within the main Facebook network - has quickly descended into Daytime TV 2.0.
And in a trailer video for IGTV, one of the first clips we saw was someone getting a pie in the face.
Many of the most popular YouTube creators care deeply about producing "cinematic" visuals. And cinema isn't vertical.
More broadly speaking, if today’s launch proves to be a success, increasing market share in this area might bolster the view held by some politicians, in the US and elsewhere, that Facebook has no meaningful competition and should therefore be broken up.
In a separate announcement, Facebook said it was launching an interactive quiz feature - an idea some said was brazenly lifted from HQ Trivia, one of the break-out successes of the past eight months.
Competition laws in the US are geared towards stopping major companies from merging.
But there is little on the books to prevent the granddaddy of all the social networks swallowing up ideas that show early promise.
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