Sound and Maybe Fury: Facebook Turns Up Volume on Video Ads, Spins It as Good News

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A Facebook user posted this message from the company on Reddit, generated plenty of outraged response.
A Facebook user posted this message from the company on Reddit, generated plenty of outraged response.

Facebook is making (sound) waves with autoplay videos on its mobile app that start running with the volume already turned up.

Some users have begun seeing messages describing the shift -- away from autoplay video that at least started on mute -- as convenient:

Now, it's easier to enjoy video. We're always working to make Facebook a better place to watch videos. That's why videos now play with sound on automatically. Use the volume icon on any video to make the sound right for you.

Small, light print adds that they can use settings to turn off autoplaying sound.

Someone posted a screenshot of the message to Reddit this weekend with a little editorializing: "Now, with unwanted sound by deafult."

"I'm willing to bet that in a future update you won't be able to mute ads," another Reddit user responded.

The message seems to confirm that Facebook is making good on its February announcement that the silent age of video on its platform would soon end.

After months of testing, Facebook clearly has an interest in moving beyond the silent age of video in its app. And even if the new sound-on environment annoys some users, Facebook has eased its users into new, unwelcome ad styles before. People tend to get used to things.

Just last week, Facebook introduced ads to Messenger, promising to commercialize an area that had been free of marketing messages. The anti-ad backlash was smaller than when it introduced ads into Instagram, or when it first launched sound-off autoplay video in 2013.

"Facebook has fabulous testing methodology," said Alec Mcnayr, COO at social media agency McBeard. "It's not going to turn anything on that the majority of the user base hates."

Autoplay video in general has become widespread since Facebook made it a central part of its ad offering. Now many websites and apps include video that starts the second a consumer arrives.

But it's more tolerated than beloved by consumers, according to the Coalition For Better Ads, an industry group working to prod publishers to adopt less annoying ads. Video that automatically plays with the sound on is one of the least-liked formats there is, according to the group.

"This ad experience is especially disruptive because it catches the reader off guard and often compels them to quickly close the window or tab in order to stop the sound -- especially if they are on their mobile device and in a public place, where such noise can be a public nuisance and personal embarrassment," the better ads group said in its report on a recent survey.

Facebook declined to comment on how widely autoplay with sound has penetrated its audience so far.

So, why is Facebook so interested in delivering sound? Because it's one of the few areas where its upstart competitor Snapchat has a lead.

"Snapchat started pushing advertisers in that direction, and stories need to be told in a unique way," said Justin Marshall, vp of emerging media at Possible. "Sound can make all the difference. As video consumption grows, the bar goes higher for what's worth people's time."

In fact, Snapchat says its ads run 70% of the time with the volume on, and the company is critical of mute video, the kind that Facebook has proliferated. Snapchat's Imran Khan has often derided muted video as "moving banner ads."

Facebook was previously enthusiastic about the potential for silent video, teaching brands to create for a News Feed where videos scroll by on mute and providing tools for automatic captions.

But advertisers, especially movie studios and entertainment brands, want their ads to come with sound.

Facebook also has new ads format like Instagram Stories and mid-roll video ads that are more accommodating of sound.

So it was perhaps just a matter of time before its main News Feed started giving brands this piece of their creativity back.

"Consumers might get irritated. That might happen," said Paul Casinelli, senior director of product marketing at Brightcove, a digital video tech company. "But video is the preferred piece of content for advertisers, and they want to do as much as they can to get that users attention."

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