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Facebook Is Now Pitching Advertisers on TV-Style Upfront Buys for Premium Video

Facebook has long wanted to siphon off TV ad spending into its coffers. Now it’s going to Madison Avenue to try to book video-advertising revenue by pushing “upfront” buys for its mix of originals and long-form creator content.

The social-media company unveiled Facebook Showcase, a new premium video-ad program, which execs say will let online video and TV ad buyers lock in advertising — at preset rates and with guaranteed ad impressions — for up to a year in advance. Previously, Facebook was selling video ads only one quarter in advance. Showcase inventory initially is available for campaigns targeting U.S. audiences.

Facebook is going out with the upfront pitch as it has been steadily ramping up its original series for Watch, its dedicated video hub. On Tuesday, it announced the pickup of “Human Discoveries,” an animated comedy starring Anna Kendrick and Zac Efron slated to debut later in 2019, and touted the upcoming premiere of a six-part docu-series on NBA superstar Stephen Curry called “Stephen vs. The Game” (pictured above) as well as reboots of MTV’s “The Real World” in the U.S., Mexico and Thailand.

And Facebook claims it has sizable scale already for the available inventory in Showcase, which it dubs In-Stream Reserve. On average, nearly 100 million U.S. Facebook users per month watch In-Stream Reserve eligible content across Watch, Newsfeed and Pages — although Facebook isn’t saying how much time they spend watching videos. In addition to its originals, the ad inventory in Facebook Showcase spans hundreds of third-party publishers like CBS, WWE, BuzzFeed and Refinery29, as well as individual creators.

At least one entertainment marketer is bullish on Facebook’s approach. According to Andrew Hotz, executive VP of digital marketing for Warner Bros., the studio’s use of In-stream Reserve inventory on Facebook on a recent film campaign drove a 45-point incremental lift in ad recall. With Showcase, Warner Bros. can now also take advantage of advance planning.

Erik Geisler, Facebook’s head of U.S. agency sales, emphasized the focus on brand safety for Showcase. He said every single piece of content included in the program’s inventory is human-reviewed before it’s eligible for monetization. “Brand safety is the product,” he told reporters at a press event Tuesday in New York.

The accent on brand safety comes as YouTube has faced periodic backlashes from marketers, after the discovery that ads on YouTube have run against objectionable content. Most recently, companies including AT&T and Disney suspended YouTube ad spending over concerns about a secret ring of child predators making coded sexual comments on videos of young girls.

Actually, the new Facebook Showcase program is similar to Google Preferred, YouTube’s premium-advertising program that provides inventory across top content creators in specific categories. YouTube claims that all videos of partners in Google Preferred are manually reviewed.

Besides YouTube, Facebook also is aiming to win business against traditional TV networks. Facebook claims it can better reach younger-skewing audiences that have been disappearing from linear TV: Over the past three months, 43% of Facebook users in the U.S. who watched In-Stream Reserve-eligible content on Facebook were 18-34. That’s compared with 28% of linear TV viewers in the age demo, per Nielsen research.

These upfront placements Facebook is trying to sell are at a fixed cost (off a standard rate card) and delivered to in-target audiences as verified by Nielsen, according to Geisler. That’s a departure for Facebook, which sells nearly all of its ads through an auction format. Geisler declined to spell out what the pricing will be for Facebook Showcase, but he said the cost per thousand (CPM) rates for premium video advertisers in Q1 of 2019 were CPMs of around $23-$25.

Like YouTube’s Google Preferred, Facebook’s program will let marketers target topical categories. Currently, for Facebook Showcase, those will include sports, fashion/beauty, entertainment, food and news. Facebook also is selling sponsorships to let marketers be the exclusive sponsor of a specific show for U.S. viewers.

Universal McCann has been among the ad agencies testing out In-Stream Reserve. UM chief investment officer Jon Stimmel, whom Facebook invited to speak at the event, said he’s optimistic that Facebook Showcase could be a good way to tap into “high-quality, celebrity-driven storytelling that is going to be compelling.” But he cautioned that marketers still need to see the results and added that “transparency is fundamental.”

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