Facebook vs. YouTube: Which is the best viral platform for Super Bowl ads?

Marketers have more social platforms to choose from, but only two really matter -- for now

Pokémon last week became the first Super Bowl advertiser to release an ad before the big game. It was also the first to make what some said was a huge blunder.

The brand posted the ad on its Facebook feed — not in Facebook’s native video format but as a YouTube link. For Devra Prywes, vice president of marketing and insight at viral marketing analyst Unruly, this was a facepalm moment. "That’s mind-boggling," she said. "It just doesn’t trend as well."

Graham Mudd, Facebook director of ads product marketing, was more diplomatic. "I don’t think you’re going to see the same results," he said. (Reps from Pokémon and from Omelet, the ad agency that created the spot, could not be reached for comment.)

At this point last year, Facebook was still fairly new to pushing its native video format, which was released in late 2014. As the 2016 Super Bowl looms though, most advertisers have realized that Facebook can be as effective — or more — than the traditional default for Super Bowl ads, YouTube. This year, marketers are figuring out how much ad promotion should go to each as they sort out the virtues of the two formats.

At the moment, Facebook isn’t making any claims of superiority over YouTube. Instead, the social network is pointing out that its reach, particularly with millennials, makes it an excellent vehicle to prime a Super Bowl ad. Last September, for instance, the social network launched a study with Nielsen analyzing 42 US-based ad campaigns. The study found that campaigns that employed Facebook and TV had a 19% increase in targeted reach. Among millennials, the figure was 37%.

In a study released last December, Facebook looked at the neural impact of experiencing ads on the social network before seeing them on TV. The study measured brain activity of 100 participants. The study found that the group that had seen an ad on Facebook and later saw it on TV had higher levels of brain activity than the group that did not. In particular, the exposed group had higher levels of activity related to engagement, emotional intensity and memory encoding.

The results suggest running a Super Bowl ad or a teaser on Facebook before it runs on TV will give you better results than just running it on TV. Prywes’s research shows that Facebook offers a huge bump in the first two days, then the effect trails off. YouTube has more of a long-tail effect, as this chart analyzing last year’s Super Bowl ads shows:

Mudd said that he sees Facebook as a discovery platform. "It’s a way to get something in front of someone that they wouldn’t have otherwise discovered," he said. "If you already know that something exists, then it’s not being discovered." Mudd acknowledged that at this point, Facebook "isn’t as much of a search platform — I think that’s a fair assumption."

For those hoping to get a maximum bang from a Facebook placement, Mudd recommends keeping it short and making use of Facebook’s targeting capabilities to reach users who will be most receptive to the message. Since the videos auto-play but are mute unless users click on them, it’s also important to make the first few seconds very interesting visually.

The other unspoken rule for both Facebook and YouTube placement is to buy advertising and not rely on a video to go viral organically. Prywes says that far less than 1% of YouTube videos that have logged 1 million or more views have done so organically. The rest came through ads. On Facebook, a brand with more than 1 million fans will only reach about 2% of that base with an organic post, according to researcher Locowise.

Until Facebook, YouTube was pretty much the only place to drop a Super Bowl ad before the big game. As of late January, there were more than 40 Super Bowl ads and teasers on the platform. "The trend that Super Bowl advertising has become a multi-week campaign instead of a moment in time has really come into its own and brands are reacting appropriately," said Tara Walpert Levy, managing director of agency sales at YouTube.

Like Mudd, Walpert Levy declined to discuss how YouTube compared to Facebook as a platform. However, she pointed out that rather than merely priming ads, YouTube has become a destination for watching Super Bowl spots. Fans watched some 1,600 years worth of Super Bowl ads on the platform in 2015, which was double 2014’s figure. About 60% of those Super Bowl ad views come via mobile, which is slightly higher than YouTube’s average.

Walpert Levy said that at this point it’s well established that waiting for a big reveal during the game will hurt your overall views. Brands that release their ads before the game get an average of 2.2 times more views and 3.1 times more shares, she said. "What I can conclusively say is that launching early makes a big difference for brands," she said.

When asked how brands can maximize the impact on YouTube, she replied, "Post early and often. Consumers are interested and they’re passionate about it."

Two platforms, one window
Prywes said Twitter is not really a factor in Super Bowl ad virality. Snapchat may be, but since the company keeps much of its metrics secret, no one knows for sure. Kristin Tynski, VP Creative/Founder at Fractl, another viral video researcher, said that Instagram may be a good choice as well. "Instagram is a rising star in terms of its ability to drive views and also being able to leverage the targeting abilities of Facebook," Tynski said. "Twitter can be useful, though success has been limited in our experience."

That means that YouTube and Facebook are the only two channels that really matter. Based on Unruly’s research, Prywes had some advice for Super Bowl advertisers: First, drop an ad on the Thursday before the game. Second, use both formats — Unruly found last year that the most-shared ads were promoted on both Facebook and YouTube.

Above all, Prywes said, the ads should be discoverable. Since people go back and forth between Facebook, Google and various websites, it’s important to promote the ad on multiple formats. While it’s a good idea to front-load the buys to set off a "viral cascade," marketers shouldn’t assume that if an ad has been out for a week or more that everyone has seen it. Unruly’s research has shown that some 50% to 60% of users (depending on the demographic; about 60% of consumers 35-49 say "it’s never too late" versus 51.2% of 18-34 year-olds) don’t care how old an ad is, as long as it’s interesting.

Tynski said the mix of Facebook and YouTube is so new that only testing can reveal how to modulate the overall spend. On first blush, she thinks YouTube has the advantage. "Because Super Bowl ads are made for very general audiences, and have broad appeal, the primary advantage that Facebook presents, which is it's ability to very narrowly define target audiences, is probably lower than in other circumstances," she said.  

Even Pokémon’s decision to run a YouTube link on Facebook may not be as big a gaffe as some say it appears. The video got a respectable 11.7 million YouTube views making it one of the most-buzzed Super Bowl ads so far, though it received just 33,000 shares on Facebook. "Using a YouTube link on Facebook is not dumb if you are looking to improve your subscriber counts, or boost your YouTube video views to potentially take advantage of the organic boost in visibility granted to YouTube videos that gain lots of viewers quickly," Tynski said.


Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.com , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free