The secret cost of pivoting to video

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Mic’s website audience is tanking by millions of readers a month—and if it continues, it just may save online journalism.

That’s because Mic is another example of the cautionary tale set by publications that pivot to video. The strategy, which came into vogue around May 2016, goes like this, with apologies to a famous South Park episode:

  1. lay off most of your writers, who produce stories fast and cheaply for your own website
  2. produce more video, which is vastly more expensive and time-consuming and which only finds an audience on other platforms, like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube
  3. ????
  4. PROFIT

While in the famous South Park cartoon, the “???” is a joke, it’s deadly serious in media: Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs while shiny-object-chasing publishers are no closer to creating cohesive video strategies to replace the traffic those writers were producing. Publishers who pivoted to video have forfeited the majority of their hard-won native audiences in only a year of churning out undifferentiated, bland chunks of largely aggregated “snackable” video. That’s no one’s idea of success.

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A pivot to video is really a “pivot to declining pageviews,” as Digiday noted. The numbers are chilling: “According to data from comScore, the publishers that pivoted to video this summer have seen at least a 60 percent drop in their traffic in August compared to the same period from a year ago.”

Publishers must acknowledge the pivot to video has failed, find out why, and set about to fix the reckless pivots so that publishers focus on good video. It should be original, clever, entertaining, and part of a balanced multimedia approach to digital journalism that includes well-written, well-reported stories, strong data and graphics, and good art.

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There are four reasons the pivot to video has failed: faulty metrics for measuring the audience; trusting other platforms, like Facebook, to do the hard work of distribution; low-quality video production and weak technological support for video content; and, ultimately, a failure to effectively turn video views into either higher readership or ad dollars.

 

A quicksand of metrics

The pivot to video was allegedly borne of the lure of video advertising dollars. Traditional digital advertising, mostly banner ads and programmatic advertising, is cheap and doesn’t bring in enough money to support the cost of many newsrooms. That’s especially true because Facebook and Google collect 99 percent of all digital-advertising revenue growth in the US, leaving only crumbs for media companies.

So Facebook convinced publishers video was the best way to attract readers on its powerful platform, which drives traffic across nearly the entire media industry. Facebook became wise to its power in 2015 and started vastly tweaking its algorithm, as Gabriel Stein wrote in 2016.

Publishers twisted their content to get that coveted Facebook traffic. (Upworthy’s traffic infamously dropped 25 percent when Facebook stopped surfacing YouTube videos, which has become a mainstay of that publication’s success.)

But Facebook based its video push on a quicksand of faulty metrics. Facebook popularized the “3-second video view,” or the idea of counting a video viewed if a user kept it open for 3 seconds. Facebook flogged the 3-second view for two years, inflating its video views by 60 percent to 80 percent, according to Publicis. The company apologized for misleading metrics, as late as September 2016. Two months later, Facebook admitted to overcounting yet more metrics tied to advertising. There’s evidence Facebook’s advertising metrics are still out of whack: An analyst report found that Facebook is claiming to reach millions more young Americans than actually exist in the US.

The implied promise Facebook made to publishers: Produce more video, and we’ll increase how many Facebook users see your work. That looks increasingly like a bait-and-switch, as Facebook ultimately hopes to turn media outlets into advertisers.Where once publishers could post their articles on Facebook and watch the pageviews roll in, now it’s rare for publishers to grow organic reach, and many pay to boost their articles on Facebook to reach more people.  

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Publishers are trusting frenemies too much

Most consumers will not go to a publisher’s website to watch video; instead, they’ll see it on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, or YouTube. This is the second big problem with the pivot to video: Publishers have to trust distribution platforms that are also rivals for advertising dollars. Remember that Facebook and Google practically own the digital ad industry between them.

It’s not just Facebook. Every major distribution network for advertising, including Google and Snapchat, has steadfastly avoided transparency around their metrics, and evidence has grown in media that those platforms are taking advertising dollars away from news. Publishers have asked a court if they can band together to collectively negotiate with Facebook, YouTube, and Google over advertising.

Of course, at any time, these platforms can change their ad rates, their algorithms, or just lose the desire to feature video made by journalists.

 

Constant strategy shifts undermine the quality of video

Video is the most expensive and time-consuming of the multimedia disciplines. To cut a 30-second video can take hours of detailed work—which requires a good eye, good physical reflexes to capture the right moments, enormous patience, and the ability to time images, sound, text, and graphics seamlessly.

Many publishers’ pivots to video are ill-considered, and thus they have deployed minimal investment in resources, studio space, equipment, or salaries. This won’t help video grow. Videos that lack personality, style, voice, or visual interest don’t attract many viewers.  

The video that does work online—and drives the thirst among publishers—is about food, lifestyle, and animals, according to a study of 100 million Facebook videos. The addictive, bright, fast food-preparation videos done by BuzzFeed’s Tasty are the industry standard. Business Insider also makes snappy, shareable videos that focus heavily on food and lifestyle, and successfully appear on several platforms at once.

When news outlets attempt video, however, it’s just as likely to be a disheveled reporter against an off-white wall, talking at the camera—informative, perhaps, but not well-considered for the medium. The proof that most publishers are getting the pivot to video wrong is how terrible the video user experience is for viewers. If video were comparable to text-based digital journalism, visually most of it is right around the Geocities, circa 1999, with intrusive ads and ugly text.

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User experience is lacking, particularly around advertising

Despite the pivot to video, the comprehensive proof that publishers are cutting corners is that video user experience is still incredibly weak. Specifically, infamously slow loading times and painfully long pre-roll advertising (up to 30 seconds in many cases, and sometimes as long as a minute) are death to anyone’s desire to watch a video. Facebook popularized mid-roll video advertising, which essentially tells viewers to go do something else. Thankfully, they’ve dropped it.

Part of the promise of the pivot to video was that advertisers would be willing to invest in customized and original ads like sponsored or creative content, at which platforms like The Outline excel, or other kinds of video. But advertisers don’t need publishers: Advertisers long ago realized they can pay Facebook directly for traffic.

Video itself is a powerful and important investment for media companies. Good video can communicate in ways that text and pictures along can’t. Video has a bright future in digital journalism. That’s why it’s worthwhile to do it right, invest resources in good equipment and production, and focus on original content.

Instead, too many publishers are resorting to video as a flashy distraction from deeper underlying problems: falling digital advertising, the expense of creating good journalism, and the existential threat to journalism’s business model itself. In the face of these challenges, you need a smart strategy that diversifies streams of traffic. The biggest problem with the pivot to video is that it’s not well-considered strategy. Instead, it’s been born of desperation. Video deserves better, and so does journalism.

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Heidi N. Moore is a digital media strategist based in New York City. She most recently co-founded a publication on the future of work. She has been an editor, columnist and reporter for publications including the Guardian U.S. and the Wall Street Journal. Follow her on Twitter @moorehn.

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