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Video – making it pay

If the future is video on mobile, how do publishers get in on the act? Monetisation, distribution and production challenges loom large, but, writes Martin Belam, if publishers keep experimenting and watching the metrics, then they’ll get there.

Martin Belam

Posted on: 01 April 2016


“The right format for the right audience.”
I watched a video on Facebook. I was messing about killing time on my phone, and it caught my eye as I was scrolling down their news feed. It started playing because I hesitated. Because I was immediately gripped. The keyframe teasing the video grabbed me and it turned into moving pictures, and I found myself watching, from the point of view of a drone, what it is like to be in a professional drone race.

Shot in the Miami Dolphins stadium, the drone had to go through box-gates marked out in bright LED lights. Then it dived through one of the tunnels up to the areas that the crowd would normally walk through, and then the race continued through bits of the stadium that usually only the behind-the-scenes staff get to see. It was like watching a computer game, but you knew it had happened in a real-world space.

It was utterly compelling, and as I watched it, on-screen captions kept me informed about what I was watching and why it was interesting. It was such a good video that when it finished, I pressed replay.

Imagine that, somebody voluntarily watching a video twice on the internet rather than having it force fed to them as a pre-roll ad. The stats on Facebook indicate that at the time of writing, there have been 22 million happy customers.

A couple of days later, I wanted to link to it, so I could share it with someone. It was only then that I noticed that publishers Quartz had also written 1,200 words on the topic to go with the video.

I hadn’t noticed them, clicked through to them, or read them. But I had watched the video twice.

Do Quartz consider that a success?

I don’t know.

Would you?

“It is about thinking about how that content might fit into an audience’s behaviour.”

The off-platform scene

It is a tricky question, one predicated on the fact that for most of the time that social media and “off platform” video has existed, the aim of the majority of publishers has been to publish teasers and links in that space, in order to drag an audience back to their own properties to monetise them.

That game may suddenly have shifted dramatically. And in a large part, it is Facebook’s decision to go big on native video that has provoked that change. Publishers can get huge numbers on Facebook’s platform, which boasts that it has nearly a billion users every single day, active and visiting the site on their mobile phones.

Unsurprisingly, the current darling of the publishing world is BuzzFeed’s Tasty channel - with the new British offshoot Proper Tasty that goes with it. They deliver short punchy videos about food. Tasty grew on Facebook from nothing to millions to billions of views at speed. In fact, it topped Tubular Labs’ monthly chart of video views in January with an astonishing 3 billion video views.

Just pause for a second to think that massively expensively produced shows for UK television get canned for pulling in less than a few million viewers. It’s a different use of the video medium, but the contrast in the scale of audience exposure is palpable.

It would also be counter-intuitive to most publishers to launch something off-platform, in a vertical they already cover. Tasty is distinct from, and has outgrown, BuzzFeed’s Food channel on Facebook. The Tasty page on Facebook has barely any Buzzed branding on it.

Why the success?

The right format for the right audience.

Getting mobile video right is hard.

Fitting into your audience’s lives

This isn’t about having to “dumb down” content for a young audience on their phone, it is about thinking about how that content might fit into an audience’s behaviour.

Look around you, any time you are travelling, or queuing for coffee, or think about when you are half-watching a show on TV. People are constantly playing with their phones, in shorts bursts, their attention flitting from thing to thing as they scroll down Facebook or Twitter or YouTube.


“The internet’s love affair with heart-warming tales about cats is far from over.”
At the Guardian, where I am social & new formats editor, we’ve been experimenting with some new video formats to try and tap into this behaviour.

We’ve had great success with a video about a refugee family losing their cat on their journey across Europe, only for the cat to be reunited with them. It is mostly still images and captions but with a huge emotional payoff at the point where the family reunite with their beloved pet. It has garnered over 17 million views so far - further evidence perhaps that the internet’s love affair with heart-warming tales about cats is far from over.

But you can do serious journalism and opinion with video on Facebook too. The Guardian published a video featuring Julie Bindel called, “Sorry, we can't ban everything that offends you”. It is captioned, features a lot of illustrative still shots as well as Julie talking, and it has racked up nearly 4.5 million views. I’m sure Julie Bindel won’t mind me suggesting that we would have struggled to get 4.5m page impressions for an article written by her on the same subject.

The six second challenge

Not every publisher or video producer is set-up to make things in the right format. Getting content ready for Facebook, or repurposing a 15 second version of an existing set of footage for Instagram and a 6 second version for Vine takes extra time and resource.

And, as publishers, we don’t necessarily have the people working with us with the editing eye for those formats. Of course, we all think we can spot the key moment, or the best clip or the most dramatic sequence, but how many people who work in video in media companies grew up with the idea of the 6 second or the 15 second format as their primary creative outlet?

But there are an abundance of people out there right now who see this as one of their main means of creative expression - the content creators who have begun using Vine and Instagram in the same way that someone my age might have picked up a Super-8 camera in the late 70s or early 80s and made a little movie.

One start-up looking in this area is Vidsy. They are working on building a community of these creators together, with a focus on sub-15 seconds. Brand agencies and big media buyers are usually still likely to look for the long award-winning expensive TV advertising campaign, but Vidsy think they can provide a steady stream of shorter, more organic clips, enabling brands to beef up their social media presence and keep themselves in the eyes of potential customers.

“How many people who work in video in media companies grew up with the idea of the 6 second or the 15 second format as their primary creative outlet?”

Making video pay

The biggest question remains money however. As a publisher, how do you grow video traffic that makes a return for you?

At Trinity Mirror, the Mirror Online brand invested in increasing video. People viewing on-site video drove up dwell time, and increased page views. Both metrics we were interested in. And pre-roll advertising sold against video content was one of the most lucrative games in town.

However, there was a risk in growing too fast. After a couple of months of really concentrating on video as a growth area, it turned out that inventory began to outstrip demand for advertising, and so, rather than becoming the expected cash cow, it became a drain on revenue. Of course, the company readjusted strategy and stepped up efforts to sell ads, but it illustrates a real weakness in the monetising of video content.

With natively uploaded content on social media, most networks are incentivising content producers. Twitter’s Amplify programme and YouTube’s ad-revenue sharing are all ways that publishers can offset the cost of video. There’s also the sponsorship route - getting particular series or sections of videos backed by a commercial brand. Product placement is a trickier area, and there have been several instances of prominent YouTubers being accused of reviewing or featuring products in return for undeclared cash, something a publisher would want to steer well clear off.

Mobile has been a huge challenge to all publishers.

It feels like the platform might be splintering too, with the advent of initiatives like Facebook Instant Articles and the Google AMP format providing yet another thing for publishers to consider when delivering their content into literally-the-hands of their audience.

Production headaches

The challenge to video producers might be the most profound of all. For articles, the shift to mobile mainly meant people needing to think about punchier intros, font sizes on websites, loading times and word counts.

Video is a whole other deal - mobile breaks how we traditionally understand the format itself.

Think how slowly the whole industry adjusted from TV screens switching from 4:3 to 16:9 with “safe areas” for making sure shots and captions would work. Yet, suddenly, we’ve been thrown into a world where people are shooting vertical video, and square video appears to be most popular with users on Facebook as well as the default formats on Vine and Instagram.

Even more crucially, especially for Facebook, the default for video is that the sound is off, and you only get a fleeting glimpse of a keyframe to stand a chance of getting the audience hooked. And you need captions and subtitles and an even punchier opening couple of seconds of footage than you’ve ever needed on any consumption platform before.

It is such an opportunity to reach a new audience, and an amazing challenge to get right - and to make money from it. I find it thrilling. I’ve literally no idea what format of video will be the one that works best in early 2017, but I know that it will be a lot of experimentation and closely watching the metrics that will get us there.

“You only get a fleeting glimpse of a keyframe to stand a chance of getting the audience hooked.”

About Martin Belam
(Details last updated: 23 March 2016)

Martin Belam is social & new formats editor for the Guardian in London. He helped set up UsVsTh3m and Ampp3d for the Daily Mirror, and has worked at Sony and the BBC as well as spending time running his own consultancy.

Twitter: @MartinBelam

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