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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

If you’re pivoting to video, do it right

October 5, 2017 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift @mediatwit

The phrase “pivot to video” has become something of a cliché in the media industry. Lately, the mere mention of this phrase triggers a slew of mean-spirited tweets, resentment and existential mourning for the written word among those who wonder what publishers are thinking — and where their strategy lies.

And that’s the rub when it comes to pivoting to video. Mashable, Vocativ, Mic, FoxSports, Vox, Vice Sports, and BuzzFeed, among others, have all jumped on the video bandwagon in the past couple of years. But just as they differ in how they restructured staff and resources, so too does the quality of video produced.

It’s easy to feel the schadenfreude when hearing that web traffic dropped at a video-pivoter by 88%. Wow, how stupid was that move? But the reality is that pivots to video are not about pageviews at a website, but about serving up quality video that moves the needle on revenues, and engagement. They can be done right – or very, very wrong.

The premise – and pitfalls – behind the pivot

With the Facebook-Google behemoth eating up nearly all of the growth in the U.S. digital ad industry, publishers are under pressure to somehow make money from ads — and banners and programmatic advertising aren’t doing it alone. In comes the promise of video advertising dollars, which are expected to generate more than $18 billion by 2020, according to eMarketer (nearly double the $10 billion in 2016). A survey by IAB of more than 350 advertisers found that advertisers would spend an average of more than half — 56%, to be precise — of their ad budget on video.

Mashable was an early mover in the pivot to video last year when it laid off a slew of text reporters to double-down on video. More publishers followed this year. A major risk when pivoting is over-reliance on distribution platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat, which run these videos according to their enigmatic algorithms. Essentially, publishers relinquish control to third parties that have their own objectives and often provide poor and inconsistent metrics. Topping that off is data from Pew Research showing that millennials (often the target audience in these advertising goals) still prefer to read news in text.

Heidi Moore, writing at CJR, has called these pivots an outright failure:

“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.”

While she might be a little heavy on the hyperbole, she’s right when she says the main problem is that the video being produced by some publishers are all flash and no substance.

Mashable, Vox and BuzzFeed: A tale of three strategies

Obviously, traffic isn’t the only measure for success for publishers, so traffic drops aren’t always a dire sign. Pioneer pivoter Mashable says it actually grew its revenue 36% in 2016 while increasing the traction of its videos on Facebook, YouTube, and other distribution platforms. It’s now facing a potential sale. And, while nothing has been confirmed, its valuation — likely at more than $300 million, based on trends — suggests there may be something to their pivot. Any smaller valuation would signal more skepticism.

Meanwhile, publisher Melissa Bell has argued that Vox’s pivot, which includes four new shows on Facebook’s Watch tab, is much more of a “leaning in” strategy. That doesn’t mean Vox will relinquish a priority in text based content. “As a robust and dynamic media company, we have to leverage our talent and our expertise across all formats,” she wrote. “We do not believe video comes at the cost of our journalism or people with non-video skillsets. Writing is a crucial component of what we want to offer our audiences – as is photography, video, sound, graphics, and illustrations.”

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed, which restructured last year in order to generate more video for its entertainment and news divisions, recently launched an original live-streaming program, “AM to DM,” on Twitter. In the same vein as Vox, BuzzFeed hasn’t shied away from admitting much of its strategy comes from trying and potentially failing. But unlike several other media outfits that have tried video, BuzzFeed has the resources to back up its editorial focus. “Video is an extension of what we do, not a liability or a threat to our journalism,” BuzzFeed head of U.S. news Shani O. Hilton wrote in a post.

While much outcry has surrounded the traffic decline experienced by some of the publishers that have pivoted to video, it’s worth remembering that this is a correlation, not a causation of the pivot. It’s important to note that the publishers moving to video were looking for increased revenues and not pageviews.

Among publishers, there’s a flight to subscriptions and paid content, as well as video – and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But for those going “all-in” on video, they better make sure the strategy pans out, attuned perfectly for social platforms, and for audience members. Not all video pivots will work, but not all video pivots will be flame-outs.

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