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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Insight killed the video star: The role of video in premium subscriptions

October 1, 2020 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

It doesn’t seem so long ago that premium video was the great hope for publishers. Newspapers including The Daily Telegraph were investing heavily in building up their video teams, only to have the ground fall away from underneath them when platforms changed the terms of agreements. The result? Newspapers cut their losses and jettisoned the teams around which they had so recently built their strategies.

Premium video now finds itself in a bit of a limbo. It is no longer the star of most publishers’ offerings (save for a few examples). And it has taken a back seat when it comes to the marketing of news paywalls. Instead, insight and access are the new tentpoles of subscriptions. That’s never been more clear than when the Telegraph, fresh from abandoning its video unit, launched an out of home ad campaign heralding its unfettered access to Westminster.

The Athletic has taken a similar approach. The sports analysis site, which has outperformed during Covid, has emphasized the access its journalists have with athletes (and the access its subscribers get with the journalists). Crucially, The Athletic has eschewed video for the most part. The company does create or licensing video. However, it does not view it as central to its value proposition, as this interview with its president and cofounder Adam Hansmann demonstrates:

“According to Hansmann, the industry’s sense of news, often based on daily newspaper deadlines rather than what readers will pay for, is outdated. ‘The modern fan already knows what happened in a game, whether it be from Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. They’ve seen the highlights a million times on the internet’”.

Short and social

Hansmann’s nod to the popularity social video is telling. Mobile video is still far and away the largest growth market for the medium. That’s especially true in markets like China, where short-form video dominates any growth charts. Users spent a total of nearly 600 million hours per day watching short-form videos on mobile in April 2019. That’s more than in any other category.

Additionally, premium video is expensive to produce and the ROI is less clear-cut than for the mass-produced videos on YouTube. As Vanita Kohli-Khandekar explains: “Because [ad-supported] video is free, platforms will do anything to get eyeballs. But subscription-supported programming (usually) is well-researched, written and produced – whether in entertainment or news.”

So, the bottom has dropped out of the video advertising market on platforms. Short-form video is the new normal. And even sports-based digital publications don’t feel the need to make premium video part-and-parcel of their offering. Is it now time to call “cut” on the concept of premium news video at newspapers?

Not news

News publishers do license footage and social video to accompany breaking news. However, the reality is that, unless premium video is a newspaper’s key focus, it just doesn’t make sense for them to invest in strictly news-centric video. For one thing, news video has a shorter tail than other types of video. For another, given that individual papers have a far smaller footprint than other platforms, it’s unlikely that they can attract enough eyeballs to compete with viewers on, say, YouTube.

That is, in part, why publishers like Joe (and its current affairs-based YouTube spinoff PoliticsJOE) choose to produce vox-pops and simple interviews. Frankly, they suit the ad-based platforms better. Even The Financial Times, which does produce longer form videos, typically hews close to the interview-led format on its in-house videos. This format entails a relatively low investment in terms of time and editing, despite looking extremely professional. However, they don’t match the level of production quality of traditional broadcasters or OTT entertainment services.

Head of audio and video for The Evening Standard Chris Stone said: “When a breaking news event happens there is obviously massive spikes in traffic, and everybody’s very interested in this one thing that’s happening. And so, it’s actually quite easy to serve video to that audience, because there’s people out there that are looking for that right then. But it tends to be a shorter tail. And that spike will disappear very quickly. And then you’ll be on to the next thing.”

The lifestyle lifecycle

Instead, he argues that lifestyle video content is the way forward for newspapers. It has a longer lifespan and greater opportunity for commercial partnerships.

Paul Newman is brand director for Future Plc’s home interest titles. Speaking about its own “pivot to video” with the Real Homes Show, he notes that: “Real Homes Show… has been a huge success since we launched it last April. We generated hundreds of thousands of views of the show. It’s proved incredibly popular with commercial partners.”

“I think the important thing is just to start with a good solid business plan, and to understand why you’re creating video, rather than just creating video because you think you should, or because somebody in senior management thinks, ‘Oh we haven’t gotten the video content, maybe we should get on with creating some.’”

The success of lifestyle content in attracting users to sign up for a subscription has already been clearly demonstrated by The New York Times, whose Cooking app is frequently cited as a reason for paying. It is, unsurprisingly, heavily based around video.

Similarly, major lifestyle publications have made their archive of health and fitness videos available as part and parcel of their memberships. The reality, then, is that while video is still a good investment for newspapers for driving subscriptions, oftentimes news video is not.

Marketing medium

So, does that mean that there is no opportunity for newspapers around news video? Not at all. Just look at the success of Vox’s Explained series on Netflix. It delivers an awful lot of value to the parent brand in other ways that aren’t primarily monetary. At the time of Explained’s launch, Vox’s editor-at-large Ezra Klein stated that “… the Vox team did think about the overall Netflix audience, which is much bigger than Vox’s. But not as much about whether those people were watching on phones or tablets or other devices.”

Newspapers also recognize that video consumption habits are different among their key demographics. Consumption is growing across the board. However, it is effectively the primary means of media consumption among younger audiences. The Guardian, which hit one million subscribers on its YouTube channel last year, is keenly aware that those younger audiences are the key to its future.

One million subscribers may not sound like a lot on YouTube. It is considerably smaller than many individual’s channels, and any ad revenue it generates is likely to barely cover production costs, if at all. That, after all, is why many larger (non-media) YouTube channels operate Patreon or donation models as well.

The longer-form explainer news videos that The Guardian produces and makes available for free is effectively the best form of brand marketing possible. It hits audiences where they typically spend their time and can be used as a lure to drive interest back to the paper’s own membership scheme. More than that, as audiences shift to seeing YouTube as a primary source of news, it helps demonstrate that the brand can be trusted above all the conspiracy and polarized videos that typify the platform.

News publishers are serious about the quality of their journalism, no matter the medium. As younger people’s consumption habits lean further towards video, then investment in news video is a way to communicate that quality. It just requires publishers to recognize that the return on that investment is unlikely to come quickly or easily. Rather, it will come from a deeper overall relationship with the audience segment on which they will soon depend.

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