Brands should be wary of publishers’ ‘pivot to video’

Publishers, not to mention Google and Facebook, see video as a panacea for all their ad revenue issues, but consumers find videos annoying and prefer text-based journalism so brands must take note.

The phrase ‘pivot to video’ now has meme status in the world of media, as a euphemism for when a publisher fires a bunch of journalists in response to disappointing ad revenue.

Fog Creek Software CEO Anil Dash’s joke on Twitter is the most joyful scoff at this phrase: “Horse broke its leg, so we had to take it out back and help it ‘pivot to video’.”

Newsweek writer Zach Schonfeld began a recent article with a useful summary of the problem: “There’s a video at the top of this article. I know. I’m sorry. It’s probably set to autoplay too, which means it’ll scream at you whether you want it to or not. (The answer, I’m assuming, is ‘not’.)”

This was not his decision but his employer’s, he added, because “banner ads don’t work anymore, and the solution handed down by frantic media executives is video. More video. Lots of video.”

The pivoting began in earnest last year, when Mashable cut staff to focus on video. In 2017, a slew of publishers followed: Bleacher Report in February, ESPN in April, Fox Sports and Vocativ in June.

Perhaps the most discussed pivoting was by MTV News. Prior to this, in 2015, a team of fantastic writers and editors had been hired, with experience at the likes of Rolling Stone, Village Voice and BuzzFeed. Former Grantland editorial director Dan Fierman had succeeded in turning MTV News into a destination for award-winning reporting.

As Billboard puts it: “At a time when MTV’s television wing was airing ‘Friends’ reruns and episodes of ‘Teen Mom’, the MTV News reboot ushered in by Fierman had shifted to producing widely discussed stories on topics as diverse as harassment at Planned Parenthood, a clinic for trans [military] veterans, and what to say to a friend who has been sexually assaulted.”

But by 2017, MTV had decided that long-form journalism wasn’t what the youth wanted. Average dwell time on MTV.com had risen but unique visitors were falling, even if, as Billboard points out, this was likely partly to do with changes to the Facebook algorithm (with organic content suffering and video flourishing). So, in June 2017, MTV News pivoted to video and all those great journalists were out of a job.

Why the fascination?

The reasons for this fascination with video among publishers are pretty simple. First, publishers are desperately chasing any advertising model that works. And, just as importantly, advertisers (and therefore Facebook and Google) are pretty keen on video.

For many brand advertisers, ads around the outside or in the middle of long-form articles are seen as all too easy to ignore and scroll past, whereas branded video content (or even pre-roll) is thought of as more inspiring – closer to the old-fashioned TV ad experience and what consumers want.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – TV is dead, long live Facebook TV

Facebook agrees, and why wouldn’t it? It wants to share in the success of branded video content on its platform, with publishers uploading advertorial-style video on behalf of their advertisers and paying Facebook to promote them.

Facebook recently produced a study saying Facebook and Instagram users are emotionally engaging with video, watching more of it than ever, and expecting to watch still more in the future.

An article by Fast Company refers to this as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Facebook, the anonymously-authored article states, “has been shoving video down everyone’s throats—video is everywhere on our news feeds. So it shouldn’t be shocking that people are watching more video and expect to watch more of it.”

Just because Facebook and Google are championing video doesn’t mean it always delivers value for advertisers.

Here’s the thing: despite all the bluster, few in publishing are particularly confident that video is what the people want from their favourite online publishers.

Survey data from the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford shows 71% of respondents across all markets mostly consume news in text form, while 14% say they use text and video equally. The popularity of text holds true across age groups, suggesting the idea that ‘millennials’ want video is a myth.

Indeed, video is often associated with clunky user experience, whether it’s content or advertising. Autoplay videos and pre-roll ads are universally derided, mid-roll ads are even worse (Facebook is reportedly due to cancel an experiment with mid-roll) and everybody knows the annoying feeling of clicking on an interesting headline and finding a video and not a text article.

So what should advertisers and marketers take from this mess? Well, just because Facebook and Google are championing video doesn’t mean it always delivers value for advertisers.

READ MORE: When to use video – The ultimate guide

The quality of video content produced by some publishers is still iffy, with slideshow-style imagery and text overlay that seems either automated (there is tech out there that does this) or rushed. Placing an ad is, as ever, all about context, and you want to make sure your ads are seen in places where viewers are happy with the perceived transaction.

Furthermore, this new focus on video may mean that publishers have lowered their standards as to what branded content they will put out there. On Twitter, financial journalist Felix Salmon highlighted a video feature from Wired about Tesla cars, which is nothing more than a glorified advertorial. Brand advertisers may feel they can take advantage of publishers’ laxity, but this is missing the point entirely.

There are media companies out there producing great video. The Washington Post is doing interesting things with vertical video on mobile, for example (though is a bit of an outlier, as a well-funded publication). Successful subscription businesses, too, such as the New York Times, are able to innovate without pandering to the advertiser.

One thing seems clear: the pivot to video is just the latest attempt at finding a publishing revenue model that works. As Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffrey tweeted: “Pivots, more often than not, aren’t led by real audience strategy. It’s chasing an ad [demographic], or dream of a [demographic], like a cat chases a laser.”

Marketers are always going to partner with publishers to create content, but now more than ever they have to make sure that they produce stuff (video or otherwise) that readers actually want to consume. Ultimately, rationalisation is necessary whatever the format, to make sure content and context represent quality.

Ben Davis is senior writer at Marketing Week’s sister title Econsultancy.

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