What Can We Learn From Publishers’ Pivot to Video?
With the hindsight offered by a new year, publishing’s “Pivot to Video” seems like a moment of collective madness best assigned to a less enlightened time (2017).
But what ended up as a bad joke, started out as a serious response to shifting market conditions. And working on the premise that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, what actually was the pivot to video, why did it happen, and why did it fail?
What was the pivot to video?
At its most basic, the pivot to video was a widely followed move away from static content toward video content: Between 2016 and 2017, a long list of publishers announced that they would be scaling back their “words & pictures” teams in favor of expanded video teams.
I recently saw the pivot to video described as a pivot to Facebook and although there was undoubtedly more to it than keeping Facebook sweet, executives from the social network can be credited with triggering the pivot.
Mr. Zuckerberg himself set the hares running in a Spring 2016 interview when he announced a “new golden age of video.” “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video,” he told BuzzFeed News.
For publishers desperate to find revenues around distributed content, the idea that the biggest player in the game was going to give video content priority was all the encouragement they needed to go all in. Algorithm tweaks that showed video content enjoying better engagement on the network cemented the deal and the pivot proper began.
One of the first out of the blocks was Mashable, swapping “traditional” editorial for video resources back in 2016. It was still going on in June 2017 when Billboard reported that MTV News would be developing a “stronger emphasis on video rather than a focus on reporting and longform.”
For about 18 months it was tough to find any decent sized publishing outfit that wasn’t promising more video. At least until September last year when, with the chorus of naysayers growing louder, Vox Media came right out and said it would absolutely not be pivoting to video. Possibly worried that her staff were getting twitchy about their own impending pivot, VOX publisher Melissa Bell acknowledged the importance of video content, but said:
“Great videos don’t emerge from the ether, or from a desire to make more money from higher advertising rates. Great videos emerge out of great journalism, a great creative culture, and deep collaboration with creators of many different kinds.”
Why did it happen and why did it fail?
Bell hits on one of the key drivers for the rush to video: Higher CPMs and a belief in an almost mythical advertiser appetite for greater video inventory.
Video advertising is certainly a growth sector. The IAB says advertisers were expected to spend more than half their budgets on video in 2017 and budgets were forecast to increase significantly; Emarketer predicted growth from $10 billion in 2016 to $18 billion in 2020.
And with that sort of growth forecast, it’s easy to see why the pivot to video became the latest in a long line of digital strategies deployed by a publishing industry desperate to kickstart slowing revenues. Faced with the duopoly hoovering up all new digital ad revenues, and Facebook talking up video at every opportunity, video came to be seen as the only way to re-balance the books.
As Susie Banikarim, Editorial Director at the Gizmodo group, put it in her Niemanlab prediction for 2018, video became, “… a Hail Mary attempt to ease economic and investor pressure by pandering to ad buyer preferences”.
The problem was the pivot to video was never really just about video.
Whatever hopes and prayers started the video ball rolling, the pivot narrative came to be used as a convenient camouflage for reductions in headcount. Toward the end of 2017, pivot stories became synonymous with layoffs.
Any pivot, almost by definition, involves a quick change in direction and every new direction brings a requirement for new skills. If these skills don’t already exist within an organisation, they have to be bought in, and if you’re cash-strapped like most publishers, the only way to pay for them is to dump some old skills.
The loss of editorial people may not have mattered quite so much -- at least in corporate terms -- if there had been a genuine appetite for video content. But the “conventional wisdom’ that everybody loved video, proved not to be true. The reality was that there was never any real evidence that consumers wanted more video.
The result was a catastrophic decline in traffic, with comScore reporting drops of up to 60 percent year on year across a range of publishers that made the pivot. By the end of the year, with pureplays like Buzzfeed, Vice and Mashable, finally sharing the pain that most legacy publishers have been feeling for years, the pivot to video was dead.
What did we learn from the pivot to video?
What used to be called the Information Superhighway is littered with the debris of failed publishing strategies. But rather than just sweeping the pivot to video to one side, and barrelling on to the next roadblock, there may be some valuable lessons to be learned on how we deal with the next digital media bandwagon.
Pivots are probably bad
The corporate gymnastics required to pull off a pivot are difficult. Sharp changes in focus don’t often deliver positive results, suggesting desperation rather than innovation. Evidence-based strategies that draw on customer insight developed over time are way better.
Multi-skill your staff
It’s unlikely that every team member will be able to handle every content creation task, but multi-skilling staff now will give you a head start on developing content trends. Of course, new directions require specialist skills, but maybe use experts to bring people with established product and audience knowledge up to speed, rather than ditching loyal staffers in favour of specialists with zero product knowledge.
If you’re doing video, do it for the right reasons
The problem with the pivot to video is the pivot part. Video has a huge future, but as Melissa Bell at VOX suggested, to win with video requires more than a desire to make money from higher CPMs. It is a powerful storytelling medium, but only when underpinned by strong journalism and creative collaboration between the full range of creators working in publishing today.
Copycatting rarely works
It’s not hard to point to well-worn paths in publishing’s digital transition, but following digital media trends has its limitations. From chasing traffic on third-party platforms to betting the farm on short-form video, strategies rise and fall from favor. Digital strategies only really work when they are aligned with the unique requirements of a brand’s specific audience; retrofitting audience needs to an industry fad never ends well.
Peter Houston runs Flipping Pages Media, an independent consultancy and training firm, helping publishers build multi-platform success. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing and was formerly Editor-at-large for The Media Briefing. He now co-hosts the Media Voices Podcast, delivering a weekly take on the media news and guest interviews with senior players at a leading media organizations, from Facebook to Nieman Lab, The Economist to CNN.