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Instead of shoehorning it in, NowThis News is building video content that fits in where the audience lives

Why be platform agnostic when you can be platform specific? The social news video startup is aiming to match the content to where it’s consumed — and increasingly that’s Instagram.

nowthisnews instagramIf you were being lazy, you might call NowThis News the BuzzFeed of web video. After all, it’s a born-online media company, going after digital natives with a strategy heavy on social and mobile. (And they share some corporate DNA, like Ken Lerer.) In fact, when NowThis News was prepping for launch last fall, it started off by posting its short, ready-to-share videos on BuzzFeed — something it’s done 3,598 times in the year or so since.

But NowThis has found a new distribution platform that is drawing a big share of its strategic attention: Instagram. The photo-sharing-turned-video-sharing app is one that a number of news orgs have played around with, but few have made the sort of push NowThis has. Editor-in-chief Ed O’Keefe says the shorter style of video it produces for Instagram and Vine is now “the focus of our company.”

“It was the right disruptive moment for a mobile and social centric video company to come into existence,” says O’Keefe. “The whole point of founding NowThis News was to meet the disruptive moment with the content that best utilizes these platforms.”

To further that point, on Sunday night NowThisNews launched its first interview edited solely for Instagram, an Q&A with Newark mayor and senatorial candidate Cory Booker, and plan to post a new 15-second clip of the interview every night this week. It’s not exactly going to win an investigative Pulitzer, but hey, it’s a new form. Here’s the first clip:

Of a staff of 37, 22 NowThis News employees are dedicated to producing content, two of whom focus on Instagram full time, with the rest available to be pulled in. Even between similar platforms like Vine and Instagram, O’Keefe says, the same content is rarely repurposed. Instead, they focus on finding the most efficient way to tell a story in a way that is unique to each app. “It’s a journalistic challenge to think about complex stories and information in such a short amount of time,” says O’Keefe. “It requires more ingenuity, more creativity, more innovation, to not just think about the length of the piece, but how can you tell a meaningful story in such a short amount of time.”

To address this challenge, O’Keefe says producers use templates when crafting a 15-second video. A W5, for example, hits all the basics — who, what, where, why, when; for major events, like the Colorado floods or recent shootings in D.C., they’ll pull in images from other Instagram users and present them as a gallery with music. They’ve found that using still photos with title cards and narration is typically more efficient than soundbites, so those slideshow-like posts tend to dominate the day. (NowThis’ Vine videos, restricted to six seconds, tend to be limited to just a host saying a sentence or two to the camera.)

They aim to publish about 12 clips a day depending on what breaks, says O’Keefe, although usually they hit somewhere around 8 to 10. But he says it’s not because they can’t do more; it’s about knowing the demand of your audience, which is also why they’ll contract well-known photographers to post a photo a day.

“Our only real limitation in terms of our production is that we don’t want to flood the feed,” says O’Keefe. “There’s nothing more annoying than that friend who constantly posts, and every time you go you see nothing but their posts. We could do more — we just choose not to.”

That strategy seems to be working well for them. The NowThis News Instagram account has gained more than 29,000 followers since it began publishing videos in July. O’Keefe says they’ve seen spikes of up to 3,000 followers in a single day, what he calls a “startling rate of acquisition.” (NowThis has even more, over 56,000, on Vine, but it’s been on that platform since launch in January.)

“We’re definitely finding an appetite for hard news,” he says. “Not just soft, entertainment news — hard news on Instagram.”

If O’Keefe is right, it’s a content niche that other news brands on the platform haven’t tapped yet. “You see a lot of repurposed content or behind the scenes photos,” he says.

Indeed, a survey of some of the top media companies on Instagram proves he’s right. NBC offers teasers of interviews, MTV has clips of celebrities on the red carpet, and others including Time, Wired, PBS NewsHour and more post mini-promotional videos of the “see more online” variety. A few, including CNN and the Wall Street Journal, use Instagram to issue calls for user engagement; HuffPo uses Instagram video largely to wish celebrities happy birthday. The Washington Post is one of the few that has made a more substantial attempt at putting news on Instagram.

Says O’Keefe: “They’ll get the following, but what’s the engagement…if you’re only reaching the people who are already interested in your news brand? What we’re trying to do is actually develop an audience on Instagram, and we really do believe it is as powerful as some of the most successful social platforms that have come about.”

The way O’Keefe sees it, there’s a willing audience in people who would never think to turn on a TV to get their news, but refresh their Instagram feed multiple times a day. It’s not that these people aren’t interested in news — it’s that they’re accustomed to the big stories finding them rather than the other way around. NowThis News aims to deliver that news on whatever platform these people will actually receive it. To that end, they’ll soon begin producing longer content for tablet apps to accommodate the “dramatic differences” between how audiences engage on different devices.

Think about it: For the same news story, NowThis might now be producing a six-second teaser for Vine; a longer 15-second summary for Instagram; and a longer piece for someone using its iPad app. That’s less platform agnostic than platform specific. Of course, NowThis gets most of the raw material for its content from other sources — stories reported by others that it aggregates, videos posted online, and so on. That helps. But it’s still an impressive commitment to making the content fit the platform.

For instance, here’s how NowThis “covered” the news that Voyager I had entered interstellar space a few days ago.

For Vine, a six-second blur of letters and images:

For Instagram, using the full 15 seconds with a voiceover:

And for NowThis News’ website and apps, a luxurious 39 seconds, with talking into the camera and some extra branding:

“I was over 12 years at network television,” says O’Keefe, “and I was in digital when Twitter came about. I very distinctly remember the hardened journalists of the television era looking to me and saying, ‘This is ridiculous, I cannot possibly boil down a story of this importance to 140 characters. This is why digital is undermining the future of journalism.’ And six years later, who would deny that Twitter is one of the most powerful platforms for conveying news and information? I’d be hard pressed to find a single journalist who would argue with the power and importance of its role.”

If O’Keefe is right, NowThis News is at the forefront of innovation on the next big content delivery platform, but that doesn’t explain how it will make money. NowThis News hosts no ads, offers its apps for free, and is backed by VCs. One thing they do have is content partnerships, large and small, with companies including BuzzFeed, Mashable, The Atlantic, Hulu, Roku, MSN, and AOL. But the next step according to O’Keefe will be toward what he calls narrative social advertising.

The temptation has certainly been over the course of the last year to just turn on pre-roll [advertisements]. Just load up the insatiable demand for video with advertising in front of the content. But…it’s so clear when you begin to think about mobile and social centric content that…nobody wants to pay a toll before they get the content that they wanted. What we set out to do was look for experimental advertisers, brands that were highly interested in learning along with us what the future of advertising is going to be.

O’Keefe couldn’t specify when native content produced by NowThis News might begin to emerge, but it’s definitely on the horizon. And with the recent announcement that ads would soon be popping up on Instagram, it’s safe to say a sea change is ahead for the platform either way. For ads to work — i.e., for them not to chase off users — O’Keefe says the product has to be “authentic and interesting” as well as “totally transparent.”

Of course, building so much of NowThis’ audience on platforms controlled by others — Facebook and Twitter, in the case of Instagram and Vince — means that there’ll always be a risk that its monetization strategy could clash with the platform’s. But O’Keefe believes there’s plenty of counterbalancing strength in going where the users are.

“The barrier to entry is nonexistent if you create good content, if you post beautiful stunning images. If you take the time to be inventive, creative, and original in the video that you post, people will discover it. Instagram will promote it,” says O’Keefe. “You will find that you have an audience.”

Update, 9/17: No worries about NowThis running out of platforms to play on: They’re also experimenting on Zeega now. Click to play:

                                   
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Mark Coddington    July 18, 2014
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