The two-and-a-half year old distributed media company NowThis bears little resemblance to the “social news video startup” that we first covered nearly three years ago. It’s seen a name change, big staff turnover, the killing-off of its homepage, and a move toward even shorter, bite-sized pieces of video content that leans on repackaged videos from other sources with a few snappy pieces of accompanying text.
The company’s newest project is Tap For News, an app that consists of a single red button users can tap (ad infinitum, if they so choose) to watch a collection of very lightly curated 15- to 30-second videos on topics ranging from breaking news to science to entertainment. There’s no being paralyzed by the paradox of choice here — just one button.
“We act more like a tech startup company when it comes to consumer apps,” Matt Campbell, NowThis’ vice president of product, told me. “We don’t want to be afraid to experiment and let the consumer tell us, Hey, this works, this is cool, and then use that as a springboard to fuel that product.”
If, on the other hand, user responses are overwhelmingly negative or the app doesn’t take off, the NowThis team can simply pull it. Tap For News soft-launched on both Android and iOS and hasn’t been marketed at all yet; downloads are currently in the low thousands.
“It’s the way we look at the digital landscape these days: When we have consumers craving different things, does that warrant a cool new app?” Campbell added.
Tap For News, he said, came out of the team’s desire to create something a reader who wants to catch up on the news of the day could turn to during a short break — lunch, doing laundry, or waiting in line for coffee. Users have no choice in what the app will show them when they hit “TAP” — the video could be clips from Caitlyn Jenner’s new reality series I Am Cait or Bernie Sanders talking about Sandra Bland — but they can hit the button anytime during a video to immediately bring up the next video.
“We thought about the most simple user experience,” Campbell said of the app’s barebones “tap” design. “I pull up my phone, I want content with immediacy, I want enlightening and enriching content.” Tap For News strips away the effort involved in searching for, and even reading, news. For now, videos are drawn from a daily pool of 40 to 50 pieces created by NowThis writers and video producers, mostly for other social platforms such as Facebook. They’re not yet personalized according to a user’s subject preferences or viewing habits.
I tapped my way through 50 videos and found lengths averaging around the half-minute mark, with a few outliers at 40, 43, and 55 seconds. No video I watched was longer than a minute or shorter than 26 seconds. About 15 of those 50 videos were political; the rest were a mix of human interest stories, scientific discoveries, and novelty clips engineered for virality.
The app is designed for very short video-watching sessions, not binge-watching. In 50 taps, six videos came up more than once. “Obama’s Biggest Presidential Shortcoming? He Can’t Rap” took the cake, showing up four times. It was also the oldest video in the bunch, at four days old, though all of the other harder news videos were no more than a day old.
NowThis prides itself on using data to obsessively tailor video content to better fit the platform where it’s displayed. It amassed an impressive 270 million video views in June across all platforms, according to Athan Stephanopoulos, the company’s senior vice president for strategy and partnerships. This means editing scripts, clip lengths, and even video subject matter for the dizzying array of platforms on which NowThis posts its videos.In addition to Facebook and Twitter, NowThis creates videos for Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Kik, and has an eye out for everything from Periscope to the Apple Watch. The exploratory Tap For News fits well into the staunch “platform-appropriate” philosophy of NowThis, Stephanopoulos said.
“We are still a startup. Any startup is constantly watching the marketplace ebbs and flows and needs to be able to react,” he says. “Tap For News is just one more endpoint, one more place in which a consumer can find and consume our content.”
“Our sense of Tap For News is that it’s an experience that is intentionally random,” NowThis executive producer Sarah Frank said.
While there is a minimum level of curation involved in Tap For News to eliminate stories “from three months ago that [are] just totally irrelevant,” Frank said, the thinking behind the app is in some ways the complete opposite of how NowThis approaches producing content for other platforms.
“If you’re going to, say, Facebook, you’re going because you want something really shareable, and same with Twitter, but for Tap, you’re saying, I feel like learning something, just give me something,” Frank says. “We don’t want to waste anyone’s time; we want to make news digestible.”
Digestible, snackable, chunkable: those buzzy adjectives came up again and again in our conversation. But what if someone wanted to read more, learn more, or watch something longer? What happened to shooting original, on-the-ground video, as NowThis did when it dispatched people to Boston for coverage of the Marathon bombings? It’s a question both Frank and Campbell say they’re asked all the time.
“Our audience is smart enough to know, if they hear about something, if they want to learn more, they can Google for other sources — this is something we’ve been open about,” Frank said. “We’re introducing news of the day, stories of the day, to a group of people underserved by traditional media publications, people who’ve never bought a newspaper, don’t have TVs, yet are sharing news.“Sometimes traditional publications have a lot more money and ability to do a deep dive, all of which are really fantastic, but with our resources, for our audience, we’re just trying to get people to understand as much about the world as possible. I have found shortform to be really liberating because you can tell a lot more stories in a day, you can inform a lot more people about a lot more different issues.”
A next step for Tap For News? Personalizing which videos users see based on their tapping habits. “Feedback is just starting to roll in, and a lot of the things we’re hearing are, ‘Give me more content I’m interested in,'” Campbell told me. “So we want to start being smarter about what you want. You might hit a button and happen to get sports news, and you pretty quickly hit the button again, or you’re watching it 90 percent through every time — we have all of that data.”
The team might also consider users’ locations and the times of day when they’re engaging with the app to deliver more relevant videos. Frank mentioned a “Netflix-like recommendations engine.” Ideally, though, Campbell said, the company will fight the urge to turn the app into anything more than a simple tapping mechanism that delivers random pieces video users haven’t seen anywhere else.
“You can go to a lot of places for great content, so let’s keep everything super, super simple for the user,” Campbell said. “Complexity is not necessarily what the consumer wants.”