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Aug. 3, 2015, 11 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

How AJ+ embraces Facebook, autoplay, and comments to make its videos stand out

“We think a lot about whether a video works with the sound off. Do we have to subtitle it to keep the audience retention high? Do we need to use big fonts?”

It’s been a year since AJ+, Al Jazeera’s bet on a mobile-centric future, debuted. AJ+ eschews a news website in favor of an app and focuses heavily on video, and its strategy for audience growth is dependent on social media.

jigarmehta Since launch, the app has seen at least one potential competitor shut down, and the media industry has begun to orient itself toward distributed content, setting up shop on the platforms with the largest audiences.

That’s where AJ+ is starting to see some success, Jigar Mehta, the engagement lead for AJ+, told me in a recent conversation. Facebook is a key component of the AJ+ growth strategy — a place to distribute videos and generate discussion around stories and topics. According to Mehta, AJ+ has received over 200 million organic video views in the last month, and in June it was the ninth-biggest Facebook video publisher, according to Newswhip, garnering 1.3 million shares. AJ+ is working with Upworthy to cross-promote videos on the company’s Facebook page.

AJ+ is also using data to improve the user experience within its own app. “As Facebook ads start to turn on, and Instant Articles, and Apple News, and these places become [increasingly] walled gardens with more barriers to entry, how do we create a cleaner experience for the hardcore audience that we know we have?” Mehta said.

I spoke with Mehta and Tom Hanc, AJ+’s senior manager for audience development, about how they measure engagement across a diverse set of platforms; how video production changes with autoplay on Facebook and Twitter; and how publishers may fail by trying to emulate the native video formats of apps like Vine and Instagram. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: What were some of your most popular stories this year?

Jigar Mehta: If you look at our all-time videos on Facebook — which is not the only measure, but it is one measure — our top performing video of all-time is a story about ISIS cake. This gentleman went to Walmart to have a Confederate flag cake made and they denied him. But he was able to get them to make an ISIS cake. That’s gotten over 20 million views.

A lot of videos that we build context around, in terms of raw footage that’s uploaded and starts to go viral, [have done well]. We had a video that had over 18 million views about a Virginia cop who pepper-sprayed a man who was having a medical emergency. Anything in the realm of police brutality has done very well for our Facebook channel.

Also, the flip side of that: One of our first really popular videos earlier this year was called Swedish cops school New York police department. It was a video of four Swedish cops who were on vacation in New York City who stopped a fight on the subway system. It was a very different approach to policing, and it hit at a time when the conversation around police brutality was incredibly ripe in America.

Ellis: You do a variety of short videos. What works in terms of length and how does that change by story?

Mehta: When I joined, AJ+ had been doing a lot of experimentation. They were producing six- and 15-second news bites, trying to get the news into something more of an Instagram or Vine format. In the end, it didn’t quite work. It wasn’t a native experience, it didn’t feel right. [Length is] not what Instagram and Vine are about. Instagram is more of a visual medium, Vine is much more personality driven.

For us, it’s actually not about length. Early on, the assumption was that it’s about length, the shorter the better. And while that does play into it, it’s more about understanding how people are consuming the content. For us, very simply, when we think about the AJ+ audience, we think about them as a mobile audience. They’re consuming this content on a mobile phone, whether that’s on the Facebook app, our app, the YouTube app, or a mobile website. And they’re probably consuming it in a space where they don’t have the sound turned on.

So that plays into a lot of our production. We think a lot about whether a video works with the sound off. Does we have to subtitle it in order to keep the audience retention high? Do we need to use big fonts? Do we need to use color blocking in order to make words pop and make things stand out? Strong visuals really matter as well.

Ellis: It seems like that would tie in well with the fact that so many platforms autoplay videos now.

Mehta: Totally. If you look at our videos when we first launched, they weren’t optimized for autoplay. But then Facebook, and now Twitter, have rolled out autoplay. So you have three to five seconds, as someone is flipping through a feed, to grab their attention.

Our original videos used to have a three-second AJ+ branding bumper. We still have that on YouTube because YouTube is a completely different ecosystem to design for, [but we took it off Facebook videos] and that buys us three seconds. We saw a bump when we [took that off.] And then we said, ‘OK, now we have a new three to five seconds to grab their attention, let’s really think about that moment.’

Now, when you walk around the newsroom, you hear people asking, how are the first five seconds, do you think this is going to work on Facebook? That took time; it wasn’t just that all of a sudden, everyone got it. It’s part of the evolution of AJ+.

Ellis: You’re in a unique position as an app with a focus on social. How do you measure success, especially on platforms like Twitter and Facebook? Does one of them do better than the other?

Mehta: Facebook is our bread and butter right now. We’re doing really well, in comparison to the industry, on Facebook. For example, in the last few months, we were the number-two news provider in terms of shares on Facebook.

It’s early days for Twitter video, but we’re seeing incredible growth in our own Twitter videos even compared to a few months ago. We’re taking some of the same strategy there as Twitter rolls out more autoplay and larger video. But on Twitter, we don’t peg anything to pure views. We’re actually developing our own “engagement score” for each piece of content.

AJ+ is built around the concept of optimizing content for audiences to engage with, so we value the share and the comment as key metrics. We built that all into a holistic engagement score that our data team is trying to improve over time as we learn more and more about how the audience consumes the content.

Ellis: On Facebook, companies want to create feedback loops where people get sucked into videos and engage with the page. How do you create that loop where you keep people watching videos or liking the page?

Tom Hanc: A big part of it is knowing you start to develop a particular type of audience and content that resonates with them.

For example, we started to see a lot of traction around “Black Lives Matter” and police brutality. Obviously, from a journalistic standpoint, we knew it was important, and we also saw there was a lot of demand for it from the audience. So we had to make sure we fed them those stories on a regular enough basis that they knew if they liked our page they were going to get more of that. It’s important that people know to come back for that.

Mehta: People are not clamoring to go to You really have to get them in the feed. It’s about building that brand loyalty and recognition, so when we come across their feed, when we have that three seconds to grab their attention, they go, ‘Yup, AJ+, I know it’s going to be something I’m going to want to watch and potentially share with my audience and amplify it, so I’m going to take the moment.’

That said, we’re trying to learn how to get people to watch more of our content. Even though video pages on Facebook aren’t a big thing yet, we’re building playlists and linking videos to other videos in our descriptions. One thing that’s been really successful for us: We will link to another video in our own comments, and expand out the video into a related video in that space. So in the way that you usually have that embedded into a YouTube video, we’re using the comments in Facebook to make that happen.

Ellis: You mentioned this before in terms of the way you measure success and look at different platforms individually, but in terms of actual creation, I wonder how much planning goes into what types of stories go on which platforms.

Hanc: Right now, Facebook and YouTube are the top two video platforms by far. We look at over- and underperforming videos for each platform and try to assess why they over- or underperformed.

Length is one factor. YouTube is a video-viewing destination, so people watch our short documentaries for longer on YouTube. On YouTube, although people do subscribe to our channel and may browse our stories for the day and the week, search is massive. YouTube is the number-two search engine in the world behind Google.

Mehta: We sometimes put up our whole documentaries on Facebook. They’re these fantastic eight- to twelve-minute videos, and we do about one a week. Sometimes we’ve had very popular documentaries, well over a million views. But we noticed that the retention times were not as fantastic as they were for our other pieces, and that’s definitely tied to time.

People want to talk about the topic, though, and amplify the nuggets that are tied into that documentary. We tried trailers for a while and that was semi-successful, but we actually decided to run 90-second scenes that are tied to the documentary, and then link that back to the full feature on YouTube.

Ellis: What stands out in user behavior on mobile?

Mehta: One of the most interesting things on mobile is retention time, how far someone makes it through a video. Someone might watch the first 25 percent of a video, or 50 percent, and feel like they’ve seen enough to share it.

We’re seeing a lot of people commenting on our content, not on our page. So, for example, we’ll see a video and it’ll have like 10,000 comments on it, but only 1,000 of those are on our page; 9,000 of those are happening in other spaces.

Some of that is sharing the video via tagging friends in comments. As we see mobile become more ubiquitous, people are definitely using it in the same way they use WhatsApp and Messenger. They’re actually using our content to spark conversation — but in private places, not in public places.

Ellis: Does that create challenges or is it an opportunity?

Mehta: It feels like a problem because you don’t know what they’re talking about, or who and what is going on there. But the opportunity is that it makes us create better analytical tools for our data team to try to understand what’s happening.

If this is a behavior that’s happening and that we’re actually doing ourselves, not only as creators but also as consumers, we should try to fit our content into that behavior. In order to allow people to share our videos really easily, we try to spark conversation by asking a question.

Ellis: How do you grow the audience for your own app? What are the challenges there?

Mehta: The challenges are very clear. With so many apps, it’s hard to fight for attention. And everyone gets too many push alerts. We’re trying to figure out how to maintain a premium experience on the app, whether it’s through exclusive content or a cleaner experience.

As Facebook ads start to turn on, and Instant Articles, and Apple News, and these places become [increasingly] walled gardens with more barriers to entry, how do we create a cleaner experience for the hardcore audience we know we have? We’re trying to use other touchpoints — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter — to find light ways to drive users toward downloading and engaging with our app.

Ellis: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask the question a lot of media companies are thinking about: in terms of dealing with Facebook, is it concerning that we’re trying to build audiences on a platform we don’t own?

Mehta: For us right now, in this moment, that’s where the audience is, and that’s why we build content specifically for that audience. This week alone, we reached over 125 million people on Facebook. It would be really hard to get that size of audience on a website or app when we just started a year ago.

POSTED     Aug. 3, 2015, 11 a.m.
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