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April 12, 2017, 11:32 a.m.
Business Models

This French startup is betting on native social video and is now eyeing expansion to the U.S.

Brut — think a French version of NowThis — has had success reaching a younger demographic and is now partnering with France’s public broadcaster to expand its reach.

In late January, at the height of the confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s cabinet secretaries, a video showing Bernie Sanders grilling education secretary Betsy DeVos, energy secretary Rick Perry, and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt took off on Facebook, accumulating more than 13 million views.

These type of videos have become the norm on Facebook these days as outlets on all sides of the political spectrum try to rack up viral traffic on the platform. But viewers of the Sanders video might have noticed something different: It had French subtitles.

That’s because it was produced by Brut, a French startup that exclusively produces distributed content, adapting a model similar to NowThis and AJ+ in English. Brut, which means “raw” in French, has only the barest of homepages. It’s 100 percent digital and 100 percent video — and it’s catching on rapidly in France.

Brut launched in November and has since accumulated more than 257,000 likes and 114 million video views on Facebook, including 44 million in March. France has 31 million active users on Facebook, and Brut has made the platform its priority.

“Besides the rapid growth in video views, the high level of engagement tells us that our content is really well perceived and that it makes people think,” editor-in-chief Laurent Lucas said.

Lucas, along with Renaud Le Van Kim, Guillaume Lacroix, Roger Coste, created the company that runs Brut, and Lacroix said they took a “substantial financial risk” by relying on their own funds to launch the site without outside investment.

Brut’s business is built on native advertising, and in February it signed an agreement with France Télévisions, the country’s public broadcaster, to handle ad sales for the company. And last month France Télévisions said it’d begin broadcasting Brut content — both online and over-the-air — on France Info, a news channel it launched last year.

The public broadcaster didn’t reply to requests for comment, but Lacroix, Brut’s CEO, told the French newspaper Libération that the partnership was a way for France Télévisions “to broaden its audience, and to make the brands pay accordingly.”

With its immediate success in France, Brut is now looking to grow its output by adding sports coverage and also expanding its focus to the United States. It’s in the process of hiring three American journalists to test the potential of an English-language platform, targeting the much larger U.S. audience. This will be an American version of Brut, covering American news, while maintaining its particular tone of voice.

“We’re going about it very carefully, we want to experiment and see what we could do in the U.S.,” said Lucas.

Brut’s editorial strategy is to bring quality news directly on the platforms — an American-style format of digital native video, but with a French twist. Lucas applied similar tactics as the deputy editor-in-chief of the popular television program Le Petit Journal — a Daily Show-like satirical news show.

Brut is a more serious medium, though, with less derision. “We are irreverent, iconoclastic, and impertinent,” Lucas said. Yet the language he learned producing television is still there. While the last thing Lucas wants is to produce television content online, that particular Le Petit Journal tone of voice that the French audience appreciates is still there, and may have contributed to its immediate success.

When it comes to hard news, Brut aims to take distinct angles on daily stories: “The traditional news channels will always beat us, as we don’t have enough resources to cover everything,” Lucas said. He pointed to the Bernie Sanders video as a way the outlet tries to find its way into a story. Brut also has produced a range of more in-depth videos, including, for instance one on Mayotte, a French overseas department which has been suffering water shortages for months; a long interview with journalist Edwy Plenel about blacklisting of journalists during French elections; and a feature story following a homeless person in Paris.

For instance, Brut is looking to expand into sports coverage, which it sees as a potential way to grow its audience and attract advertisers. Rather than publishing highlights or press conferences, which requires multimedia rights, it might run pieces explaining the economics behind a major Champions League match or talking about sexism in sports. Many athletes and teams also produce their own social-native video content, which can also be used and analyzed as part of a Brut story.

Facebook Live has also been a real audience booster for Brut; a video of February’s Paris demonstration against corruption in politics got 837,000 views. “People are really interested in live video — they comment and share it massively,” said Ghislain Marais, Brut’s community manager. The journalist behind the Facebook Live videos, Remi Buisine, was recruited after he made a name for himself gathering thousands of viewers while Periscoping the Nuit Debout protests against labor reforms for three months.

His approach to live reporting is neutral and explanatory. He describes what happens, while using the crowd’s input to cover other aspects of the event. In a time that mistrust in the media is high, the transparency of live reporting part of what makes this medium so popular. A study released in March by the Data & Society Research Institute showed that younger American news consumers considered live video and user-generated content more trustworthy.

“Our audience expects us to stay factual, so they can make their own analysis,” Lucas said. And that approach has had some success; while Brut runs several different video formats, the team was surprised to find out that the fairly simple explainer videos do particularly well.

Brut’s distributed approach has led it mostly to a younger audience. Its audience data is still limited, but Brut knows from Facebook statistics that 75 percent of its audience is between 18 and 34. Most live around Paris, and 45 percent is female. Audience engagement is particularly high around stories on politics and society. Marais said much of its data analysis is still done “by feel,” but the plan is to monitor metrics closely to be able to optimise their content for each platform.

Videos are not platform-specific yet, due to a lack of resources and the instant success. With a small team of 10 to 15 journalists, Brut currently produces about five to six videos a day. The content is primarily produced for Facebook, then published on Twitter, YouTube, and Dailymotion, while Instagram and Snapchat get their own native content. Facebook gets priority not just because it is the leading social media channel in France, but also because of the company’s close relationship with the platform.

“They help and guide us to get the format right, and we can turn to them for technical and strategic questions,” Lucas said.

POSTED     April 12, 2017, 11:32 a.m.
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