We grew monthly Facebook video views 500% to 100M in six months. Here’s what we learned.

Lessons learned and what happens next.

For much of 2015, our social video team consisted of two people: one focused on core news and the other on mini-docs. By 2016, we had hired an additional video producer, bringing the total up to three. It was a lean operation, but it delivered reasonable results. Average monthly views for the first half of 2016 was 16 million.

In the second half of 2016, with buy-in from senior management at Al Jazeera English, we took a leap of faith and hired seven additional team members in various roles. We hoped to apply what we’d learned over the past year, but on a grander scale.

If you’re taking time out of your day to read this then you probably already know what makes a good social video — keep it punchy, create an emotional response, etc. We’ll spare you. Here’s what we learned going from a small team to a slightly-less-small team, and how we used those lessons to grow monthly video views on Facebook by 500 percent, to 102 million, in six months.

It’s about more than just volume

We used to publish about two videos a day to Facebook, which brought in an average of 550,000 views per day. Our expanded team tripled output in its first month and, as we expected at the time, views roughly tripled to 45 million.

This was an unprecedented figure for us. There was just one problem: at that rate, we’d need to double our output again just to hit 90 million views per month. There was no way this was going to happen — there just weren’t enough stories that lent themselves to the “social video treatment” on a given day. We also didn’t want to turn the team into a sweatshop. This realisation led to some serious reflection on how we were dedicating resources and which stories we were choosing to cover.

We had to learn what to cover again

When we were a team of two we could cover only one or two stories a day anyway. Now that we had expanded, we wondered if we should be dedicating more producers to “hard news”. The question of how we would balance coverage of important stories on subjects such as wars, floods, protests, elections or bombings with lighter, more social media-friendly ones was a tricky one. Often, hard news would win because it was deemed “more important”. The result was that a lot of stories about battles or protests that were picture-poor, progressively performed worse, and didn’t add much to the global conversation.

We realised we were going about it all wrong — thinking that social videos were a volume business, and that our job was to keep people in the loop by churning out videos that we thought they ought to watch. We’d lost sight of the fact that stories that get shared and watched the most are stories that start or add to conversations.

This made us rethink our approach. Now we ask ourselves:

  • If aljazeera.com is covering a topic as an article, what are we adding to it as a video?
  • Who are the characters in this story and will viewers connect with them?
  • Are the visuals any good?
  • Are there even visuals?
  • Who is the audience for this story?
  • Have we told a similar story recently? How is this one different?

Videos you take time on are usually worth the wait

It’s easy to get caught up in the daily social video grind. A video journalist producing three regular videos in three days probably won’t break any records, but at least some return is guaranteed. There’s a risk associated with giving someone three days to work on a video that may flop. But it’s worth it. Here’s an example of our thought process:

In a good week, three “average” social videos might bring in 1 million total. In a bad week, 300,000. You probably won’t change anyone’s life, but you won’t lose anything either.

On a good day, an in-depth video (like this one on the impact of pesticides on the developing world or this one visualising a Syrian refugee’s desperate plea to Donald Trump) might break into the millions of views. More importantly, it will tell people without a voice, such as the Nigerian communities devastated by oil companies, that someone is speaking up for them. (On a bad day, an in-depth video crashes and burns in a spectacular ball of fire and you’ve wasted three days’ work.)

Ninety percent of the time, our in-depth videos are worth the time we put into them.

Videos should be made to last

Re-shared and re-posted videos have become a significant source of video traffic for us. Not everyone has seen every video we’ve ever made, and we recognised that the potential of our video library was massive — and could be made even larger with a few tweaks. We started with small tweaks: we replaced words such as “yesterday”, “today”, “tomorrow”, “Monday” or “last week” with their actual dates; we took out references to events if they weren’t necessary to the story. Then we moved on to bigger-picture questions such as “Will people still be interested in this story in six months?”, “Is this a recurring event/issue that can be shared time and again?”, and “Is this story timeless?”

(Of course, there are always exceptions. Just because an important story won’t be relevant in a day or two, that doesn’t mean that we don’t cover it. )

Just because it works for someone else…

… it doesn’t mean it will work for you. At various stages, we tried taking cues from the likes of Vox, Channel 4, and even our remarkable sister channel, AJ+. This had limited results.

We lacked the regular throng of well-known guests and celebrity politicians that allowed Channel 4 to excel at soundbites.

We didn’t have the resources to produce the slick explainers of Vox.

If we were just going to cover the same stories, the same way as AJ+, what would be the point in both of our channels existing?

Defining what an Al Jazeera story on social looks like

There’s a saying at Al Jazeera: other organisations tell you where the missiles are fired from, we tell you about where they land. There’s little question about what makes a story an Al Jazeera story, but finding the balance between “Al Jazeera stories” and stories we know social audiences would respond to (and share widely) took time.

What we ended up with was a mix of human stories and perspective from regions that are often underrepresented in major media companies that we believe you won’t find anywhere else.

So, what’s next?

Are we setting our sights on 200 million views a month? Five hundred million? Well, yes and no. We think there’s still a lot of room for us to grow, but growth is no longer our main goal.

We want to start important conversations, and add to others in a meaningful way. We want to showcase more people with stories, rather than stories with people. That could mean more mini-docs, more in-depth stories, more Facebook Lives from places and people that our audience can only find on Al Jazeera English, and a greater focus on markets such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.