90 Day Plan — Washington Post Narratives
Author note — The Washington Post (“Wapo”), like many other media properties, is planning a big expansion to their video efforts in 2017. Building up Wapo’s own institutional muscle for creating premium content (i.e. features and series licensed to HBO, Netflix, Amazon, etc.) is key in preparation for their planned 2018–19 long form expansion.
The scope of this 90 day plan is limited to getting a “Narratives” effort off the ground with the intention of using it to spearhead further premium content development. It is not a comprehensive video strategy. Nor an authoritative declaration of specific Narratives topics, branding, formats, measurement tools (though, I have my opinions).
I’d love feedback on this. I’ve only written a handful of 90 day plans, and I’m still learning to balance specificity with flexibility.
Traditional, linear video storytelling is moving towards two extremes: 90–100 second ‘social’ video that is typically explainer in nature, and longer form ‘premium’ video, licensed to the likes of HBO, Netflix, etc. Companies built around the middle ground struggle, but the middle does have a place in a broader, brand & trust building, video strategy.
This trend is an opportunity for Wapo. Social video favors to the point explainers with gripping, emotional visuals. When done smartly, it is a format that draws a digital native audience that is maturing, and maybe, just maybe, is turning a corner on being willing to pay for journalism. Premium services rely on subscriptions and have similar long term, trust building incentives as newspapers, and they know what their audience wants. Wapo holds an informational (and authority) advantage in developing non-fiction IP. That is, if Wapo can leverage it’s editorial network effectively and ethically towards topics that work well for these content types.
What — Wapo Narratives is a video group dedicated to developing longer form, original digital videos. Narratives are timely, but not tied to a news cycle. They combine storytelling and journalism techniques to emotionally connect the audience to people and places, then place the story in context of a larger issue, ultimately fulfilling a mission of informing. NYTimes calls these OpDocs. VICE made them the cornerstone of their video success. One potential format for a 24–30 minute Wapo Narrative episode could include a feature story, an explainer animation, and a Q&A with the correspondent.
Where —Those who can differentiate their distribution for visual storytelling stand out. Licensing to Amazon Video for a regularly scheduled series would be a reasonable goal given shared ownership. Wapo would also benefit greatly from even modest insight into global behavior of Amazon’s video audience. Even if a licensing agreement is never made, Narrative videos and episodes can placed on Wapo’s owned and operated properties and channels to enhance video brand reputation, build audience, and perhaps even encourage subscription purchases (though none of those are the explicit purpose of this particular plan).
- There is a desire and market for more in-depth, investigative visual journalism that is not beholden to the day to day or week to week editorial cycle.
- Wapo’s reputation and stature alone opens doors to very early developmental conversations with premium subscription services (Amazon, Netflix). However even if not…
- Wapo has an existing charge to invest in further developing a video team, and it is possible to invest in salaries and some equipment immediately, even without immediate revenues.
For the sake of setting reasonable budget constraints, let’s use rough numbers from Amazon’s payouts to pilot script writers:
- Amazon pays out $10,000 to scripts selected for development and $55,000 for those green lit to series.
- Non-fiction/documentaries do not lend themselves to fully completed scripts before production, so…a portfolio and track record would be key.
- Assuming salaries and equipment are upfront investments from Wapo (assumption #3 from above).
- It’s not unreasonable to spend $10,000 to create 2–3 ‘test’ Narratives to build a portfolio for a pilot.
Side note: If recent precedents for full movies and series are any indicator, it is not unreasonable to think future budgets could be seven figures for a season.
30,60,90 Agenda and Goals
The goal of this plan is getting approval for a pilot episode with a premium distribution partner, but that is simply a goal. The purpose of this agenda is to build institutional muscle, and a model of viewer behavior around this particular story telling style from Wapo.
30 — Concept and Pipeline Development
There are plenty of important stories waiting to be visualized, but not all are best told as videos, or as Narratives, so identifying criteria and measurements of success internally and externally will keep the story pipeline, full, clear, prioritized, and free flowing.
1. Observe existing video operations
- Focus on how videos move from concept to green light to final cut approval within current video operation.
- Determine who will have final cut approval on Narrative team efforts.
- Determine what archival footage is already owned and accessible to Wapo video team.
- Hire/Re-assign a full time correspondent/producer.
2. Prepare Concepts for Socialization.
- Develop 2–3 concepts that distinguish Narratives from other competitors and Wapo content (i.e. — cinema verité, previously untold, cinematic, gonzo).
- Document criteria and language for what makes a potential story a strong Narrative candidate.
- Establish internal measurement and success metrics for test Narratives.
3. Socialize Concepts, Test Goals, Establish Relationships
- Editorial desks. Determine how stories and sources are internally shared across storytelling disciplines.
- Legal team. Get up to speed on how they currently approach release and licensing agreements.
- Digital Teams (Web, mobile, social, subscription, advertising). Establish posting and feedback plan for test Narratives. Discuss potential home for narratives inside owned and operated platforms.
- 3 education institutions to begin filling future employee pipeline, proactive candidate outreach, and encourage story submissions.
- Target distribution partner (Amazon). Achieve a better understanding of the partner’s needs, determine their audience, and their audience’s viewing habits. Learn what they would look for in a news/non-fiction product. Push for pilot agreement if they are willing.
The end goal of the first 30 days is to have 2–3 style concepts, and use those as a conversation starters for feedback, story pipeline seeding, and identifying target distributors needs.
60 — Content Development and Test Production
At this point in the developmental stage, you want a team of enterprising individuals with strong opinions and aesthetics, but are open to change over time. Give them early wins.
- Hire full time editor with motion graphics skill set.
- Prepare initial motion and branding packages for test Narratives (quick aside: Wapo, whassup with no branding on your YT thumbnails? That’s low hanging fruit for stronger branding)
- Select 2–3 test Narratives from recently built story queue to test as “Shorts” (4–6 minute stories that can be done with a crew of two — basically a simple 4k DSLR camera package, an interview and some b-roll)
- Produce, edit, and prepare promotion collateral for 4–6 minute test Narratives on existing Wapo platforms.
The end goal of the second 30 days is to turn starter concepts and story ideas into concrete videos while working out kinks in the production workflow.
90 — Measurement and Decision Point
Now it’s time to post the test Narratives, generate and measure feedback, and incorporate that feedback into branding, style, topic, and format decisions. Having a strong data set will also aid further relationship development with the target distribution partner. There is a persevere or pivot decision point at the end of this 30 day segment depending on if a pilot is green lit.
1. Post and Measure Test Narratives
- Measure engagement performance by minutes watched and completion rates, with emphasis on target distribution partner’s desired audience over 1 week.
- Schedule a Facebook Live promotion of the narrative tests via Wirecast. Have a host introduce the episodes, let them play back to back to back, do a short Q&A at the end. Measure engagement and reactions with emphasis on target distribution partner’s desired audience.
- Do a dedicated email promotion with survey to 1,000 Wapo subscribers that match the target distribution partner’s desired audience.
2. Decision Point — Persevere or Pivot
- Meet with target distribution partner. Show reports. Receive feedback. Push for pilot green light.
- Re-establish future Narrative budget and release schedule depending on if chosen for pilot by distribution partner or not.
Regardless of distribution deal status. If the Narratives format resonates with the Wapo audience and builds trust with them for engaging and informative storytelling, development should continue (albeit in a way that is responsible in regards to P&L).