Video is not the (only) future of media

Keep an open mind when it comes to formats

If you’re plugged into comments coming out of Menlo Park, you might have heard about a comment from Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s vice president for EMEA, in a conversation with Fortune’s assistant managing editor, Pattie Sellers:

Pattie Sellers: Where will Facebook be in five years in terms of mobile and in terms of video?
Nicola Mendelsohn: Okay, so five years from now from a tech company is always a good bet isn’t it? I’ll have a go. It will be definitely mobile; it will be probably all video.
Pattie: All video?
Nicola: All video. …
Pattie: And when you say all video, Facebook will be all video in five years, does that mean we’re not going to be … typing? We’re not going to be using words?
Nicola: I just think if we look, already what we’re seeing is a year-on-year decline on text. We’re seeing a massive increase as I’ve said on both pictures and video. So I think yeah, if I was having a bet, I would say video, video, video.
Pattie: Wow. And Facebook, of course, owns Instagram. So, this is the big bet. Pictures, then video.
Nicola: But I think that’s also because it helps us edit. You talk with your business about how this is an era of storytelling. The best way to tell stories in this world where so much information is coming at us actually is video. It commands so much more information in a much quicker period. So, actually, the trend helps us to digest more of the information in a quicker way.

Allow me to quote Pattie … wow. A fully video-based News Feed is a big deal, and makes sense in the context of Facebook’s heavy promotion of its live video offerings.

By most measurements, video is indeed thriving. Mary Meeker highlighted several proofpoints related to the rise of video in her annual Internet Trends briefing at Recode’s Code Conference.

Younger audiences, particularly within Gen Z, communicate visually more so than in text. Meanwhile, live video is rapidly expanding as a medium, first with Twitch, then with Meerkat and Periscope, and now with Facebook Live and Snapchat. Overall, video views have increased eightfold on Facebook and sixfold on Snapchat since the second half of 2014.

And she’s not the only one coming to this conclusion. Cisco predicts that by 2020, video will account for 82 percent of all consumer internet traffic. On top of that, video is increasingly where ad buyers are putting their money — Cowen and Company found that video will increase to approximately 20 percent of ad spending this year, nearly on par with display and search.

So with all that, you might be wondering why the title of this article implies that video leaves something to be desired. Good question! In short, Mendelsohn is right that video is an excellent medium for storytelling, but trying to shoehorn it into all use cases is bad for users and, ultimately, bad for publishers.


The case against video

Reuters published the 2016 edition of its Digital News Report in June. Among the key findings was a passage on the limitations of video.

Although publishers and technology platforms are pushing online news video hard for commercial reasons, we find evidence that most consumers are still resistant. Three-quarters of respondents (78%) say they still mostly rely on text. When pressed, the main reasons people give for not using more video are that they find reading news quicker and more convenient (41%) and the annoyance of pre-roll advertisements (35%).

This leads to a great observation from Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen, that there may be limitations to what news video, as opposed to video as a general format, can achieve. She calls out a statement from one of the report’s authors, Antonis Kalogeropoulos, that “So far, the growth around online video news seems to be largely driven by technology, platforms, and publishers rather than by strong consumer demand.”

Additionally, the Reuters report hints at structural issues around video monetization — the annoyance factor of pre-roll ads. According to MediaPost, 90 percent of people skip pre-roll ads appearing ahead of online video content and TV shows. How many times have you clicked through to a YouTube video only to have to wait through a non-skippable 30-second advertisement? How many times have you been startled by a video’s audio starting halfway through while you’re reading an article? Is it any wonder that ad-blocking is on the rise? From AdAge:

Research Now conducted the study and surveyed 9,000 people. Active users of ad blockers, including mobile, and those who are aware of ad blockers but have not yet installed them, were surveyed for the study.
The research said pre-roll ads were among the most intrusive, with 41% of respondents saying they installed the ad-blocking software due to the ad format.

So brands and publishers are creating more video that users might not want (just because it’s affordable to produce), and monetizing it with ads that are making people more likely to either bounce from the content or refuse to contribute their attention as currency. It seems clear to me that this isn’t a sustainable strategy.

What, then, is the path forward? I think back to a conversation I’ve had several times at Atlantic Media Strategies: The case of the unread PDF.


A purpose for every format

At AMS, we speak frequently about the case for organizations to unlock their big reports to make them more accessible and relevant for users. A takeaway from that might be to never create static PDFs ever again, but don’t do that! There is a use case for PDF reports, just as there is a use case for text articles, audio clips, video clips, and other formats.

For example, text is a lot easier to skim than video or audio content, so it makes sense to opt for that format if you want to give audiences the ability to do so. Additionally, videos are, by nature, attention hogs. It’s hard for audiences to get full value from the format if they’re not actively watching the visual content. So in return, you’d better be sure that your video is worth the time spent on it, or else it’s just another piece of clickbait.

In other words, just because it can be a video, doesn’t mean it has to be a video.

Great digital strategies are a mix of formats optimized for how audiences actually want to read, listen, and watch what you have to say. Before you publish on a subject, ask yourself if it would be easier for your audience to watch or read what you’re trying to communicate. Ask yourself whether a video should be the focus of, or a supplement to, your editorial coverage. And if you’re an advertiser, ask yourself whether you really want to bait-and-switch people clicking into a video with a pre-roll ad.

Mendelsohn’s comment on video taking over the News Feed says a lot about what Facebook values in the future — much more content focused around entertainment and personal updates. If news video isn’t delivering for users, I’d suggest publishers should prepare for a world where Facebook is no longer a plurality of their traffic. And for brands, I’d suggest keeping your content toolbox open, and not prescribing video as a panacea. Trust me, your audiences will thank you.


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