A new way to repackage our punchy reporting

Introducing the ‘vimage’

Eva Rinaldi via Flickr

One unfortunate side product of the tech industry’s relentless innovation has been an explosion of unsightly portmanteau words. Happily, The Economist has yet to publish a listicle on the netiquette of webinars. So it is with regret that we introduce the word “vimage”, rivalled in its ghastliness only by “phablet” (a big smartphone that aspires to be a tablet) and the frankly emetic “sporgery” (that’s spam forgery).

As my colleague Jenni explained in her blog post about experimenting with clips from our podcasts, either the Facebook algorithm or our users, or possibly both, have a serious penchant for video. Indeed, so urgent is Facebook’s drive to become “all video over the next five years”, it offers publishers the chance to merge a series of photos into a customisable short moving clip, or a slideshow. We decided to exploit the format to promote our characteristic white-on-red text cards. By stringing a group of these images together into a video, we realised we could deliver all the main elements from an engaging story. We’ve taken to calling this format a “vimage”, with apologies for the hideous neologism.

The vimage design platform is fairly rudimentary, which makes them straightforward to throw together:

Just drag the images into the dock, set the duration you want each slide to appear, adjust the order, and they’re ready for publication. You can also add some music to your vimage, choosing from a selection of Facebook-approved muzak including “Jazzy Samba”, “Garage Groove”, and “Electric Coconut”. Unfortunately, none of these has yet been deemed a suitable complement to information about, say, Rwanda’s health-insurance system.

What, then, are the characteristics of a successful vimage? It’s difficult to know whether a particular vimage was successful because of its format or its content. However, we can draw some broad conclusions. Our most successful vimage (by a factor of more than three) was made to repackage our review of Johan Norberg’s book Progress. The vimage picked out a few of the most striking statistics:

This reached more than 3.3 million people, a roaring success. Part of its popularity was attributable to its eminent shareability; as Archer explained in his blog post, shares allow us to reach audiences beyond our existing followers, and exponentially increase reach as these users reshare the post themselves. In the case of our most heavily shared format, the On This Day cards, about a quarter of people who like the post will share it. For this vimage, that proportion jumped to about one-third. An optimistic message like the one espoused in this vimage lends itself to this kind of activity; like Twitter, which consistently supports upbeat trends like #FridayFeeling or #staypositive, Facebook loves optimism. Add to that the instantly striking statistics, and the vimage was bound to be a smash.

None of the other vimages has so far achieved the dizzying heights of that magic formula; our third most successful one, about the collapse of Hanjin, a shipping company, reached a million people. The focus, again, was on punchy statistics — each slide featured fewer than ten words. For what one might assume to be a relatively niche topic, the post did very well. The vimage had less mass appeal than the other post, with only 480 shares. And this vimage’s viewers were about three times less likely to click to like it.

It seems then, that vimages lend themselves to number-crunching. Stats that can be understood in the five seconds that a viewer has to look at the vimage work well, as does a shareable message. So we tried adding a chart to our next vimage. The post repackaged a light-hearted chart about the economic opportunity cost of the time that humanity has spent watching Psy’s Gangnam Style:

The vimage reached a measly 300,000 people, a disappointment that we put down to several factors. Firstly, the slides leading up to the chart were not immediately eye-catching, and were dense with words: “Watching Psy’s frivolity has a huge opportunity cost, but at least humanity has been entertained”. Secondly, the chart that we placed on the final slide didn’t appear for long enough to make sense of it. Besides, even if it had been on-screen for longer, a persistent problem with vimages blurring means that it would have been hard to read anyway.

What conclusions can we draw from our experiment with vimages? It’s better to underestimate the amount of information that users are able to process in five seconds, which for an average reader is only about 12 words. Any more than that, and they’ll fall behind with the vimage and scroll on to something else. This is also why charts don’t work where single statistics will. The next stage of the vimage experiment is to combine them with other successful formats, like the ‘What do you think?’ cards that have been so successful on LinkedIn.

We’re not sure whether we’ll come up with a better word for this format but if we do, we guesstimate it’ll be fantabulous.

James Waddell is a social media writer at The Economist.