Inside MoveOn’s video strategy

Screen capture of a MoveOn video

Founded in 1998, MoveOn.org started as a progressive email group and pioneered political online advocacy. Over the past two decades it’s leveraged its massive email list to raise millions of dollars for left-wing candidates and push for a number of progressive legislative issues.

As the internet evolved, so did MoveOn, and today its reach spans millions of followers across the web’s biggest social platforms. In recent years, it’s placed significant emphasis on creating online video, and its videos now generate millions of views each week across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

I recently sat down with Sara Kenigsberg, MoveOn’s senior video producer. I asked Kenigsberg about why MoveOn’s videos aren’t designed well for YouTube, how she chooses her video topics, and which social platform is best for broadcasting live video.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.

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Simon Owens: Hey Sara, thanks for joining us.

Sara Kenigsberg: Thanks so much for having me.

So you’re the senior video producer for MoveOn. I think most the people listening are familiar with the organization, but can you give a brief overview of what it is?

MoveOn is the largest independent, progressive advocacy group in the country. We have millions of members. We’ve been around over 20 years. We just celebrated our 20th anniversary last year.

It started as an email list, right, and then grew from there.

It started mostly as a petition platform. It originated through petition and email and has since gone on to all different forms of online advocacy.

Before you went there, you had several stops along the way. You were a video producer at Huffington Post and at NowThis. NowThis is interesting, because I feel like that place created an entire genre of social viral video. Can you talk a bit about how that style developed?

I first actually started at TBD, which was a very brief startup by the founders of Politico back in 2010. From there I went on to the Huffington Post. One of the founders of Huffington Post founded NowThis, so that was sort of an easy jump from the Huffington Post to NowThis.

It was really just around that time, 2010 to 2012, that online video was really becoming a huge thing. What can we do to get people to watch videos on their computers and also on their mobile devices? Mobile first was really taking off. NowThis started with the concept of watching videos through an app. I actually worked with our app developer to develop the NowThis app.

It later transferred to watching videos on Facebook and on social media platforms. What became evident was that people were watching on these social media platforms and not necessarily wanting to open a separate app to watch videos.

NowThis came around at the same time that Facebook was really going big on video, and specifically pioneering silent autoplay video. I think that’s why NowThis’s style was so recognizable, because it was really designed for that era of silent autoplay.

Exactly. Text heavy, short videos in the square format. It was the mobile first that was the biggest thing, where people could easily watch on the metro or subway and didn’t even have to turn on the volume. They can just see the text and quickly access it from their phone and the social media platforms they’re already on. And the shareability of it. They were able to share it on a friend’s Facebook, they were able to retweet it. All of that was a big part of it.

It’s not easy to figure out how to grab someone when you don’t have sound, and you have to grab them in the three seconds when they’re scrolling by. The average YouTube vlog wouldn’t really do that. The intro is way too lengthy and focused on audio, whereas you guys were thinking about how to capture a person, and you did it by overlaying text, getting straight to the point, almost treating it like the inverted pyramid of an AP article. How do we catch them with the headline and pull them in by capturing the most important information first?

Exactly. And there was also the notion that it was Millennials, who were not tuning in at 5:30 p.m. to watch nightly news like my father did growing up with NBC with Tom Brokaw. We were releasing videos throughout the day, in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, all staggered out. People are opening up their phones and looking at social media and want content. It’s not like a set time that people want to learn about something.

Did you notice that a lot of news organizations started to copy NowThis? In the sense that we started to see that style of video become ubiquitous as every news organization was ‘pivoting to video’?

Yes. When I applied to MoveOn, one of the organizations that was cited as a model for the videos they wanted to make was the NowThis videos. I think many organizations, not just in news, but also advocacy groups and any type of company, tried to produce these videos. Even now in Congress, members of Congress like Bernie Sanders have replicated that. His head videographer is a former NowThis producer.

How did you end up working for MoveOn?

I actually went back to grad school at the Corcoran, which is under George Washington University. I was pursuing a master’s in new media photo journalism. It was film, documentary, and also still photography. Visual storytelling in general. I had seen online a post about how MoveOn had wanted to start an in-house video team that was modeled after AJ+ and NowThis type videos.

It seemed super interesting to me. It was remote. MoveOn is entirely remote. We don’t have a central office. That seemed appealing. All my previous jobs had involved starting up video teams. I was the first video producer for the Huffington Post in DC. I was an early video producer for NowThis before it had officially launched. TBD was a startup. It seemed appealing to start up a team. Also, doing video remotely was super interesting to me. I also worked predominantly in the progressive space and also in politics. For the Huffington Post, I traveled a lot around the 2012 election, and I had done a lot already in political videos.

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How big is the video staff now at MoveOn?

We have four official people with me. There are two other video producer people. We have a director. And then we also have adjunct people we’ve added on over time. During election seasons, like during the 2016 election and during the 2018 midterms, we added on additional folks, but for a contract period of time. And then we also work with freelancers and contractors as well.

One thing I noticed as I looked at the platforms that MoveOn operates on is that you don’t seem to place much emphasis on YouTube, which I consider very interesting. Why are you guys mostly ignoring that platform?

So I wouldn’t say we’re ignoring it. We still do post videos on there and we’ve done live streams to YouTube. It’s our lowest followed account. I think we have about 50,000 followers on YouTube, vs nearly 120,000 on Instagram, more than 300,000 on Twitter, and about 1.6 million on Facebook.

YouTube, from what we’ve seen — we produce a lot of videos that have a shorter shelf life. For example, today there’s a bill being voted on in the House about ending U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen, so we put out a video this morning about why it’s important to end U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen. That has a shorter shelf life that wouldn’t do as well on YouTube. The bill is being voted on now. It’s about the bill right now, and also the video is square. We’ve been doing a lot of 1080X1080 videos that work best on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Obviously, for YouTube, you would do different dimensions.

Obviously we still love YouTube. We sometimes shoot in the YouTube space in New York. They have a space that’s free to use if you have over 10,000 followers. You can use their cameras. It’s pretty cool. But I’d say the other platforms have become a bigger priority where we’ve seen greater engagement and being able to build community.

Would you say your main focus is Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram?

Yep, those are our three biggest priorities.

Can you talk about the differences in terms of what kind of video performs well on those three different platforms? What kind of video does well on Facebook vs what does well on Twitter, vs what does well on Instagram?

Generally we’ll post the same video on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It can sometimes be hit or miss. We’ve had videos do better on Instagram than on Facebook, which is becoming a little more common. It’s sort of a different audience. We definitely have a younger skewed audience on Instagram. I manage our Instagram, and I just interacted with one of our followers in our direct messages last night who said he was a senior in high school and had discovered MoveOn through Instagram. He thanked us for all we did.

We don’t have as many of the high school kids on Facebook as we do on Instagram. Generally, if a video is good, if it’s told well, if it’s timely, if it has an important influencer in it, or if it’s on an important topic, then it’s going to do well on all platforms. That’s the goal, for it to do well on all platforms.

Distribution is also an important thing for us. It’s not just putting out the video, we really do work on distribution and focus on getting our allied groups to retweet our videos, to get the member of Congress who was in the video to share it. That’s our goal on all our platforms, to get our videos and content reposted on Instagram, to get it crossposted on Facebook, to get it retweeted.

What’s your process for determining whether to make a video on a particular subject?

Each week we talk about what our campaign priorities are of the week. During election season, during the 2018 elections, our priorities were around electoral campaigns. So we were making videos that said these are the candidates we support, and please vote for this candidate in X area. We were doing it on not only a national scale — Senate and House — but also down ballot candidates across the country.

During off-election years, we’re doing issue-based campaign work, so it’s really based on what bills are coming forward now, what issue is arising in the country. Let’s say Trump has threatened the Mueller investigation, then we’re making a video about protecting the Mueller investigation. Maybe we’re doing a march somewhere across the country about protecting the Mueller investigation, so we’re going to live stream the event, we’re going to cut a video about it, we’re going to post a graphic. It’s really based around our campaigning and what issue of the week is most important.

Tell me about a video that went viral recently.

I’ll talk about work I’ve been proud of. I’ve had a lot of videos that have gotten millions of views. Probably the one that got the most views was one of the ones where we’re cutting from material already out there, adding text, and during the election we cut a video with Willie Nelson. He was singing at a Beto rally. He made up his own song for the rally. It got over 10 million views. I was like ok, that’s awesome.

That was something that went super viral recently. During the Kavanaugh hearing I did a video with a woman who had an interesting story about being pregnant with twins, and she had to abort one of the fetuses to save the other baby, because it had an abnormality and might have killed the other baby in her stomach. That video got over a million views. I’ve done a video on these brothers in Maryland who were deported two years ago, and I did a video after this happened with their family and with their soccer team, and that video got over a million views.

Some are fun videos like the one with Willie Nelson, and some are on tougher topics.

I notice a lot of your videos feature Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Is that because you found she performs well on social?

This just came out from NowThis: the highest performing video on Twitter for any member of Congress was a video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has a lot of followers on all her social media platforms. We’ve definitely seen she performs very well, but it’s also important for us to diversify who’s in our videos, and equity is a super important part of MoveOn. We love her. We definitely have produced video content with her. But we also have produced video with other members. She is a new member too, and highlighting new members is exciting.

Can you talk about what you’re doing with live video?

I also manage our live streaming for MoveOn. But we work with Act TV, a progressive media group that started during the Occupy Wall Street movement. They started live streaming in New York at the Occupy Wall Street site. They’re amazing. They have a studio based in Brooklyn. They have videographers who can stream to the studio. The stream looks so much better because they’re able to add our branding on it, graphics. They’re movement partners as well, in that they have the same viewpoints as us. They want to be covering the same things. They have close relationships with other allied groups and media organizations.

Last week, there was a rally at the Capitol to not give money to any of Trump’s deportation force, no money to the wall. And four members of Congress, which included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar came out to speak. Someone from MoveOn spoke. Someone from Indivisible. We were able to live stream that, we added our branding on it. We put a call to action in the stream to text a number if you wanted to. And then we’re able to stream that on Twitter as well, so it’s not just Facebook.

I notice you do a lot of stuff where you’re actually at an event on the Capitol steps. What’s the decision making in terms of who’s going to show up at an event and live stream it?

A lot of the decision making happens outside our video team. MoveOn has many different aspects to it, so we have the video team, we have a campaigning team. We have a mobile team, because we also have a listserv of phone numbers we can text to. We have a larger communications team. So we’ll work with our other teams to determine what’s the priority. What rally we’re going to attend. Around health care, for example, we were leading a lot of rallies to stop Trump’s attacks on Obamacare. We’re supporting the ones that we determine are the campaigns we’re lending our name to.

I’ve heard that live video does better if it’s something that’s long, so people can start to accumulate over time. Is that what you found?

Yes, definitely. There’s no harm if something happens and you want your spokesperson to go live, casually, for 10 minutes. But generally, what we found is that a talking head doesn’t do as well. People want to see action. This is happening right now. We try to go for at least an hour. The talking head doesn’t do as well. We definitely try and do lives around some kind of mobilization.

And you find the audience snowballs over time?

It depends. Live distribution is very important too. Just like how we emphasize distribution around our produced videos, NowThis cross posts a lot of our videos along with Act TV. Senator Sanders has a large Facebook audience, and so let’s say we’re live for 40 minutes, and then one of these large Facebook accounts cross posts our page, we’ll see a huge spike. It depends.

If there’s something that’s developing, and it gets more exciting. We were just live on Monday night from the Beto rally at the border. So let’s say we’re live showing the marching, and then later in the live stream he comes in and starts talking, there’s going to be a spike at that point. At that time, it’s good to have a talking head, because it’s not just in a room by yourself. It’s part of an action that’s happening.

I think when Facebook Live launched everyone assumed that it would eat Twitter’s lunch. Twitter debuted with Periscope and then Facebook invested heavy in Live and was paying all these news organizations to do it. And there was this assumption that Facebook would win the live video battle. But Twitter live video has been surprisingly resilient, whereas Facebook has pivoted away from focusing on live. What have you noticed in terms of which performs better? Do you think Twitter might be resilient because it’s the place to talk about things that are happening in the now?

We definitely prioritize going live to both Facebook and Twitter. We’re actually hoping to experiment more with Instagram live. So we’re still figuring out how to be able to route to Instagram as well, since Instagram doesn’t have a desktop application.

Generally our Facebook live videos get more views, but it’s definitely important for us to be live on Twitter as well. Not everyone is on every social platform. You might see it on Facebook and miss it on Twitter, or maybe there are people who are not on Twitter but are on Facebook. I think they’re all important.

What are you ultimately trying to accomplish with video? Are you just trying to get as many views as possible? Are you trying to get people to take some sort of action? Are you trying to convert them into MoveOn members?

All of the above. It’s not just about views to us. Obviously, views can help lead to greater actions. Call to action is a huge part of MoveOn videos. Video lab was started to help drive and emphasize the MoveOn brand, and also to help tell the stories of our campaigns, and educate people around them. And also to call people to action around those campaigns. That’s maybe signing a petition, that’s calling their member of Congress to tell them to stop Kavanaugh, to vote for this bill, a number of things. To volunteer. To knock on doors. Yes, I would say it’s not just about views for us. It’s to vote for a specific candidate during election season. Watch this video and this is why you should vote for this person. That’s definitely a huge part of it.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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