Don’t Give Up on Online Video Yet

Poor video. For a while, he was the hot boyfriend of the online world. His buddy, pre-roll advertising, was touted as the way to save the industry. Now, like a guy who dumped us, people are trashing-talking video content on news sites and telling all their girlfriends that video on the Web fails to perform.

I think it’s time for some relationship counseling.

While clearly there are video efforts that have failed or been abandoned, declaring it all a failure doesn’t accurately reflect what’s going on in the industry. CNN.com is dropping its live online-only newscasts, but has also said that online video advertising has grown. I’ve got my own thoughts about why 702.tv didn’t succeed, but since nobody asked, and this is about what is working, I’ll move right along.

When I posted a question to the newspaper video listserv asking what kinds of video are working, I got an earful (eyeful?).

What does work: news shows. What doesn’t work: news shows. What works: spot news. What doesn’t work: spot news. What does work: feature pieces. What doesn’t work — you get the idea.

Of course, defining success is very slippery. A lot of traffic on one site may not be enough for another. Some places have very reliable numbers, others not so much. So for the purposes of this article, I’m not trying to define success, I’m letting each organization set their own definition of what makes video worthwhile.

All those who responded said, yes, absolutely, video works on their Web sites and is worth producing. The responses were passionate that it’s much too soon to decide video’s future — that it deserves more time and effort. And a New York Times article last week on the fact that video advertising is booming online certainly seems to reinforce that position.

My question about what kinds of videos work best received fascinating — and absolutely contradictory — answers. Clearly, what works for one site does not necessarily work for others. But it’s also clear there are many newspaper Web sites out there pleased with their video efforts and results.

So what is working?

Perhaps the closest to consensus from across the sites was that sports and breaking news videos are very successful, in terms of traffic.

For the Nashua Telegraph, it’s all about immediacy. “Basically, if we can tell a story that people have not read or seen yet — and we can tell it with video — that drives views,” said Damon Kiesow, managing editor for online at nashuatelegraph.com (and a contributor to E-Media Tidbits). Even features that are turned quickly do better, if for no other reason than “it doubles the half-life of reader interest in a story.”

The Miami Herald’s hard news videos also are heavily trafficked. After a stabbing at a local high school, two videos of the story got nearly 70,000 plays that month; another half-dozen video stories that followed got a combined 100,000 more, according to Chuck Fadely, a video producer there.

Despite the online newscasts that have failed, a number of sites have had success with this approach, especially sports-related newscasts. In fact, nearly everyone agreed that users watch sports videos a lot.

At the Herald, Fadely says that they get about 500,000 views on all their videos during the football season. “The ‘during the football season’ part of that is a key bit of information,” he pointed out. By the way, Fadely posted a version of his response to me on his Newspaper Video blog, where you can read it in full.

At the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, producer Jennifer Friedberg says their program “High School Huddle,” which earned a regional Emmy, was a hit with viewers. But when layoffs hit the staff, the paper scaled back to a smaller game-of-the-week feature.

In Minneapolis (at my former employer, StarTribune.com), they too have done well with sports-related videos — everything from locker room post-game interviews to fan pieces to shows with sports columnists. The videos range from highly produced programs to simple laptop camera Webcasts of the prep sports writer at home, with regular appearances by his dog.

Other shows have been successful at StarTribune.com, and a number have failed. They have experimented a lot with comedy, consumer reporting, gardening and sports. “We constantly monitored the balance, and over the course of the year halted production of four shows for varying reasons,” multimedia producer Jenni Pinkley said. “We have retooled based on what we learned.”

Now, StarTribune.com staff focus on the most popular ideas, including a weekly entertainment segment they produce in partnership with the local CW television station. (Miami, too, has had success with TV partnerships.) They produce “60-Second Review” with business writer Bridget Carey, which will run nationally on PBS’ “Nightly Business Report.”

In Detroit, the Free Press does a wide variety of video, including 60- to 90-second pieces that are broadcast on the CBS affiliate WWJ-TV on the early morning news show and the Free Press Express, in which reporters provide 15-20 second summaries of the day’s big stories and discuss what’s next, according to staff photographer Eric Seals.

“I think maybe the future of newspaper video might lie in broadcast,” Fadely said.

Television stations are struggling with the same employee cutbacks as newspapers. And unlike newspapers, which reduce the number of pages they print, TV largely is still trying to fill the same number of minutes in their newscasts. I suspect that getting content from newspapers is a godsend.

Feature and documentary stories seem to be the problem children in videoland. Many folks I talked to complained that some of their most polished pieces consistently draw little traffic, to the huge disappointment of all involved.

Several people told me they’re frustrated by their inability to predict which video features will take off.
The Star-Telegram’s Friedberg said a documentary-style story about a politician on election night was popular, yet few people viewed a video about a local ballet troupe.

Kiesow said he sees the same thing in Nashua, where the long-planned and produced stories “almost always fail to resonate with a broad audience. I don’t have a good answer for that.”

On the flip side, feature videos at the Robinson Newspapers community newspaper sites such as the West Seattle Herald and the Ballard News-Tribune do better than spot news, according to Patrick Robinson, director of new media for the group. They’ve chosen to produce videos as TV-style packages with reporter narration so that the stories have context on their own.

Robinson thinks the reason features do better is twofold: people are more likely to share feature stories with a friend, which have a longer shelf-life. And by the time the small staff had edited, produced and posted a complete spot news story, it’s no longer timely.

“Real Florida,” a regular feature at the St. Petersburg Times (which Poynter owns), doesn’t draw huge traffic, but it gets solid, consistent numbers, according to director of photography Boyzell Hosey, and that’s important.

In a meeting with the sales force at the Times, Hosey found that in spite of the fact that it is not a top traffic driver, the sales people are anxious for it to continue. While the spot news drives much of the video traffic on the site, it’s not as interesting to advertisers, Hosey was told, so local features are an important part of planning for ad sales.

(Deep breath. Okay, it’s a little scary to be talking about what the sales department likes, but let’s admit it right here: We have to figure out how this is going to pay for itself, don’t we?)

Friedberg’s boss in Fort Worth also told her she was less concerned about the traffic on individual videos than that the videos make their site more attractive to users and improve the stickiness of the site.

Why don’t features — or any video stories — work more consistently? Producers have a lot of ideas: lack of placement within stories. Lack of marketing. Lack of sales staff training. Lack of listening to our readers. Poor navigation. The list goes on. Unfortunately, a lot of it is a guessing game.

So it comes down to this: There is no magic formula to make video successful. It’s as much about knowing your audience and responding to them as anything else. There is no one boyfriend who is perfect for everyone. Still, the folks I talked to had a number of suggestions about how to make a relationship with video work, which I’ll write about in an upcoming article.

What types of videos work on your site? What advice do you have for making online video more successful?

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