January 27, 2021

This story is a part of our playbook for VidSpark, a Poynter initiative to bring local news to younger audiences. We worked with three local newsrooms over the course of 2020 to create social media video series aimed at GenZ viewers. Find our entire playbook here.

On social media, the audience is opting in, curating their feeds, and choosing what they consume. In order to successfully reach and engage this audience, particularly Gen Z, legacy news organizations must shift their thinking to prioritize the experience of the audience.

The key shift: Think of the content and audience in parallel.

Being relevant means being able to be found by the audience. Being found by the audience is made possible by creating content that matches their interests, crafting the content’s presentation on the platform, and optimizing the content’s metadata to suit the platform’s algorithm.

This is particularly true in online video, where it’s advantageous to keep the viewer watching a video for as long as possible. Thinking about the audience before and during your production process will help you structure the content in the way that’s most engaging.

Ask yourself:

  • Why would someone click on this video?
  • What terms would they be searching to find it?
  • What representative image or thumbnail would make them stop scrolling?
  • How can I keep the viewer hooked until the end?
  • Could I make the content layered or impactful enough to warrant rewatching the video?
  • How can I make this video remarkable or relevant enough to share?

The most sustained growth on social platforms comes from organic viewing, liking, sharing and searching within the platform, rather than from paid advertising campaigns. If discoverability is baked into the content creation process, then the content becomes its own marketing. To be more easily discovered, it helps to know what your audience is interested in discovering.

Knowing your audience: Building views vs. building community

There are several approaches to thinking about audience growth on video platforms. One strategy you could use is what I’ll call the maximum viewership approach. This approach might lead to prioritizing sensational stories and widely trending topics in search of virality. The priority would be speaking to as large an audience as possible and maximizing the number of videos published. This is a strategy that, if successful, can lead to revenue through advertising within the social platform.

The disadvantage to this approach is that the audience engagement tends to be more shallow, making the audience less valuable outside of views within the platform. General audience topics may not convince a viewer that your work is particularly for them. Viewership is less predictable, and there isn’t necessarily a returning community coming back for each piece of content because the content is less curated.

The approach I favor, and the one I’ll assume as our goal here, is a community-building approach. With this approach, you curate your content and start to reach audiences of like-minded people who care about your area of specialization. The audience develops an ongoing relationship with your content as it continuously speaks to their specific interests. They become invested in your voice, vision and content and want to see your work continue.

Under this model, growth builds consistently over a longer period of time. This strategy is a play for long-term sustainability and can lead to revenue through advertising, sponsored content and through direct support from your audience. The potential to build an audience that’s invested in your videos is one reason I particularly recommend this approach for nonprofit newsrooms.

I also recommend this approach for reaching younger audiences, who are used to following their favorite influencers and creators online. They’re coming back for an experience, and building a relationship with the people behind the content they consume. By building trust and favor with the audience, the audience becomes more engaged and more valuable to you.

For a community-building approach, think deeply about who your audience is, what they value and how you can offer them consistent value over time based on their needs and circumstances.

Questions to ask in planning might be:

  • What is your target audience’s demographic profile?
  • What life stage are they in?
  • What are their interests?
  • What media do they consume?
  • Where do they shop?
  • What hobbies do they enjoy?
  • What beliefs do they hold?

It can help to create audience personas to make this image of your viewer concrete, and recall those personas during the production process when asking yourself if the video will resonate with the audience.

Finding what your target audience values takes research. Look at what social accounts, publications and creators young people are following in your chosen topic area and platform. What common threads appear in the content? What subtopics get the most engagement? What hashtags are being used? Look at the comments sections. What questions are viewers asking? What are they responding to? What are they saying they like or dislike the most? Mapping out related content and creators in your area is helpful for inspiration, context and potential outreach.

Making your channel an audience destination, not a repository

Crafting the look of your channel or account page will help you to engage the audience upon their first visit. For the three VidSpark newsrooms, who all worked with YouTube as a primary platform, this meant making a shift in their thinking about their YouTube channels as destinations rather than repositories.

Often, newsrooms will use YouTube primarily as a backend for their website or to host video clips and livestreams without prioritizing the design or consistency of the channel itself. An unorganized channel with titles and thumbnails that aren’t clear can be confusing to YouTube viewers and lessen their likelihood of subscribing for more content. If the channel is full of clips that aren’t optimized for the platform, any social-first content you may have will be harder to find.

Think of the audience’s experience when they land on your profile page. Do they know where to start if they’re a first-time viewer? Is it clear what kind of content you make? Is it clear what your brand stands for? Would a viewer know what to expect from you going forward? Make sure that the layout, branding and about section of your channel answer these questions.

If you do need to use a YouTube channel as a backend for your website or to host marketing materials, consider starting a new account to attract an audience within the platform. Unless the subscribers you’ve gained on an existing channel are highly interactive and return to watch most videos, they are not advantageous. Rather, unengaged subscribers could send a negative signal to the algorithm; if the people who have signed up to see content aren’t watching, then why should the platform promote it more widely?

It is more beneficial, for a community-building approach, to build up an audience that you know from the beginning is interested in the particular content you will provide. This way any new viewer who stumbles upon the channel will find only other videos that are related to their interests, feel native to the platform, and provide value rather than finding a mix of promotional videos, broadcast clips or videos that feel irrelevant to them.

Ideally, if a viewer likes one video, then they’ll like everything else on the channel as well. This leads to habitual viewing, which leads to loyalty. By creating an interesting experience consistently within the platform, and catering that experience to the platform’s features and conventions, your content can become fully integrated into the viewer’s social media diet within the online spaces they use every day.

The audience’s first encounter with your content: titles and thumbnails

The title and thumbnail image of a video are key representations of the content that a viewer will see before committing to watching through. This is especially important on YouTube, where video views are the result of the user choosing to click and watch rather than being served a feed of autoplaying videos (although on other platforms like Instagram, titles and thumbnails are also worth thinking about since viewers can browse your profile page).

One change I encouraged the newsrooms to make was to think about the titles and thumbnails of videos at the beginning of the production process. The thumbnail entices the audience to stop scrolling and, combined with the title, conveys what a viewer will get out of watching. By considering the title and thumbnail from the start, you can film the introduction of the video in a way that immediately relates to the reason the viewer clicked on the video.

Titles and thumbnails also provide important information to the algorithms about the subject of the video and what topics it relates to. Using keywords and recognizable images can help the video surface in search and alongside related content. This makes having compelling and relevant titles and thumbnails essential for maximizing video discoverability.

Take time to think critically about these aspects in advance rather than waiting until right before you upload.

The audience’s experience within the video: Hook them in

During the first few seconds of watching a video on social, the viewer is deciding whether they’ll continue watching the video or keep scrolling. This makes the first seconds critical in creating a hook and delivering valuable content, giving the viewer a reason to continue watching. Skip the exposition, put the most interesting visuals and information upfront, before any branding, and give context later on.

I recommend putting any branding around 30 seconds in at the soonest, or about 20% in if the video is shorter, because by this time viewers are more engaged with the content. Design the video with audience retention in mind.

One way to engage the viewer more directly through the content is to have a host. The social media landscape is personality-driven, and younger viewers like connecting with the people behind the content they consume. Having a host adds a step to the workflow: script-writing. Whether the script is word-for-word, or a bullet point list of topics and shots needed, having the video mapped on paper keeps the host focused during the shoot and helps you plan an engaging storyline.

If you choose to go with a host, work with their presentation style so that it suits the platform, the content and your brand. It can seem more natural on social to present casually rather than with a practiced broadcast-like cadence. For more tips on hosting for social media, watch our video below.

Video: The benefits of hosted videos and best practices from three VidSpark hosts

Keep your videos focused on one point whenever possible. You can play with the level of specificity in videos to find a sweet spot, but ideally you’re able to articulate the one thing that the video provides clarity on. This allows you to capture that main point in a title and thumbnail, makes for easier promotional language, clarifies to the platform algorithms what topic to suggest the video against, and provides a clear reason why someone would share it themselves. A focused video becomes more shareable, searchable and discoverable.

Develop your videos over time

One great advantage of social media is the ability to be responsive and iterative. Build flexibility into your workflow, and expect the content to change over time. If the audience isn’t responding to a certain style, you’re free to try different variations on the format. If the analytics tell you the audience is dropping off at a certain time, try to figure out what’s turning them away and adjust accordingly.

During regular content meetings, ensure there is discussion of not only logistics, production and editorial direction, but also platform strategy, audience engagement and episode discoverability. Be listening in the comments and be watching the other content your audience is likely watching on the platform. This will help you stay aware of the audience’s expectations so that you can choose where to match conventions and where to intentionally deviate.

Flexibility is one reason to avoid recording the entire run of a series at once. Much of the success on social media results from being able to listen and pivot to find the right audience and serve their needs. One example: “The Art Assignment,” an educational art and art history series I worked with at PBS, made an entire video in response to a comment, which then became the most popular video on the channel for the following three years and has gained more than 700,000 views to date.

Virality is great when you can get it. However, growing a community on social media typically takes time. Through creating responsive videos with the audience’s needs and experiences in mind, you can build the trust necessary to remain relevant to younger audiences and grow loyalty that will last for years to come.

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Ahsante is Editor & Program Manager, Video Strategy at Poynter, where she’s focusing on developing innovative digital content with local newsrooms to reach younger audiences.…
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