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.
When crafting a video series for social media, the platform you choose will greatly influence which format and tone will feel natural for your content. Particularly when trying to attract young viewers, you want to balance the authority of your news brand with relatability to the audience’s perspective. There’s plenty to consider when designing your content strategy, from how often to post, to the length of videos, to the degree of audience interactivity.
For the sake of this guide, I’m assuming that your goal is to take an audience-first approach with a focus on gaining loyal viewers over time, rather than solely focusing on views and virality. It can result in slower growth over time, but viewers will be more engaged and invested in your content.
This guide will help you to think about what factors to consider when crafting a content strategy, format variables to play with when planning content, and what type of content is suited for various platforms.
The importance of consistency
Consistency is key for creating and fulfilling expectations, both for the audience and for the platforms’ algorithms. The value proposition you offer is that if the viewer follows your page, and regularly gives you their time and attention, you’ll deliver a certain type of value at a certain frequency.
Being consistent with your format, tone, talent and upload cadence will make it clear why viewers should follow and what content to expect if they subscribe. This makes it more likely that they will enjoy each piece of future content, and makes it more likely that the algorithms will successfully promote future videos to your existing audience.
This is one reason it’s important to develop a format that is repeatable and sustainable. When developing a video series, keep the workflow requirements in mind, including platform-specific aspects like creating thumbnail images or editing video to be vertical. Using your resource limitations as creative constraints during idea development can save you headaches and delays down the road.
In working with our three VidSpark newsrooms, and with PolitiFact at Poynter, we’ve found that the closer the video content is to day-to-day coverage, the easier it is for the newsroom to maintain. In order to be continually present for your audience, try to develop a series that you can publish at least every other week. Building a community on social is a long game, particularly when starting from scratch, so it’s ideal to have a video series that you’ll be able to sustain for at least a year.
A balanced variety of content
While overall consistency in tone and cadence is important, it’s also helpful to have a balance of different types of subject matter. Different video topics can achieve different strategic goals. Here are a few things to consider as you manage your content calendar:
Balance stories that focus on your existing audience with stories designed to reach a wider audience. Create a few videos that require more intense production and represent your best work while you create lighter-lift videos that you can churn out regularly. Balance stories that focus on local issues with stories that have national appeal and are widely sharable. Find the areas of overlap where local stories speak to universal themes.
Have some topical videos that can gain traction from current events, and have evergreen videos that can continue to amass views well into the future. You can also try a few different formats: maybe some videos are longer deep dives, some are shorts and some are responses to other content. You can use a mini-series to try something new, or sprinkle in a few episodes without series branding to see how it resonates before you commit.
Format and style for social video
There are a few common formats for social video that could suit your newsroom’s purposes. Explainers break down a topic and its context in a straightforward way. Explainers, a format that Vox has mastered, often rely on graphics and footage to visualize information for the viewer. Video essays provide analysis, make an argument or illustrate a viewpoint.
Investigations pose a question at the outset, then bring the audience along for the process of discovery, usually guided by a host conducting research and consulting sources. This is a great format for developing a transparent relationship with the audience. In our work with 10 Tampa Bay’s investigative series “What’s Brewing?,” Gen Z viewers appreciated seeing the process, rather than simply being told the answer. Investigations can be as serious as finding out whether Florida schools were ready for the pandemic or as light as figuring out why elevator buttons can be so frustrating.
Watch: Jenna Bourne investigates whether schools were adequately prepared for the pandemic
Interviews, video portraits and mini-documentaries are ways to tell narrative stories and feature community members, and spotlight remarkable individuals. The Star Tribune found success with this format, largely due to having an available video journalist who captured strong interviews and footage in the field. Some videos are primarily eye candy: captures of visually stunning phenomena or surprising events.
You can also mix formats or do something else entirely. In our work with GBH News, we wanted to explain civics concepts while breaking out of the typical explainer format. GBH News wound up making “Internet Expert,” a democracy game show that challenged contestants to sort fact from fiction on topics related to the 2020 election.
Here are a few format variables you can play with:
Length: I’m often asked what an ideal length for a video is, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. I can thoroughly enjoy a 15-second video on TikTok and an hourlong video on YouTube. Make the video as long as you need to tell the story and no longer. On YouTube, maybe that’s two minutes, maybe that’s 15 minutes, but it will likely fall somewhere within that range. Pick a target length, see if the content feels too fast or slow, and adjust from there. People will watch longer videos online if they’re relevant and compelling.
Presenter: The person conveying the information brings their own character to the video. Think about whether your series will have a single host, multiple hosts, a voiceover host, or no host at all. Perhaps videos will be interview-driven or rely on text-on-screen to convey the message. There could also be ways to involve the voices of viewers in the content. See our video on hosting for more tips.
Location: Consider whether you will film in a studio or from a personalized space. Will you create a set, use a green screen or sit in front of a backdrop? Will you shoot in the field?
Visuals: The video could primarily feature a host talking directly to the camera, or it could mainly feature b-roll. You could employ light graphics or use more robust animation. Video illustrations could be literal or abstract. On-screen captions could be another visual element, especially if the platform lacks closed captioning.
Tone: A news series for social doesn’t necessarily need to be serious in order to be informative. Think about crafting a specific tone to match the audience, platform, your brand and the subject matter. Videos could be witty, quirky, academic, personal or intimate. Video editing can set a tone as well. Your pacing could use quick kinetic cuts or pauses for dramatic effect.
Audience interactivity: Think about how the series could use interactive platform features. You could have viewers respond to platform-specific formats (like Instagram Stories, for example), reference viewer comments in episodes, ask a question at the end of a video or conduct a quick poll.
All of these variables are things you can adjust as the series continues.
The look and feel of social video
The feel of social media video differs from that of traditional news, and the character of the platforms are constantly changing. Be sure that you’re watching content on the platform you’re producing for. By watching, you can pick up current conventions and cues so that your content can feel in touch with the current atmosphere. You can also decide how to make your content distinct enough to stand out from what already exists.
While specific graphics choices will vary, keep in mind that simple graphics are often more effective and can feel more authentic to the platform. On TikTok, for example, viewers are used to seeing simple text graphics made within TikTok’s editor, and fancy animation can feel out of place. Graphics that illustrate the information are helpful, but be wary of creating content that feels overproduced for the platform.
Match the content strategy to the platform
Take advantage of the features within each platform to tell interactive, layered stories. The more surfaces that you use within a platform, the more of a chance your viewer has to engage with your content and build a connection with your brand. Platform features and algorithms are constantly evolving — another reason to monitor activity by being an active user of the platform yourself.
Let’s look at ways you can program content that caters to three of the primary social video platforms for younger viewers: YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
YouTube is the second-largest search engine, next to Google, and is great for highly searchable content. For YouTube, think about producing videos that relate to tentpole topics, notable public figures, elements of pop culture and commonly asked questions.
The number of minutes a viewer spends watching your content, called watch time, is the most important algorithmic factor on YouTube for ensuring a video is suggested to users within the platform. For this reason, YouTube videos tend to be longer, and long videos (10+ minutes) can perform quite well.
Because YouTube viewers choose and opt-in to viewing a video, rather than being served in an auto-playing feed, there is more opportunity for binge-watching behavior. Think about programming your videos in such a way that when a user finds one video, they are easily directed to other videos within your library that are just as relevant and enjoyable. Using playlists, links within video cards and endscreens, links within the description, and using common keywords and branding across your content can all facilitate a viewer’s journey through your channel.
Titles and thumbnails are important on YouTube because of the opt-in viewing, and should be an early part of the idea development process as you evaluate whether to pursue a video topic. Ideally, you can create a curiosity gap, where the title and thumbnail pose an interesting question, assertion or graphic that can only be explained by clicking and watching. Titles and thumbnails are only clickbait if they’re deceptive. If you deliver on the promise of the title and thumbnail within the video, and get to the central point quickly, the viewer will appreciate the story you have to tell.
YouTube is also unique in that much video traffic is driven by suggested videos, which appear while a viewer is watching other content. This makes for an environment of cross-pollination. Think about ways to respond, directly or indirectly, to content produced by other popular YouTube channels. You could take a different angle on a story using similar keywords, feature the same concept in a unique way, or collaborate directly with other YouTube producers.
Finally, make sure you’re using YouTube’s available features to your advantage. Start with having a keyword-rich description that gives at least two lines about the video’s contents. You can also use the description to link to the sources you used, items you mentioned, any guests or experts you featured, other related videos in your library, your own website, social media, email newsletter, and ways for viewers to support you directly.
Once you have regular videos up and running and have begun to grow an audience, consider planning content for YouTube’s community tab as a way to engage your audience between videos. YouTube Stories and Shorts are features to look into as well.
Instagram provides an opportunity to engage with various formats: in-feed posts, live broadcasts through Instagram Live, pre-recorded video through IGTV, Instagram Stories, and Highlights. This warrants a more layered content strategy. The more touch points you use, the more opportunities you have to engage your audience.
The character of Instagram has a heavy emphasis on visuals that are either captivating, show personality, or do a bit of both. For in-feed posts, think about what still images can help promote videos while standing on their own as beautiful visuals.
Vertical video is ideal for Instagram since vertical videos fully use the space available within the feed and when shared in Instagram Stories. If shooting videos for Instagram, have a vertical layout in mind from the start.
IG Live and Stories allow ways for you to create a dialogue with viewers. Because these elements disappear after a short time, and because young viewers are used to seeing their peers and the personalities they follow sharing candid moments of their lives, there’s a sense of intimacy and familiarity. Think about ways you could show the behind the scenes of your reporting, create polls and questions in Stories, and feature user-generated content.
Stories in particular are an effective way to share content from others, and facilitate the promotion of your own content. Our VidSpark newsroom GBH took advantage of this with its series “Internet Expert,” which featured a host and several guests with strong Instagram followings. Those featured were able to easily share and tag the show through Stories to drive more viewership.
Discovery on Instagram’s explore page depends on having posts with high engagement and surfacing to viewers who have liked and interacted with similar content. This is one reason it’s important to know your audience and research similar content in your area. Do some browsing to find popular hashtags within your content category and incorporate both niche and broad hashtags into your posts.
While TikTok started as an environment focused on dancing and comedy, there are increasingly very informative, clever, socially aware pockets on the platform. Humor is still the primary tone, but if you’re able to combine a fun presentation style with substantive information, there’s a high potential for discoverability regardless of your content area.
Discovery on TikTok largely stems from the use of trending sounds, hashtags and memes. For this reason, it’s critical for producers to be regularly watching the platform and monitoring trends that are appropriate to hop in on. Not only do you need to know of trends, you need to perform them in a way that matches the convention and adds your own twist. Remixing and iteration is a big part of the culture on the platform, so look for videos to respond to in a duet or stitch.
Using existing sounds is a particularly strong driver of viewership, so finding appropriate sounds to illustrate concepts should be an early part of your idea generation process. In order to feel in touch with the platform, I recommend having hosted videos, shooting vertically and editing primarily within the TikTok app.
These per-platform guidelines are places to start, but your content strategy can and should evolve over time just as platforms and audiences evolve over time. Make sure to build flexibility and time to pivot into your workflow. By taking the platform’s features into account, testing different formats, and using audience feedback to adjust your content over time, you’ll be able to find what works best for your newsroom and the audience you’re trying to reach.