Opinion

Is online video a busted flush for publishers?

With Bauer admitting its digital video division has not been hitting its targets Mumbrella's Alex Hayes asks whether online video is the golden goose publishers thought it would be.

There’s something deeply worrying about Bauer’s very candid admission that it’s online video content strategy hasn’t been working – something that should probably worry the entire media industry.

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For the past few years publishers have been rushing to create video teams to churn out cheap, online fodder based on the supposition that audiences are hungry for that kind of thing and, more importantly, advertisers are, too.

Fricke: We haven't hit targets

Fricke: “We haven’t hit targets”

But Christian Fricke’s admission yesterday that the video strategy for Australia’s biggest magazine publisher hasn’t worked as he announced three senior job losses suggests things are not quite what they were cracked up to be. He wrote in that email to staff:

Creating profitable video operations is one of the most challenging tasks we have as a digital publisher.

“Due to the low number of video views we generate per video, we were not able to earn back our production costs in the past.

“We will review the current processes and integrate video into the editorial teams.”

Why is video so attractive to publishers? Obviously the promise of higher CPMs.

Even just a couple of years ago there was a lot of chatter about the ‘scarcity’ of online video, leading media agencies to offer in some cases 20-30 times the CPM for pre-roll video ads compared with traditional display advertising. Obviously, for publishers who found that print dollars were translating into digital dimes, those numbers sounded amazing.

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Those revenue promises made video a no-brainer, and everyone from News Corp and Fairfax to Buzzfeed and Junkee raced to get more deeply embedded in online video.

The problem, as Bauer discovered, is video is actually quite expensive to create, and getting the scale for each one to cover costs is very difficult, especially when it’s not the focus of your business.

It seems people don’t seem to be seeking out video from publishers in the way they it was predicted they might, for a number of reasons.

For one a lot of publishers forgot the golden rule when creating content: you need to make something people want to consume.

Quantity far exceeded quality for the most part, in a bid to generate as many views as possible and take advantage of the enhanced dollars on offer. And, of course, the greater the amount of video inventory on offer, the lower the price for advertisers. It’s basic market economics.

For news publishers the problem has always been video relevant to a story in a speedy way. It’s very quick to write a news story of an incident, it takes a lot longer to get video footage of it and splice it together in a coherent way. Many have entered into republishing deals with TV networks to repurpose their footage – again at a cost.TV-Camera-Sound-Lights-Image

I remember as a junior reporter in London a decade ago being sent out with a small video camera and told to film any incidents I went to for video. I had no real training and no real idea of what made good video footage, and being based on the road a lot rarely had time to sit down and edit something together. Inevitably it ended up with some pretty low quality video that, as far as I’m aware, never really caught our audience’s imagination.

Things have obviously moved on a bit, especially with everyone having a camera in their pockets and the rise of social media making it easier to harvest imagery from web from witnesses, but even that is rarely all that interesting.

To counter this a lot of publishers brought in autoplay, so now everyone had to watch the video, or at least the first three seconds of the pre-roll ad, and more importantly suffer through an appalling user experience and slow load times for pages, in order to boost views.

There was a good reason for Mat Baxter at UM taking a stand against autoplay videos when they were introduced by News Corp four years ago, as I can’t see how people would feel better about the brand that was holding up their ability to access the information they are after.

One of the most pleasing aspects of Fairfax’s recent redesign was the removal of the clunky video unit from the top of nearly every article, pushing video further down the page and making them more streamlined.

It just seems people aren’t consuming video on publisher’s sites in the way they thought they would. A lot of the online video I watch, for example, I find through Facebook – otherwise known as off-platform distribution. Generally speaking, if I click on an article I’m interested in the words, not the video.

And here these brands can get huge reach for videos. Just look at Junkee’s ‘Back to the Future vs Reality’ video from last year that has so far clocked up 54m views.

If it had had pre-roll on it it would have made Junkee a massive amount of cash. But it hasn’t made them Junkee a cent directly.

Because on Facebook you can’t put ads onto your video content, making it incredibly hard to directly monetise. You can put the video on there, and then have to hope people’s attention is piqued enough to click through to the site and give you another 0.001c in the coffers from those display ads you have (as long as they don’t have an ad-blocker, of course).

It’s catch 22 for publishers right now. You can create a video and put it where the audience is (social media) but then struggle to monetise it, or you can host the content somewhere you can monetise it in the hope people will come to you to find it – hardly a compelling proposition for the money men.

Buzzfeed would, of course, point to the very successful business unit it’s created off the back of branded content, and there’s definitely something in sponsored video which can then be seeded anywhere to get eyeballs. The aim of the game then is to create content that gets shared and viewed as much as possible – that’s not likely to be important hard news content.

And, of course, for Junkee video plays an important role in its native content strategy, so being able to show advertisers reach like that makes a sales job that much easier.

In all of this it seems there should be an opportunity for the likes of Bauer, which plays in the lifestyle space with brands like Australian Women’s Weekly, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Dolly, Australian Gourmet Traveller, etc. These are titles which are ripe for both lighthearted and shareable videos and some more interesting long-form stuff based off of the features in the magazines.

The fact they have failed to make this work shows the problem Bauer has had with getting traction with its own digital offerings, and the mess the publisher’s digital strategy has been in.

The failed experiment with (then AWW editor) Helen McCabe’s chat show shows quite how out of touch the company has been with what people want from online video. A quick look at the Youtube channel shows video views in the low hundreds for its content, which is costly and time consuming to produce.

Online video consumption is definitely on the rise and ad spend is following suit according to the IAB. But as with written online content it’s going to become increasingly difficult for them to make huge amounts of cash because of the dilution in the market.

If you’re a publisher thinking of getting into the video game it’s worth stopping and asking whether you can actually make it pay, and what model you should adopt.

It’s another thing that is very easy to get wrong, but much harder to make pay.

Alex Hayes is editor of Mumbrella

The Publish conference on Thursday will see Junkee Media execs present on how they created their native content unit. Check out the full program and get tickets here.

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