Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

Knowing, growing and measuring audience for digital video

We have never had more information about audience behavior than we do today. In the past a newspaper measured its success in part by circulation numbers and daily sales. The publisher didn’t know which part of the paper was read or whether the paper was read at all.

Standard TV ratings are similarly crude. Sara Just, a former Deputy Bureau Chief at ABC News, said when TV news ratings fluctuate it could be because “it rained in Chicago or Oprah had a good lead-in.”

Compare that to online metrics. The number of visitors can be tracked, how they arrived, where they traveled on the site and how long they stayed — all valuable clues in helping publishers build audience.

When it comes to video, the metric most prized by advertisers is simple: completed view rates, according to Allen Klosowski of SpotXchange.

“They’re not looking at the number of impressions, they’re not looking at the number of clicks — they’re looking at how many people actually watched my ad and how far did they watch it?”

This section will cover:

  • Audience data you need to know
  • The biggest mistake many publishers make
  • Amortizing the cost of video

Publishers should know the Who, When, Where and How of audience behavior

Understanding the demographics of a city or state is second nature to most regional news organizations. The digital environment demands that publishers know a new dimension of their communities: audience behavior.

Rebecca Howard, the general manager of video at the New York Times, explained that home page traffic is in decline for many publishers.

“We need to be paying attention to, where is [the video] being shared? How are people coming to the site? What is the first entry point? That’s what we look a lot at.”

Another consideration: how video is consumed.

Today’s audience consumes content across four “screens:” mobile, desktop, tablet and TV. Screen use shifts throughout the day. CNN.com is the second largest national news site. KC Estenson, CNN.com’s former General Manager, said they track device usage throughout the day.

“People are reaching for their phones first thing in the morning … our web prime is between 11 a.m. eastern and 2 in the afternoon and then we’re seeing another mobile phone spike in what would be called ‘fringe,’ the 4-to-6 commute hour, and then we’ve got a tablet spike in prime time.”

Mobile is the entry point for more than 50 percent of CNN’s customers, Estenson said. Ooyala, a video analytics firm, sees similar trends. They report that between the first quarter of 2013 and the end of the first quarter 2014, mobile and tablet viewing increased 133 percent year over year.

Information about device usage can shape content, inform publishing schedules, reveal strategies for growth and allow sales teams to more effectively monetize inventory with advertisers. For example, the smaller screens of mobile phones suggest that content should be bolder, cleaner, stronger. NowThis News uses simple bold words across video for exactly this reason; they assume many people in their audience are watching on small screens, and not necessarily with the volume on.

For mobile-friendly video, NowThis News narrates with large bold text on the screen, rather than with spoken words.

For mobile-friendly video, NowThis News narrates with large bold text on the screen, rather than with spoken words.

Mike Donoghue of Advance Digital says device data can shape advertising strategies.

“If we knew that individual was going to be accessing that ad on a mobile phone, how could we allow them to touch one button and map themselves via the phone’s GPS to that advertiser, with turn-by-turn directions?”

Estenson said that CNN uses a variety of analytical tools, “from Omniture to Outbrain to nGage to look at traffic flows and patterns across all of our devices, to test headlines, video placement, iterative testing.”

“Increasingly the folks who are most successful are the ones who are willing to let the data inform a lot of those decisions,” said Andrew Forrest, then Upworthy’s director of audience development.

At nearly 3 years old, Upworthy draws monthly audiences that measure in the millions. Upworthy mostly curates rather than creates online video. The company is known for its extensive “A/B testing” of headlines, determining the most effective of two options. It’s a process that has its roots in the political world, where many of Upworthy’s staff began their careers.

“I A/B test anything and everything,” Forrest said, “from headlines to the color of a button.”

Two A/B testing tools mentioned by participants at our summit were Optimizely and Adobe Target.

“The key is determining as an organization how far you’re willing to go with testing and how much you’re willing to let the data guide you in what you are doing,” Forrest said.

Most journalists would agree that data is a useful adjunct to one’s editorial mission, but not a replacement for it. And metrics need to be viewed in context.

“We’re metrics-focused but not metrics-obsessed,” said Steve Elfers, USA Today’s managing editor of multimedia. “We temper metrics with other information in the spirit of dynamic analysis.”

If video fails to generate adequate views, there are many considerations, Elfers said. “Was it a promotion failure or a content issue or just a bad headline?”

Not paying enough attention to distribution is the biggest mistake publishers make

Upworthy’s Forrest said that not paying enough attention to distribution is the most common mistake legacy publishers make. “They put so much time into the production of video,” he said, “and the distribution is an afterthought.”

Less so at startups whose very existences are predicated on their audience sharing video. Some of these organizations, like Mashable, publish the number of “shares” alongside their video.

Ashley Codianni is the former executive producer of video for Mashable, now a digital correspondent for CNN Politics. When OK GO, the band known as much for its videos as its music, released its latest music video it was a notable pop culture moment. Codianni produced a video for Mashable, then began work on distribution.

“There’s a video, there’s a text post, there are two Vines and three Instagrams and there’s a Snapchat story. So the benefit of doing that is my Snapchat audience is brought back to my video and my post, my Instagram is brought back to my video and my post and so is my Vine audience … and each of those is catered to that platform. So I think it’s really beneficial and helpful in building audience.”

This was one of Mashable’s custom promotional videos for Vine based on the OK GO video:

Can audiences be cultivated on other platforms like Facebook and YouTube without “cannibalizing” one’s audience? Most agreed that Facebook and YouTube offer exposure to wide and different audiences.

“Push it everywhere,” said Rahul Chopra, former senior vice president for video at News Corp. “What these opportunities on different sites allow you to do is … introduce yourself to one more fan of your website or subscriber to your product.”

The magic of what we have [online] is, if we create something good and shareable we can actually go find the audience where they are.

Video on these sites can be used as laboratories, said Christine Delargy, executive producer at Politico. She considered Facebook a place to find those who “aren’t on your site everyday.”

“If a video is connecting with them, maybe it’s worth pursuing,” Delargy said.

Finding audience on the internet offers efficiencies over television, according to Ed O’Keefe of CNN.

“This is the incredible part of the internet versus TV, right? [With TV] we spend hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing to try to get people to tune in at a particular time … the magic of what we have [online] is, if we create something good and shareable we can actually go find the audience where they are.”

Publish and re-publish: Amortizing the cost of video

Video is more expensive to produce than text. Video advertising rates, though higher than print, have not risen as fast as print rates have fallen. One method to hedge against these realities is simple: Re-publish video when appropriate.

Rebecca Howard, the general manager for video at The New York Times, said a robust “recommendation engine” is a necessity for her organization.

“You can make as much evergreen content as you want,” Howard said, “but if you can’t re-surface it in the future … then it’s kind of moot.”

In the video age, abundance has become an expectation.

“When Netflix can flight an original series and run 22 episodes of ‘House of Cards’ all in one shot, it changes instantly consumer expectations and behavior, and drives consumption,” CNN’s Estenson said.

Advertisers are equally susceptible to shifting audience expectations. A new generation is growing up who have never watched television in conventional ways. Their tolerance for advertising will be very different from the current generation.

Advertising executive Allen Klosowski has watched the change first hand.

“My 3-year-old, when he was a about 2 years old, saw his first TV commercial and freaked out. He was like, ‘Get this off! I don’t want to watch this — get it off of my cartoon!’ So I think we’ve got a generation coming up who’s got very, very different expectations.”

Satisfying those expectations will likely mean creating video ads that are as engaging as the content they frame. Or giving consumers more control; by letting them choose the ads they watch, allowing them to watch silently unless they choose otherwise or to opt out of watching ads after a certain amount of time — all current practices today — with a multiple variations to come.

My 3-year-old … saw his first TV commercial and freaked out. He was like, ‘Get this off! I don’t want to watch this — get it off of my cartoon!’ So I think we’ve got a generation coming up who’s got very, very different expectations.

The abundance of video options has made audiences more powerful than ever. They vote with every click. Navigating that landscape effectively holds both promise and the peril for publishers and advertisers.

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

The American Press Institute

Our mission

We help transform news organizations for an audience-centered future.

Our programs for publishers focus on four things:

  • 1. Understand your audience
  • 2. Get your audience to pay
  • 3. Transform your culture
  • 4. Do your best journalism
  • Find out more about API »

API solutions for publishers

What we can do for you

API offers a suite of original tools and services for solving the biggest challenges in news:

  • Decide what beats to cover and how
  • Identify and develop the skills you need
  • Assess and improve your culture
  • Drive more reader revenue
  • Drive loyalty through accountability journalism
  • Make analytics work for you
  • Contact us to find out how »