Forget short attention spans, The Economist is going long on digital video

While most publishers are trying to figure out how to get video shorter to distribute on platforms like Facebook and Snapchat, The Economist is betting on a long-form approach.

Its 4-month-old, 10-person video division, called The Economist Films, has spent the summer experimenting with video and settled on an approach that goes in depth on big topics, typically 12-15 minutes. For instance, the 12-minute “Drone Rangers,” released in June, looks at people finding new jobs as drone pilots around the world. Later that month, the studio released “The World If… malaria drugs stop working?” a 15-minute speculative piece on all the problems that would be created if the current crop of anti-malaria treatments lose their efficacy.

Now, The Economist is doubling down on the long-form approach — for the Internet at least — with its first series, “Global Compass,” which examines global policies like legalizing drugs, euthanasia and solar energy. The five-part series launches Oct. 27, with underwriting support from Virgin Unite, the charity arm of Virgin.

“The old paradigm of a brand just putting a badge on it no longer exists,” said Nicholas Minter-Green, president of The Economist Films. “It’s a partnership, and people bring something different to the party. Virgin Unite are very supportive of the series and have a natural interest in the subject areas we cover.”

In the first 15-minute installment, The Economist contrasts the draconian incarceration policies in U.S. with the far more liberal approaches taken in Scandinavia.

In addition to the length, the videos have another notable feature: no ads. In the case of Virgin Unite, it gets branding on each of the videos in the series and on The Economist Film site. For future commercial deals, Minter-Green expects a more bespoke approach, whether that’s branding on films or creating co-branded content hubs: “The key is reaching people who are interested in the topics we are both interested in talking about. We’re creating content, then adding the value around it.”

Each of the films is worked on with the editorial team to craft the story before handing over the team of filmmakers. The Economist has a target to hit 1 million views across all platforms including Facebook, YouTube and its own properties. These are achievable numbers, and the company has confirmed it has been reaching them in its test phase in the summer. 

During testing, The Economist also uncovered that each film had a longer shelf life than expected, which has led the studio to release each video in the series every other week.

“We found as we were repeat-posting that the films were finding new audiences,” said Minter-Green. “It was surprising; it was more different to the linear-viewing experiencing than I was expecting.” Much of this new audience is being found organically as it starts to dip its toes into paid-for distribution.

It also found that YouTube offered more depth of engagement from viewers, while Facebook boosted the numbers. On average, viewers are watching the videos for longer on YouTube. Minter-Green hazards it’s because YouTube resembles the traditional linear experience.

For now, it can afford to be “channel agnostic,” seeding the same video product across the platforms, but as it matures, it is planning to grow its strategic relationships with distribution partners to create more bespoke formats for different channels.

“There may be new platforms, but the rules of business are as always,” said Minter-Green. “There’s got to be something in it for everyone, rather than burying our head in the sand, we’re open to lots of different ways to reach audiences.”

The Economist has had a stance on these global topics for years, so it’s playing in well-known territory, but the perception of the brand is that doesn’t tackle things like drug legalization and mental health. With its films, it has the opportunity to change the pre-conceived ideas of a whole new audience.