‘It’s nearsighted’: Confessions of a video producer on the ‘pivot to video’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

An increasing number of publishers are pivoting to video in search of more audiences and better ad dollars, but pivoting alone won’t solve your business problems — and many publishers making the decision to shift resources to video should think long and hard about whether it’s the right move for them. For the latest installment in our Confessions series, we spoke with a longtime video producer who has built several YouTube channels that have collectively amassed billions of video views. Our confessor said this took him more than a decade, which shows how difficult it is to do video — especially on other platforms — and do it well.

What are your thoughts on publishers such as Mashable, Vice, MTV News and Fox Sports shifting editorial operations in favor of video?
It’s like Pavlov. If a consumer has been conditioned to go to your website and read articles, it’s kind of weird to assume that by adding more videos, people are going to migrate to watching more videos. It’s like trying to push a boulder up a mountain. People don’t go to these sites to watch videos.

But that’s one of the reasons why many of these companies are going to Facebook, YouTube and other platforms.
Yeah, it’s 2017, and people get that they need to be on these platforms. When The Atlantic says they’re going all-in on YouTube, that was probably not their preference two or three years ago, but they recognize where the video explosion is happening. But the economics of YouTube mean you’re going to lose half your ad revenue, which makes it a tough place to build a business, especially if you’re backed by venture capital.

The conventional thinking is that video is where the audiences are, so wouldn’t it be crazy for publishers to not invest in it?
If you’re going to invest in video, you have to understand that this is a long ROI game. You can publish an article, get it indexed in search and make updates to it, and it’s all fairly quick and easy. Videos take longer. Between preproduction, production, editing, one of our daily YouTube videos can take days to make. We have writers, researchers, fact-checkers, shooters, video editors on staff. So when I see all these companies saying they’re totally dropping articles, I think it’s nearsighted. They’re overshooting and going all-in on video when the more prudent approach would be to understand that some things make more sense as an article, and some should be videos.

There are more ad dollars in video.
Think of the kind of content that these companies are doing under the pressure of boards and VCs: “Let’s create content that advertisers want.” That’s the problem! It’s not about what the audience wants. The problem with marketers is they’re like alcoholics at a bar: You know the outcome; they’re going to end up drinking. Early on, you can have a marketer who says they want to work with publishers to create great content and that they won’t meddle. Then, that goes up the chain of command, and someone in finance or management questions why they’re doing it. By the time it comes back down, it looks like an ad, and audiences won’t react well to it.

How costly is it for you to produce a YouTube video these days?
The yardstick has always been dollars per minute. It’s obviously nowhere near the level of cable, but we’re still spending hundreds to thousands of dollars per minute per video. You can bring the cost down based on some formats and where you’re shooting and producing, but that really is the baseline for us.

The key for us has been to make videos that are evergreen. That means they can amortize over a longer period. The challenge and folly of some of these companies is that they’re doing things that are timely, sure, but have a really short shelf life. When you’re doing videos that are basically useful for a handful of days, then what’s the point? You’re basically burning money with no real return. Whatever you think is going to be lucrative in the short term, everyone else is thinking of doing that, too. So don’t think of just what makes sense today, but what will make sense in three to five years.


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