The Times of London leans on Facebook video to drive subscriptions

For paywalled newspaper The Times, Facebook video is a means to draw people back to its own site where it can then encourage people to register. And in time, hopefully, subscribe.

A lightweight team of two people, a video editor and producer, is dedicated to creating Facebook videos, publishing two to three each day. The Times’ design team has created a range of templates for them to use, which are updated whenever they want fresh formats.

So far, they have worked apart from the six-person video team that creates videos for The Times’ core subscriptions products, which are slightly longer in length (between two and six minutes on average.) That’s partly because the kind of videos that have been created for Facebook have been made to appeal to the 24- to 35 year-old Facebook audience. The tone of these videos is more informal than those made for core products and are often purposefully more brightly colored, for instance, or annotated with different fonts.

“We have a skeptical view of any [social] platform because we can’t be in any doubt that they are looking to take our business and readers from us, and our readers’ time,” said Ben Whitelaw, head of community and digital development for The Times. “Anyone who thinks otherwise is misguided. So we take what they give us with a pinch of salt.”

The Times is prioritizing that videos are consistent with The Times’ style, brand — and play to its editorial strengths — over simply focusing on what works in the Facebook algorithm. “We don’t care about algorithms,” said The Times’ creative director Tim Shearring. “Being behind a paywall isn’t without its challenges, but we are not beholden to the platforms in any way.”

The Times is known for its print profiles, and the social video team has taken its cue from this. Profile-style videos of Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, Melania Trump and 22-year old Kurdish freedom fighter Asia Ramazan Antar have all generated high view counts and likes. For now, Whitelaw’s team is interested in soft metrics such as likes and views but will also monitor who clicks through to the articles on its own site. The end game is to then encourage more free registrations, which it has been pushing since last summer. It currently has 550,000 free sign-ups, adding roughly 30,000 a week, according to Whitelaw. “Registered access is the route into subscription.”

The Times and the Sunday Times generated 2 million views on Facebook in January, according to Tubular Labs data, and the page itself has seen the number of likes increase by 27 percent since last September. That said, the publisher isn’t caught up on viewing figures. “For now it’s about growing the Facebook page but in a sustainable way. We are conscious the follower count just becomes a vanity metric, and there is no long-term business case for it,” said Whitelaw.

Videos that relate to history or specific historic moments also travel well on social. This video of the last Concorde flight in February did well on Facebook. Often, the team will pick out existing assets, or those taken from Reuters and Getty, to create picture videos, cut together with video clips, like this one showing a series of unknown facts about Roald Dahl on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Now there are plans to get the social video and core Times Editions video teams working more in tandem, with the core video team drawing from the social video team’s ideas, and vice versa. “We are looking for a kind of halfway house,” said Tim Shearring, The Times’ creative director. The theory is that by doing that, better brand continuity can be created across video that runs on both social platforms and The Times’ own platforms. “We want to be able to look at the two video products and see clearly they have come from the same office. Because at the moment, they look very different.”

That approach has changed typical newsroom flow. “Now we are doing social videos it has made us re-evaluate our own video products for subscribers,” added Whitelaw. “We are talking across departments in a way we previously haven’t.”

Image: courtesy of Richard Pohle.

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