Storytelling

How Brands and Publishers Can Empower Their Video Creators

Some of my favorite content creators haven’t written a blog post in years. PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman at Gimlet Media work exclusively in podcasts, and Matt Lubchansky makes political comics for The Nib. Sierra Pettengill of Field of Vision produces short found-footage documentaries, SungWon Cho makes social video riffing on daily headlines in animation and gaming, and Inverse’s Weston Green and Justin Dodd host a talk show inside the virtual world of Fortnite.

All these creators have been able to tell stories in innovative mediums because the companies they work for see multimedia as complementary to the written word. Video isn’t just an optional medium for duplicating the original information.

Unfortunately for many video producers, some brands can’t see past social video in its most basic form. They only want to turn their most heavily trafficked articles into social-optimized clips, cutting a post into captions to place on top of B-roll. They splice in stock music, throw the videos on Facebook, and repeat the process, ignoring all the ways multimedia creators can work in concert with writers. This isn’t inspiring stuff for video producers or your audience.

Trust the video creators you hired

A few months ago, I attended an event for Vox Creative’s Explainer Studio, the media company’s branded content arm. Ezra Klein, Vox founder and editor-at-large, and Joe Posner, Vox executive producer, said that empowering their video producers to create content independently from their reporters paid off in multiple ways. When video producer Estelle Caswell pitched an explainer mini-doc on the prevalence of Grey Poupon references in hip-hop lyrics, Posner and Klein said her passion for the weird subject won them over. She made the video, it laid somewhat dormant for months. Then Kendrick Lamar released his album Damn., referencing the condiment on the first single, “HUMBLE.,” and engagement exploded.

Looking back on the video’s success, Klein and Posner attribute it to an empowered video team that felt comfortable creating on-brand content based on their own passions. By hiring a video producer and researcher who cares deeply about hip-hop, Vox was able to benefit from Caswell’s natural affinity for the subject. The editors even claimed that having a video team comfortable pushing back on initiatives was an asset.

If you’re interested in producing top-quality video projects that get results, here are a few other important steps you can take.

Complement your writing, but don’t copy it

Turning articles into videos might seem like a no-brainer, but audiences can tell when a video was just churned out without a clear purpose. Plenty of publishers just take an article and clone it as a short video with stock clips and text captions. That approach lacks creativity and isn’t going to add much to your content strategy.

Your teams may ultimately decide that some projects are best delivered as a single video or a single blog post. In some cases, you’ll also be able to cover a topic in both mediums. But being selective here is key.

For example, I wrote an article last year for Inverse about Michael Myers. At the time, Inverse was experimenting with adding conversational videos clips to every article, which meant I had to record one for my story. It fell flat, in my opinion, because my partner and I were tasked with recounting the body of my research-heavy article in a punchy, concise way. It just wasn’t a natural fit, and you can tell watching the video that I’m feeling out of my element. If I could go back, I’d bring my article notes to Inverse’s video team and we’d come up with an original video idea together; maybe a supercut of all the times Michael Myers should have died, but didn’t.

On the other hand, when editors asked me to pick a couple of my published articles to turn into videos, that approach tends to lead to better content. In those situations, the video team was able to collaborate with me on choosing the right subject matter, scripting, and animation. The process isn’t as forced. When Newsweek asked me to turn my Marvel explainer article into a short video, I was able to inject a sense of humor by speeding through explanations, which happened to be a better match for the written component.

Let creators own the story—and the results

One way to ensure your creators are inspired and interested is to keep your content calendar filled with stories they pitch themselves. Contently’s head of strategy, Joe Lazauskas, puts it this way: “Your greatest weapons are passion and creativity. To bring that out, you need a system that lets people on your team pitch stories that interest them the most.”

Once videos go live, encourage creators to analyze engagement metrics. They will pitch more effectively if they’ve grappled with the results their videos drive. Ideally, your video team will reach a point where their pitches are partly inspired by their own passions within your industry and partially inspired by audience insights. If, however, your video team ends up trying to satisfy no one but your brand’s target audience, things will get worse than simple burnout. Your team will stop innovating, and your audience will end up bored.

Consider the uber-popular YouTuber Jake Paul. If you don’t know who he is, your kids definitely do. H3Productions, another beloved YouTube channel co-run by Ethan and Hila Klein, recently analyzed what’s become of Paul after too many years trying to please the same exact audience. The 21-year-old YouTuber has built an insane, lucrative empire through video content aimed at children. In order to retain that audience, Paul has become very reliant on things he knows will get their attention: gamification, high-energy stories, and shocking imagery.

In Paul’s most recent video, which Klein analyzes here, he comes off like a desperate salesman, screaming at his young audience to spend money on what looks like a shady online scam. With Klein’s help, you can trace Paul’s trajectory over the years, his likability deteriorating as he became more insistent on growing his channel as quickly as possible. In 2013, he began uploading goofy, day-in-the-life vlogs, but in 2019, he exclusively posts heavily edited, frantic, get-rich-quick advertisements. If he had been encouraged to try out new formats or dip into a more mature market early on, he may not have become one of the most reviled figures on the internet. Is he still making millions in ads? Probably. But his target audience will soon grow up. He’s also alienated most of his creative team, making him a cautionary tale for publishers and marketers hoping to retain their staff and target audience.

Schedule check-ins between video creators and writers

Though it might seem appealing to hire video producers who work on assignment and never ask questions, demanding compliance from your team will damage your reputation. That’s not just an artistic mistake, it’s a revenue mistake.

Encouraging your video team to frequently collaborate and compare notes with your writers will ultimately boost your brand’s reputation. You’ll be investing in the creation of interesting stories in multiple mediums, and the creators you empower will be far more likely to invite creators from their networks to get involved.

In these meetings, encourage your writers to bring published articles they believe might work as videos. On the flip side, invite your video team to sift through evergreen stories in your archive and pitch the ones they find interesting as video content. Your video creators can also explain to writers what they’re looking for: Maybe a subject that requires clips and on-site footage, or detailed explainers that could use animation. Deep dives tend to work well as long explainer articles and videos, as do interviews with charismatic subjects.

Like Vox, you owe it to yourself to assemble a video team that brings more to the table than simple editing skills. If you lead them in the right direction, they’ll work as curators, too, recycling your best written content into something new and worthwhile.

Image by Jakob Owens / Unsplash
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