In a recent New York Times Magazine story, Jacob Silverman writes, “Pivoting has become the new failure, a concept to describe a haphazard, practically madcap form of iterative development.” Those who work in digital media know this madcap iteration all too well.
In 2017 alone, MTV News, Vocativ, Sports Illustrated, the Huffington Post, Fox Sports, Vice, and Mic have all pivoted to video, leaning on the euphemism to explain why they’re firing teams of writers and editors. Most people understand that the economics of publishing a blog post online aren’t great, so these companies have decided to bet that the ad dollars from video content can save their bottom lines.
While these websites prepare for their pivot to video, the rest of the media world wants to see them fall. This makes sense—writers hate watching other talented writers lose their jobs, especially when their employers continue to raise millions of dollars off of nine- and ten-figure valuations. (Earlier this summer, Vice’s valuation hit $5.7 billion.) Also worth mentioning: Video is hard. It’s incredibly expensive compared to writing, takes longer to do well, and requires technical expertise. But what if pivoting pays off?
According to new data analysis from BuzzSumo, Facebook could eventually force all companies to invest in video, meaning those that get comfortable with the medium now would have a distinct advantage over everyone else. As BuzzSumo director Steve Rayson points out, there are three major trends we should all pay attention to:
1. Since January, the average number of engagements on Facebook posts from brands and publishers dropped by more than 20 percent.
2. During that same period, engagement on video posts from brands and publishers held fairly steady while engagement on posts with images and links fell significantly.
3. The average video post now receives twice as much engagement as all other posts.
We’ve seen this type of action before. Facebook introduces gradual changes that limit organic reach and push brands and publishers to respond in ways that benefit the platform. First, Instant Articles were given priority in the News Feed over links that took users to external sites. Then, native video started getting better engagement than links to clips on YouTube and Vimeo. Facebook Live bullied away competitors like Snapchat and Periscope. This latest move tells brands and publishers they’d be silly not to invest in video at the expense of written articles, photography, and other visual content like infographics.
In moderation, nudging brands toward video could be good for content creators. Senior marketers plan to invest in video more than any other type of content in the next five years, per a 2017 Contently survey. So in an ideal world, videos and articles complement each other. The internet has proven to be a great place for interview clips and short explainer videos with motion graphics. The written word, meanwhile, works for breaking news, short analysis, and longform reporting. Since some people prefer to watch video while others would rather read, striking a balance could lead to bigger audiences. The real issue, though, is how this topic has become an all-or-nothing proposition.
In 2016, a Facebook VP said she believed the network will be “all video” in the next few years, arguing that “it conveys so much more information in a much quicker period.” I don’t expect media companies to rid themselves of good writing, but after reading those words, you can almost see the executives limbering up in their boardrooms, preparing their pivots. Adjusting to the whims of the most powerful distribution platform stings a lot when smart people lose their jobs, but it is, at the very least, a logical response.
So where does that leave us? For starters, in need of more innovative solutions like Scroll and Blendle—subscription platforms that offer publishers an alternative to the traditional advertising model most places use to scrape by. Video is the greener grass on the other side of the fence right now, but if all publishers ditch text for the moving image, then we’ll just end up in a similar position when everyone catches up. Eventually, Facebook will ask brands and publishers to give up a larger share of their revenue in exchange for greater reach in the feed, all while charging higher premiums for paid distribution. Companies that figure out how to create standout videos will thrive, but everyone else will just have to wait for the next pivot, whatever that may be.
It’s unfortunate all this pivoting has hurt the perception of video. Like writing is the pure artform while video is what publishers do when they’re stooping for clickbait that pays. That shouldn’t be the narrative. A great video can be just as impactful as a nuanced article. We’re going to emphasize video more on The Content Strategist in the future because of this opportunity for massive engagement. But we’re not going to scrap writing. Otherwise, in a few years, you wouldn’t even be able to read an article like this. You’d have to watch it instead.