If you aren’t particularly tapped into what young people are sharing on Facebook, the fact that social news startup NowThis landed an interview with President Obama on Wednesday might have come as a surprise.
The interview, which has already been packaged into 5 bite-sized videos (with more on the way), is just the most recent step in NowThis’ bid to dominate news video on social networks like Facebook, according to the company’s president, Athan Stephanopoulos.
The presidential race has been a moment in the spotlight for NowThis, whose election coverage videos alone have snagged a whopping two billion views.
Obama wasn’t the first big get for NowThis.
“We reached out to the presidential candidates early,” Stephanopoulos tells Business Insider. NowThis interviewed Bernie Sanders as he was igniting a progressive movement, and the videos that resulted racked up 30 million views in a month. “It was a watershed moment,” Stephanopoulos says (they got Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren as well).
“It is hard to avoid the scale that NowThis has,” head of content Tina Exarhos adds.
It wasn’t always like this. NowThis was started in late 2012 by digital media heavyweights Eric Hippeau and Ken Lerer, on the concept that news video should live natively on whatever platform audiences were on. But that strategy didn’t catapult NowThis into the spotlight until Facebook began to heavily promote its video offerings, around 2014, to compete with YouTube.
Though NowThis makes all kinds of videos, the company built itself into a powerhouse on short ones, with overlaid text, which spread through Facebook like wildfire. And it makes a lot of them. Currently, NowThis’ 120 employees produce about 65 videos per day across all channels.
NowThis’ Facebook prowess is no doubt how it got on the White House’s radar. The Obama administration also understands the composition of NowThis’ audience (80% millennial), and its implications.
“The White House was keen on reaching young people,” Stephanopoulos says. Obama has done interviews with digital media companies like BuzzFeed, Vox, Vice, and Mic. For this particular interview, Obama wanted to make sure young people made it to the polls to vote for Hillary Clinton.
“Oh my God, young voters need to show up,” Exarhos says, describing the sentiment. You can tell. In one of the NowThis interview videos, Obama speaks directly to the camera, exhorting young people to get out and vote. It’s worth noting that NowThis’ voice leans progressive, which the company doesn’t apologise for, as it believes this reflects its younger audience.
There were some things NowThis wanted out of the Obama interview as well.
One big one was to get him to talk about the Dakota Access pipeline, which Exarhos says they knew was a huge issue for the NowThis audience. How? A big sign: A video about the pipeline the day before had racked up 10 million views. Obama ended up going on the record for the first time, she says.
After Hillary v. Trump
The election has been a huge moment for NowThis, but afterward, Stephanopoulos and Exarhos say the key to success will be what NowThis has always done: experimentation.
Right now, a big focus is on cracking what works on Facebook Live, the social network’s live video component.
“So many people approached it like TV,” Exarhos says. But NowThis has found that overproduced segments can get less views than having literally two bobbleheads on camera. “We’re still trying to figure it out.”
But one thing NowThis knows is that live video on social media is a two-way conversation. Exarhos gives the example of the last presidential debate. The NowThis live stream got around three million views total (second only to ABC News’ stream), but what Exarhos found particularly interesting was that the concurrent views hardly dropped off when the debate ended. “The conversation was still going on” in the comments, she says.
The money question
Another aspect of Facebook that NowThis, and all social publishers, have to figure out is how to make money.
There is some to be made from sponsored videos, and NowThis has its own branded content studio. But it’s expensive to make video, even with the lean operation NowThis has. And Facebook’s lack of progress in helping publishers make money has many in the media business worried. The venture funding, of which NowThis has raised $27 million, can only go so far.
Stephanopoulos says he’s not worried.
NowThis is in contact with Facebook and Snapchat on an almost daily basis, and Stephanopoulos says that many of Facebook’s product developments in video have come from NowThis’ feedback. He’s confident that Facebook will be one pillar of a thriving business.
NowThis has grabbed an enormous audience. Now it needs to prove it can turn that audience into a viable business. “We look at the glass as half full,” Stephanopoulos says.
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