Views for the sake of views are vanity: With Facebook video views dwindling, NowThis is betting on quality over quantity.

Digiday – July 8, 2019

by Max Willens

NowThis News was one of the first digital media companies to leverage platform hunger for native content into eye-popping scale. Today, the growing homogeneity of those platforms is driving the next phase of NowThis’s video strategy, as the surreal view counts that defined the early years of many media companies video strategies continue to recede from view.

Over the past 12 months, NowThis has seen its combined monthly video views across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube drop 50%, from 1.5 billion video views in June 2018 to 729 million views in May 2019, according to Tubular Labs data. Most of that drop can be attributed to the continued decline in Facebook views, which still account for most of NowThis’s views: In May, Facebook contributed 553 million of the 729 million views NowThis accumulated, per Tubular. In June 2018, Facebook accounted for 1.3 billion views, according to Tubular. NowThis saw substantial growth on some of those platforms: The video publisher’s monthly YouTube views went from 7.6 million in June 2018 to 20.5 million in May 2019, and from 73.4 million views to 97.2 million views on Twitter over the same period, per Tubular data.

NowThis points out that those four platforms only tell part of the story. Its own internal metrics, which include platforms such as Snapchat, show a decline of less than 30%, year over year, according to a spokesperson.

“Views for the sake of views are a vanity metric,” NowThis president Athan Stephanopoulos said. “We’re very focused on engagement and watch time. That’s the key metric that we look at.”

During that same period, the scale of NowThis’s branded content distribution on Facebook has slid too. Through the first six months of 2019, the number of NowThis Facebook video views that went to sponsored posts has dropped 79% from the same period in 2018, according to an analysis by BrandTotal.

That would appear worrying, but views never equated to revenue. In fact, NowThis says it has made more money from Facebook in the first half of 2019 than it did during the same period in 2018, and is on pace to exceed its revenue estimates for the platform. NowThis declined to share specific revenue numbers. The growth, according to NowThis, is the result of a strategy that emphasizes producing longer videos that can be monetized in multiple ways, including sponsorships and mid-roll advertising.

And despite the top-line declines, NowThis continues to add subscribers across platforms. Over the past 12 months, NowThis has added 6 million subscribers to across platforms for a total of 45 million, a 15% increase, Tubular data shows. NowThis said its subscriber total grew 60%, citing growth in Snapchat and several Chinese social platforms, but declined to share specifics, citing agreements with Snap.

NowThis still reaches 72% of all 20-year-olds in the U.S., according to Nielsen data.

That reach across platforms is at the heart of NowThis’s current strategy, which focuses on longer, high-quality video that is distributed across multiple platforms. Instead of creating different content for Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook, NowThis is increasingly looking to develop longer-form digital shows it can distribute across multiple platforms at once.

A separate division of the company devoted to this kind of content, NowThis Originals, was formally announced in January, and has 15 series live today and another 25 in development, NowThis said, up from 15 shows it had in development at this time last year. Around 75% of the shows NowThis has released have been distributed across at least three platforms, a NowThis spokesperson said.

“What we’re looking for is what types of shows are seeing deep engagement across multiple platforms,” Stephanopoulos said. “We’re creating these shows that align to the channels and audiences we built. That’s what kept us in this first-mover advantage.”

For example, episodes of a show like “Slash Course,” about villains in popular culture, have been distributed across Snapchat, Facebook and YouTube, while episodes of “Seen,” a show about influencers from non-mainstream communities, have been distributed across both established platforms like Facebook and more emergent ones, such as Instagram TV. Episodes of “Seen” have piled up more than 1 million views on Instagram TV.

In some cases, NowThis is being paid by a platform like Facebook to make the shows. In others, NowThis has sought to monetize them by selling sponsorships ad through pre- and mid-roll advertising sold across multiple platforms.

But in all cases, NowThis is hoping to capitalize on the increasing similarity of social platforms’ video offerings, which have become increasingly similar as they vie for the money expected to begin leaking out of the linear TV ad market.

“All the platforms have started to replicate each others’ product features,” that spokesperson said. “Our evolution in strategy has been driven by what the platforms have done.”

Those new shows are intriguing to advertisers and agencies, who still see an impressive combination of scale and quality in NowThis.

“They can deliver,” said Chris Talbot, the founder of Talbot Digital, an advertising and communications agency that focuses on political advertisers. “When you have a compelling story or a breakthrough moment, NowThis can help maximize your impact.”

But the growth and opportunity NowThis sees in those shows will have to make up for the challenge posed by declining Facebook views. Branded content remains the biggest source of revenue for NowThis, and Facebook remains its most important distribution channel. The declines in reach, NowThis said, have made it harder to reach some branded content campaign goals, but the number of people watching for longer periods of time has remained static. “The effect is much more over-stated; the number of people who are getting to that ten-second views is staying the same,” the spokesperson said.

Being able to sell more advertisements and sponsorships that reach an audience across platforms could help make for declining Facebook reach, said John Cassillo, an analyst at TVREV. But it also comes with greater risk because it relies on finding success every time with smaller segments of a publisher’s overall audience.

“If you don’t score a direct hit with a large audience, [a sponsorship] can still create a positive result,” Cassillo said. “If you miss on a small audience, that doesn’t really leave much to be positive about after a campaign.”

NowThis’s new strategy also rests on a bet that marketers will begin diverting their budgets away from linear television and into video advertising in other channels. At a very small scale, this has begun to happen, with platforms including Twitter benefiting.

But how much NowThis, or any publisher, is able to benefit from this fight among platforms remains to be seen. “I think it has made our lives easier from a media perspective,” Stephani Estes, svp of media strategy at media agency Cramer-Krasselt, said of growing homogeneity of the platforms’ video offerings. “But right now this is a platform conversation, not a publisher one.”