At first, a pivot to video made sense. High bandwidth on mobile, mega-platforms like YouTube, and the promise of disrupting TV commercials made it alluring. This was compounded by steadily declining cost-per-click rates on text-centric content — not to mention the painful memories of what happened to newspapers that waited too long to move online.
If all that left news sites feeling scared, Mark Zuckerberg terrified them. He kept saying things like video is a “mega-trend” like mobile and Facebook’s news feed — already the primary gatekeeper for mobile content — would be mostly video by 2020.
The herd moved. The herd pivoted — to the point where it became less strategy than a running (if cruel) joke. It started last year with Mashable, which laid off editorial staffers while announcing it would pivot to video.
Things picked up steam this summer. In June, MTV News laid off writers of the longform content it began in 2015, explaining it would pivot to video. Sports Illustrated followed by laying off sportswriters to pivot to video (and VR!). Fox Sports made its own pivot. Writers were among the 60 staffers Vice laid off, promising more hires in video. Vocativ laid off its entire editorial staff to “focus exclusively on video.” Last week, Mic laid off 25 staffers so it could become “the leader in visual journalism.”
Pivoting itself is a kind of euphemism in the world of venture-backed companies for “this isn’t working.” Sometimes the pivot itself works: Twitter pivoted out of Odeo, a service that shared podcasts. More often, they don’t work, because there’s no guarantee the new business model is any better. That’s especially true when many companies are pivoting to the same model at once, as with digital video.
And it’s not even clear that the demand for video content is strong. According to a survey by Pew Research, “When asked whether one prefers to read, watch or listen to their news, younger adults are far more likely than older ones to opt for text, and most of that reading takes place on the web.”
Among the coveted ad demographic of people under 30, Pew found, 42 percent prefer reading news over watching or listening to it. This group prefers reading news online to reading it in newspapers. By contrast, people over 50 favor video news, but only 4 percent prefer to watch it online.
Similarly, the Reuters Institute said in its 2017 Digital News Report:
Despite greater exposure to online video news, we find that overall preferences have changed very little since we started tracking this issue four years ago. Across all markets, over two-thirds (71 percent) say they mostly consume news in text, with 14 percent using text and video equally.
Even Mashable, that pioneer of the pivot to video, published a post last week entitled “‘Pivot to video’ is not the death of words.” (That story showed up in my social media feeds. I can’t think of a single Mashable video I’ve seen since its early pivot back in April 2016.)
The truth is, there is an element of face-saving in these declarations of pivots to video. They are meant to hide the fact that many newsrooms over-expanded during the past decade, when advertisers were moving online and venture capital was flowing into content. As such, the pivots are worrisome indicators that an over-investment in video content will follow.
The growth in digital content expanded the ad inventory so much that clickthrough rates declined, which prompted sites to add even more ads per page, which drove ad rates down further. If there’s a silver lining to these pivots to video, it’s that the ad inventory on written content may in time be moderated.
But it also means that the availability of video content will expand. Sites pivoting to video aren’t just competing for attention with each other, they’re competing with Netflix, Apple, Facebook, YouTube Red, and now Disney — each of which are spending, collectively, billions of dollars a year to create their own content.
And how can your pivot compete with that? Quality videos cost money. People have grown weary of those glorified slideshows set to upbeat music. We’ve also grown weary of the autoloading videos that accompany written stories, especially the ones that linger even when we’re scrolling down the page. These unsolicited autoplays are effective mostly as ads for ad blockers.
Video may be, as Zuckerberg said, the next mega-trend. But if a content company figured that out after Zuckerberg did, there’s a good chance they’re pivoting too late. No matter. One nice thing about a pivot is that it buys a company time to figure out another business model to pivot to. That, at least, can keep antsy investors at bay.