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The next arms race: Video tech, AVOD, and publishers

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A publisher recognizing the value of its own in-house technology and spinning it off to the wider market is not unusual. The most high-profile example of recent years being the Washington Post’s somewhat pricey Arc XP ‘digital experience’ platform which is now used by multiple news organizations including the Toronto Globe & Mail, Tribune Publishing, and Spain’s El Pais.

Another publisher to spin off its own tech is Minute Media, the publisher of The Players’ Tribune, 90min, Mental Floss, FanSided, and DBLTAP, which last year launched and offered its Voltax Video platform to the wider market. Over a year later, the platform is now firmly into its second iteration with clients including the UK’s Daily Mail, Barstool Sports, ESI Media, and The Hill amongst others.

It comes at a time of intense publisher interest in video, motivated by the huge leap in video consumption. Consumers are now watching 40% more hours of video than they did prior to the pandemic, according to data from JW Player, whose software platform powers video for over 12,000 publishers. This growth isn’t just on streamlining platforms like HBO and Netflix but rather is linked to the explosion of video shorts on social media, notably TikTok, YouTube and Instagram.

Shani Merdler, VP Product at Minute Media, says that publishers are best positioned to help other publishers when it comes to tech innovation because they are using it on their own media properties and can see on a daily basis what works and what doesn’t. She told WNIP, “We are in a unique position as a tech platform in that not only do we create technology for other publishers, but our own titles use the platform as well – we are intimately familiar with the challenges that publishers have when it comes to video.”

“We created Voltax Video to answer an internal need for a top performing video player and an intuitive management system. Since we built the technology in such a scalable way, we decided to roll it out to other publishers who would benefit from the value that it brings to their business.”

Shani Merdler, VP Product at Minute Media

Since launch, Minute Media has spent the last year improving and iterating its tech with a focus on harnessing user engagement and ad monetization. This includes a recirculation tool that automatically converts a publisher’s existing articles into videos (by converting a RSS feed into a video file) as well as a ‘SmartMatch’ algorithm that pairs articles with relevant videos in real-time. The new version also features Semantic playlists which use algorithms to create custom video playlists based on relevant content driven by what a user watches.

With an ad-funded publishing model, Minute Media is no stranger to the revenue generation challenges faced by other publishers. Its video offering comes armed with a revenue engine that Merdler says, “Offers premium advertising solutions and a fully integrated programmatic stack” as well as a share-as-you-grow revenue model which she says “eases the burden” on small to medium-sized publishers looking to scale up.

Video tech, contextual targeting and third-party cookies

It comes at a time when competition within publishing video is heating up rapidly. Arc XP itself offers what it describes as a ‘first-of-its-kind mobile app’ that allows journalists to stream high-quality live video to multiple sites and social platforms simultaneously. JW Player is also growing rapidly, boosted by last month’s $100M series E funding round from private equity firm, LLR Partners.

Starting life as YouTube’s original video player, JW Player now powers digital videos watched by more than one billion viewers each month across 2.7 billion devices. All those video plays generate petabytes of data, which can help publishers optimize their video strategy by providing valuable insights on whether ads are viewable, whether people watch videos to the end, and more. JW Player was an early pioneer in harnessing this data to eventually create article matching and video recommendation engines, tools that have since been implemented by the wider industry.

“As a publisher, our main focus is building a community of loyal followers,” says Annie Carroll, Head of Studios at Apartment Therapy and Kitchn. “So the question is, how do you extend the time people spend on your owned properties? JW Player’s article matching and recommendation engines have been game-changers, increasing our video plays by 36%.”

But perhaps the most valuable application of JW Player’s data is helping publishers and advertisers navigate the looming end of cookie-based ad targeting. JW Player uses advanced AI and natural language processing to finely categorize the content of all the videos playing on its network. This in turn allows brands to use contextual targeting to place ads on videos related to their offering as viewers are watching them in real-time.

“Contextual targeting is the difference between targeting ads based on what people are actively interested in right now versus what they were interested in yesterday or even last week,” says Michael Schwalb, GM of Data and Advertising at JW Player. “Publishers can better monetize their videos by running ads that are more relevant to their content, while advertisers can place ads that both respect the audience’s privacy and cater to their immediate interests.”

Live streaming surges

JW Player’s data has also shown a dramatic surge in demand for live streaming content, with live streaming traffic spiking 400% last year as events went virtual. According to JW Player CEO Dave Otten, “By sharing broadcast-quality live streaming on their own social media feeds, mobile apps, and websites, publishers can maintain their edge over more amateur and semi-pro live streamers on YouTube and Facebook Live.”

Der Spiegel, Germany’s largest news website, harnesses JW Player’s software for its live streaming, events and live talk shows. It has witnessed growth of 17% in AVOD video views (advertising-based video on demand) over the past year, including over two million live-streamed minutes viewed of President Biden’s Inauguration.

Video is always going to be important for publishers and live streaming is one really very smart hook to be fast, and to be credible. Live streaming is going to be much more important in the future.

Sven Christian, Video Editor, Der Speigel

Der Spiegel is also using video to increase engagement and drive subscriptions without sacrificing reach. Christian adds, “Live streaming can be a way to produce exclusive content and together with some other measures, it’s a way to convince users to leave a login or even a subscription to the digital area of Der Spiegel.” 

The publisher, however, is only too aware of the intrusive nature of its ad-funded video monetization model, with its Der Spiegel+ subscription tier doing away with video ads completely, “Since adding a subscription model, we’re thinking of what video can do to increase subscriptions and generate leads of potential paying customers.”

Another platform making serious inroads into the publisher video ecosystem is Connatix which describes itself as ’a next-generation video technology platform for publishers’. Launched in 2014 and based in New York City, the company last week secured a significant funding round from Court Square Capital Partners in a bid to further expand its portfolio of 3,000 publishers and advertisers, as well as open a London office. 

David Kashak, CEO & Co-Founder at Connatix told WNIP, “This investment will help us continue to further our mission of helping publishers find success and connect with readers through engaging video experiences. It will also allow us to continue innovating and developing product offerings in key areas like AI, editorial automation and contextual targeting solutions.” 

Video will play an even greater role in the future of publishing as readers consume more broadcast content in preference to written text, a trend rocket fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. The challenge for publishers is how to convert these eyeballs into strong revenue-generating streams that encourage a virtuous circle of further investment in the medium. With new AI-driven technology powering the video platforms, as well as enhanced AVOD capabilities, the opportunities are now better than they’ve ever been.