Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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Video can help publishers’ subscription strategy (but it’s not for everyone)

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Examples from around Europe show there is a viable path towards using video to drive subscriptions

TV deals between broadcasters and sports organisations make for good stories. There’s useful information for a part of the audience and almost always some infighting among broadcasters. Also, the process is repetitive. Deals expire after a season or a few years, at least in Europe (unlike NFL streaming rights in the USA that Amazon paid a reported $10 billion over 10 years for).

There is a reason sports associations like traditional TV deals. First, they have done them like this for years. Second, there are lots of eyeballs in front of TVs and live sports brings viewers. Sport broadcasts remain the most watched TV events, and not only in the US.

As the example of Amazon shows, big technology platforms are starting to enter sports streaming. But they are not welcomed. Neither by the people running the events nor traditional TV broadcasters.

Still, even in 2021 sports remain a steady viewership driver even as TV events like the OscarsGolden Globes and Grammy Awards fade away.

Traditional news publishers have seen several cycles of “online video hype” in recent years. First, it was the “pivot to video” push. Publishers created short-form video content and distributed it everywhere without a clear ROI in mind (ROI means the return on investment).

Then it was the live video hype started by Facebook paying publishers to churn out daily live broadcasts. It ended with annoyed viewers and the social media giant eventually admitting it had been “vastly overestimating” viewership stats.

Since then video has seemingly become a branding instrument for reaching younger audiences. Few publishers now claim they earn a lot of revenue off of video (unlike subscriptions).

Video and subscriptions: Local sports live broadcast

In Europe, especially in Scandinavia, I have been hearing for years that publishers were able to acquire a lot of subscribers by producing exclusive video and putting it behind paywall.

Regional and small leagues are out of the sight of national broadcasters looking for mass content. Moreover, TV is famously not great at showing several on-demand live pieces of content aimed at different groups of viewers.

Sure, you could have a local TV station for every region but this is not possible in smaller countries, of which there are many in Europe. Even in bigger ones I doubt it would be sustainable. (Remember, “local” can be a lot smaller in Europe than it would be, say, in the US).

In a recent research paper called Local Newspapers’ Transition to Online Publishing and Video Use: Experiences from Norway Roel Puijk and his co-authors write that while publisher’s attempts at video reporting turned out to be expensive, streaming local sports became an important element in attracting new subscribers.

In the research, Puijk and co. analysed five local newspapers in Norway and found they all leaned into video around 2013 just like the rest of the publishing industry. They produced talking heads videos and reproduced what they already wrote in their articles. After two years this approach yielded no financial results so they had to rethink video or shut it down.

Four of the five papers analysed belonged to the same national publisher Amedia. The publisher bought the rights to some of the lower leagues and made deals with local sports clubs to stream the games.

Amedia also has also built a common platform for these sports videos so subscribers to any Amedia newspaper can also watch games from other cities. Editors told the researchers that the streaming of local sports is considered an important factor in recruiting new digital subscribers.

Although sports is the main driver in the live video content, the newspapers in question also sometimes broadcast live municipal council meetings, discussions or concerts.

The types of video people are willing to pay for

Apart from streaming local sports publishers have been experimenting in recent years with different models of gaining subscribers through video.

The German tabloid Bild has a premium tier of content that paying subscribers get access to called Bild Plus. Since 2019 it has started putting more and more videos behind the paywall and learning what type of video content helps to drive the most subscriptions.

The most success it has seen in conversions was with documentaries, especially crime videos either about specific criminal cases or a series on organized crime. 

According to DigidayVerdens Gang, the Schibsted-owned Norwegian tabloid, added 20,000 subscribers in a year by buying documentaries and putting them behind its paywall.

Documentaries are generally not as expensive as feature films and blockbusters, and if you ask Netflix, the reason for them to keep adding a lot of docs is “because they do well” as an executive said during a presentation. And as the old saying goes – engaged users don’t churn.

On the other hand, publishers like The Economist put their videos on YouTube hoping to attract viewers to their site to find out more and hit the metered paywall.

YouTube offers eligible creators a Patreon-like program, which some publishers (like Vox did 2018) joined. The option to connect YouTube to your existing subscription or membership program would be better. But although it has been teased in 2020, it is still nowhere to be seen.

Rethinking your video strategy is no small task and adding it to your subscription proposition will almost always require additional investment. But examples from around Europe show there is a viable path towards using video to drive subscriptions, although it is not for everyone. 

Most importantly, you need to be able to find the right video content – something people would actually be ready to pay for. If you cannot find that content, a video-powered strategy is probably not for you.

by David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.