Thoughts From BuzzFeed, Vox Media, and NowThis, Part 2: Knowing When To Go All-In on a Platform

Read the signal, learn to not overreact to your first hit

The digital-media industry is a hotbed of innovation, and, as a result, there’s a seemingly endless pursuit for the “next big thing,” especially in an era when publishers would love to add competition to the platform duopoly of Google and Facebook. But when is the right time to dedicate effort and resources to a platform? That’s the ultimate challenge for media executives.

Sarah Frank, Editor, NowThis

Sarah Frank, Editor, NowThis

BuzzFeed became the poster child for success on Facebook Live in the platform’s early days with its famous Watermelon live video. The success had many in the industry scrambling to mimic its impact. Henry Goldman, who heads video for BuzzFeed News, suggests, when deciding when to go all-in on a new platform — like a Facebook Live — look for signal but be wary of overreacting to your first hit.

“When you go all-in on a platform, it can’t be [in response to] one hit,” says Goldman. “One hit shouldn’t decide for you [that] this is what we are going to do for the next two quarters or three quarters. You should be thinking in those terms because that’s how often the algorithms and audiences are changing on these platforms. You have to look for something sustained. If you try something again, do you have a theory about why it worked again?”

In recent days, many news outlets have found digital success with live video reports from various protests going on throughout the country. In Goldman’s opinion, there are layers to peel back on why those video productions do well.

Henry Goldman, BuzzFeed News

Henry Goldman, BuzzFeed News

“With something like protests, people want to share it to let people know that its happening,” he says. “There’s a FOMO-share. How can we optimize for that? How can that build into capabilities that we already have? We have a 200-person news organization across the country. Every reporter has a phone. If we can teach them some of the basics, get them a better lens, it’s actually an opportunity to take advantage of a built-in strength that BuzzFeed News had.”

NowThis editor Sarah Frank says listening to audience reactions is critical in deciding what types of content to create for what platforms. That means considering input from the — at times dreaded — comments section.

“If you just read the signals from a platform, you don’t know if the audience will follow,” she says. “We try to read the signal from our audience. It’s not just about the view number or the share number; we try to read what people are saying in the comments, because they are saying, sometimes explicitly, whether they want more or less of something. There are many things that we do, particularly on Facebook Live, because we have a small but highly engaged audience around it. We’ve gone all-in on a lot of different platforms, and it’s noticing a platform opportunity, thinking about how our content would fit there, forcing news and information there, and pouring gas on the fire when we see that an audience is responding.”

Choire Sicha, Vox Media

Choire Sicha, Vox Media

Common advice also recommends that publishers not get sucked into fighting every battle on the map. Choire Sicha, executive director, partner development, Vox Media, agrees that there is power and value in picking a couple of platforms and not trying to do too much.

“You have to pick places where you can land,” he says. “If you look at a Racked.com, which is a site about shopping, they publish a newsletter, and they publish Facebook video. That’s it. Nowhere else. They’ve narrowed down their focus so that they can win in two places, and it’s working phenomenally well.”

Insights from BuzzFeed News, Vox Media, and NowThis were shared on stage during a panel discussion at Social Media Week NYC.

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