Beyond the ‘Web’: NowThisNews Puts Social Media First
Screenshot from NowThis News
December 23, 2013

Consumers are watching more and more videos online, and cell phones have become ubiquitous. So creating original mobile content seems like the logical next step for publishers trying to anticipate where tomorrow’s readers will want to consume their news.

The idea is straightforward enough: Follow the users.

That’s exactly the strategy behind mobile start-up NowThisNews, which launched in November of 2012 with the backing of Huffington Post co-founder Kenneth Lerer and several other investors who pooled $5 million to start the company.

Since then, the New York-based company has become known for its social-media-first strategy, posting its short and punchy videos narrated by young “VJs” directly to platforms such as Instagram and Vine and building a following from there.

Rather than begging users to come to its site, NowThisNews leaders believe they have to go where users are going and present them with the kind of content they want to see.

“If you do good content and good storytelling, the consumer will come,” said NowThis News editor-in-chief Ed O’Keefe, a former digital executive producer for ABC News. “And if that happens, it can only mean good journalism.”

Content producers for the company, called VJs, produce work uniquely designed for each platform. They create six-second Vine videos, 15-second Instagram videos, or one-minute clips that run on the company’s own mobile app, which are then shared via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or a partner outlet, such as MSN, AOL or Buzzfeed.

On any given day, users can find a NowThisNews Instagram video on artificial sweeteners showing up in river water (“Gross,” narrates a VJ) or a video on its site of Toronto mayor Rob Ford dancing, a signal, wrote NowThisNews, that he is in a “Zen-like state” where he “just does not care.”

As of December, the company has nearly 30,000 followers on its Twitter feed and about 58,500 on Instagram, a little more than a year after it first launched its iOS app.

“There is a fundamental shift in the way that people, particularly younger generations, consume news and information,” O’Keefe said.  “To not make that shift now is to put your brand in peril of missing this disruptive moment.”

The founders have acknowledged that the idea behind the start-up is a gamble, and some critics agree. Producing video tends to be more expensive than other forms of news, and there’s no clear path to profits from mobile video, since these platforms remain in their infancy as advertising and subscription vehicles, according to O’Keefe.

And while other news outlets have started to customize their content for specific platforms, few have used social networks as anything other than a marketing tool.

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said it’s difficult to predict the future for NowThis News.

“The last thing I saw on there was Anthony Weiner going nuts in a Brooklyn deli,” he said. “You never know. Sometimes you can build an empire on the likes of that — and sometimes you can’t.”

NowThis News VJs are between the ages of 23 and 28, and its average viewer is 28, according to general manager Eason Jordan, a former top executive at CNN.

Mindful of Millennials’ short attention spans, the start-up began revealing the main point of its stories at the beginning of its videos and found that consumers stayed on the site for longer — about five minutes per video, compared to one minute previously, according to O’Keefe.

It asks questions at the end of Vine videos to continue the conversation, which has resulted in about 218,100 followers on Vine.

VJ Cyrus Moussavi said creating content for social networks can be challenging since people don’t normally look for news about say, Syria, on Instagram.

“It’s hard to make those things matter to people,” he said, “but it’s really enjoyable when and if it works.”

Watch a NowThis News video featuring interviews with witnesses of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Phase Two: Finding the Dollars

After a splashy first year of experimenting with new video forms, NowThis News is entering its second phase: making money. Traditional advertising has never really been an option, according to Jordan, because the company puts a premium on the consumer experience.

“We’re not going to put content on there that’s off-putting,” Jordan said.

Instead, the executive team intends to raise money through syndication and through “social advertising,” which involves making videos about partner organizations’ content or services, according to both and O’Keefe and Jordan.

For example, the start-up worked with InDemand, a subscription and pay-per-view video service, to produce a video at San Diego’s ComicCon. The video itself doesn’t seem that different from NowThis News’ normal segments; O’Keefe described it as “storytelling.”

O’Keefe said of the ad: “We’re really trying to evolve the model and understand what the user will accept in both the mobile and social environment as it relates to video.”

Related Story: “How Will an Online-Only Onion Make Money?”