Why Short-Form Video is “an Ambivalent Investment” for Publishers

Tim Cross 19 February, 2024 

The great publisher ‘pivot to video’, which peaked in around 2017, has become something of an industry in-joke. Lofty proclamations about the percentage of revenue which publishers would eventually generate from video content and audiences’ unlimited appetites for any kind of video were promptly proven misguided. Some of the brashest attempts to go video-first, such as generating generic video versions of written articles, have since been rolled back.

But amid the hype, publishers did manage to establish video formats that worked. Many news publishers had success with a mix of day-to-day video news coverage and longer-form documentary-style pieces. Hosting these videos on YouTube gave them an easy way to embed videos in their own websites, with the added boost that those videos would pick up extra views on YouTube itself.

Others found success with more of a YouTube-first strategy. Series like BuzzFeed’s ‘$1 vs $1000’ and WIRED’s autocomplete interviews became so popular that some of YouTube’s biggest creators have aped their formats for their own videos.

Now however, the digital video landscape is shifting. TikTok’s ultra short-form format has proven very popular with audiences, drawing eyeballs away from ‘longer-form’ content. Other platforms including YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram have prioritised their own short-form formats in response.

As a result, the small slice of success which publishers found within the pivot to video is under threat. BuzzFeed and Condé Nast both made explicit reference to short-form video and its monetisation challenges when making layoffs over the past year.

Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch said in a memo announcing layoffs last year that video is “a volatile area of the industry as audiences move to places like TikTok and YouTube Shorts (up 600 percent over the last two years alone)”. And while the company has had success in driving overall video audience growth with these formats, he said that “these new video formats haven’t found monetisation models yet”.

A vertical drop off

Looking at publishers’ primary video feeds on YouTube, it’s clear that ‘longer-form’ video formats aren’t delivering like they once did.

To give a sense of this drop off, VideoWeek looked at a number of major publishers and tracked how many of their 100 most popular videos were released in the last year. This isn’t a perfect metric – videos which have been on the site longer have had more time to pick up views. But YouTube’s algorithm gives a big advantage to new content. Most videos – even evergreen content – pick up the majority of their views in the first days and weeks after they’re uploaded.

Some are still finding relative success. The Daily Mail, which has embarked upon a big AV push recently, published 12 of its 100 most popular videos in the last year. The Daily Star put out 15 – though this really only is relative success – the Star’s 100th most popular video has just 271 views.

However many of those who invested most heavily in YouTube are now struggling, with one or zero of their most successful videos having been posted over the last year.

You can also see a drop off in output from these publishers as they see declining returns on video. BuzzFeed for example has just put out 23 videos in the last year (that is, videos labelled as less than one year old), not including shorts. Two years ago (i.e, videos labelled as published two years ago), BuzzFeed released 236 videos.

That’s not to say publishers are giving up on video. A recent report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism actually found that video is a major focus for publishers this year. But pushes into short-form video are having mixed results, in terms of picking up views and building audiences.

The strength of TikTok has required publishers to rebuild their audience from scratch on a new platform, which is a fairly slow process. Again the Daily Mail stands out as an exception here – it claims 10 million subscribers on TikTok across its channels, and has over 7.9 million on its main channel alone – significantly higher than the 3.21 million subscribers it has on YouTube. For others however, their subscriber count on TikTok still sits significantly below YouTube. This is partly just a matter of time – they’ve had far longer to cultivate an audience on YouTube. Nonetheless, it presents a challenge for drawing audiences to their short-form output.

Most are also running short-form videos on Shorts, YouTube’s TikTok-like vertical feed. But again, this isn’t putting up the same sorts of numbers which ‘longer-form’ videos have in the past. BuzzFeed’s most popular Short has 5.3 million views, while its most popular longer video had 77 million. WIRED’s most popular Short has 31 million views, compared to 64 million from its long-form selection.

Competing more directly with creators

To an extent, this may just be an issue of publishers regearing their video operations to shorter-form content. “You need to invest in new skills to do short-form video properly,” said Nic Newman, who authored the aforementioned Reuters report. “Short-form news videos are really very different from posting something on Facebook or on Twitter.”

But there might be more fundamental issues too – namely that publishers don’t have the same advantages in the short-form world as they did with longer video content.

Looking at the videos and series which really took off for publishers on YouTube, a lot of it was the sort of content which independent creators would struggle to create. Newspapers had success with long-form documentaries, using their journalistic skills and network of contacts to produce thorough, in-depth reporting. Some entertainment brands were able to leverage access to celebrities, like WIRED’s autocomplete interviews or Vogue’s ‘73 questions with…’ format. Others simply invested in high quality production capabilities and used their internal creative resources to come up with popular series.

In the ultra short-form world, these advantages aren’t as relevant. TikTok has popularised a minimalist aesthetic, where a lot of content is shot on a phone, often seemingly impromptu. With less time to play with, content tends to be centred on one joke, trend, or idea – long interviews or investigations simply aren’t viable.

At the same time, younger audiences on social platforms tend to get news content from a wider variety of sources. “We’ve definitely seen with Israel/Gaza, and before that with COVID and with Black Lives Matter, that younger people in particular are really engaging with issues but not necessarily from traditional media companies,” said Newman.

Some publishers are finding success by doubling down on their unique advantages. Newman said that news publisher content featuring on-the-ground reporting tends to do well – and it’s content which can’t be replicated by casual creators.

Others have picked up viewers by leaning into the TikTok aesthetic. The Daily Mail has adopted this tactic – overlaying short clips or simple slideshows with a voiceover and bold subtitles.

An ambivalent investment

The problem remains however that even where publishers do manage to reach the same kinds of viewing figures on short-form as they have with other video formats, it currently doesn’t monetise as well. TikTok is known to have relatively low CPMs, while YouTube has been explicit that short-form content doesn’t monetise as well as longer videos. “There is higher investment and higher interest in video,” said Nic Newman, “but it is quite ambivalent because people worry about the monetisation”.

Joseph Teasdale, head of tech at Enders Analysis, said that shorter videos ultimately support a lower ad load overall, and that the vertical scrolling nature of most short-form video products is a less advertising-friendly environment. “It may be that we’re just earlier along the monetisation curve, but my guess would be that it never makes as much money as long-form,” said Teasdale. A recent report from Enders recommended that news publishers should view activity on TikTok as a “strategic cost” to build brand awareness, rather than a revenue source.

There are also publisher-specific problems when it comes to monetisation. In short-form video feeds, ads play as users scroll between videos, rather than being attached to one specific clip as a pre-roll or mid-roll. This indirect relationship between content and ads leads to complicated formulae dictating how much money any creator receives. It’s not just the case that the better your video performs, the more money you get.

On YouTube’s Shorts for example, ad revenue generated goes into a ‘creator pool’, once costs for music licensing are deducted. This pool is then allocated to eligible creators, depending on what percentage of total views their videos were responsible for. YouTube then takes its 55 percent cut, before passing money back to the creator.

The issue with this pooling method for publishers is that they can’t pitch themselves as a premium destination for ad spend. It simply comes down to how successful their content is on any given month, compared with all other Shorts videos.

Will we see a swing back towards ‘longer-form’

These publisher-specific problems may fade over time. The platforms themselves, in encouraging more advertising-friendly content onto their short-form feeds, may do more to incentivise publishers – carving out exclusive ad revenue deals, or finding ways to align ads with specific publishers’ content.

We may also see a swing back towards ‘longer-form’ content from the platforms themselves. The Reuters Institute’s Nic Newman said it’s in YouTube’s own interests to sustain viewership of longer content. Failure to do so would harm YouTube’s own business model. TikTok too has been opening up to longer content, both by upping its cap on video length and investing in live broadcasting capabilities.

The trouble is, publishers need every penny they can get right now. Publishing groups are announcing layoffs every week at the moment. Short-form struggles aren’t the biggest problem for publishers right now – Enders’ Joseph Teasdale said it “pales in comparison” to the more fundamental issue that they by-and-large haven’t found a business model that works for digital media.

But in that context, having to rethink video strategy and wait for monetisation on short-form content to improve is a headache publishers could do without.

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About the Author:

Tim Cross is Assistant Editor at VideoWeek.
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