5 Takes on the Challenges and Opportunities of Digital Video

Roundtable in advance of the NewFronts

Headshot of James Cooper

In advance of the fourth annual Digital Content NewFronts, Adweek, in partnership with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, convened a panel of five industry thought leaders to discuss the challenges and opportunities Web- and mobile-based video pose for traditional media companies, digital native firms and brand marketers. Tamara Alesi, svp, media capability lead at DigitasLBi, Michael Zimbalist, svp, advertising products and R&D at The New York Times, Michael Klein, evp, programming and content strategy at Condé Nast Entertainment, Anna Bager, svp, gm of mobile and video at IAB, Rahul Chopra, CEO of Storyful and head of video for News Corp. and Danielle Lee, vp, commercial marketing at Vevo joined the discussion. The panel was moderated by Anna Bager, svp and general manager, video and mobile at the IAB.

Anna Bager: We are honored and I'm very excited to have such a great group of people in the room to talk about what we're about to soon experience during the NewFronts. I would like to have a conversation around where the largest business opportunities are and also where the creative opportunities and challenges lie.

So I want to start by asking the traditional publishers in the room who don't necessarily come from a digital video background, Michael [Zimbalist] and Michael [Klein] and Rahul. Where do you see the greatest opportunities, and do you feel that you're reaching new audiences?

Michael Zimbalist: Yes, we are unquestionably reaching new audiences and taking on new capabilities and expressing the content we create in an entirely new form, so the business opportunities are the opportunities of a new business line. And the capabilities are widespread throughout the organizations, such that we can do videos as extensions of our journalism—but also commercial video for our advertisers.

Michael Klein: Condé Nast Entertainment was created to take these iconic brands and content and leverage them across other platforms. So [that includes] feature films, television, but also importantly digital video where we're reaching a millennial audience, which is an extension of what we're seeing touching the brands on all other platforms.

Rahul Chopra: Video has been core to our method of storytelling and also on a commercial perspective for over four years. We acquired Storyful at the end of 2013, which is really at the nexus of data and content. A couple weeks ago we launched Internet Action Force, a comedy vertical. All of this is leading us to brand-new audiences on brand-new platforms. It's just a phenomenal way to extend our brand.

Bager: How are you thinking about new platforms?

Klein: We've launched 17 channels based on our brands. And that content lives on our owned platforms as well as on our own portal The Scene, which is a home for digital-first premium content, not only from our brands but from brand partners. But it's also distributed widely through Yahoo, AOL, Twitter, Xbox, Roku, Apple TV. It's about getting the content to consumers on the platforms that they're using.

Zimbalist: I would agree; it's about finding the consumers where they are and getting it to them where they are. So we publish on our own platform all the videos that we make, but we also distribute to other platforms. And in the cases of the videos we're making commercially for brands, those videos are owned and distributed by the brands. In many cases we've had the brands take the videos and distribute them independently on their own channels.

Bager: Danielle, you're representing Vevo, a more pure-play digital video company. How are you thinking about these issues?

Danielle Lee: It's absolutely about getting the content to where the viewers are. And everyone loves music. So our strategy has really been about syndicating our content through other publishers—we have over 50 publishers in our network that we syndicate our players to—but also having an aggressive app development strategy. That means making the Vevo app available on multiple devices as well as connected TV. It's very much a cross-screen experience. About 75 percent of our viewers watch Vevo videos across multiple devices.

Bager: So when it comes to all this content and the content production, is that all done in-house or are you partnering with new types of companies?

Klein: You know we've done over 135 series to date and we work with a variety of content creators. It can be people with a camera and a dream or a large production company. It really depends on the story they want to tell and the audience mood we're trying to fulfill with it.

Lee: For us music is at the core of the concept that we're creating. We're serving music fans and our mission is to thrill and entertain them. Our content strategy really has been about celebrating music fandom, so a lot about our original [content] is focused on that. Our Certified series is a great example. It showcases videos that get 100 million views and celebrates the fans that got them there. And then there's music discovery. A lot of fans come to our site and discover new artists, so telling their story is a big part of the concept—not just the official music video but also the emerging artist's journey into superstardom.

Bager: So I want to turn it over to Digitas, the only agency on this panel. Tamara, what are you hearing from buyers and brands about the digital video marketplace?

Tamara Alesi: Video content has always been important to us as an agency. And it's really been the year of wow. We think about the fact that our landscape has changed so dramatically, and we're able to have this amazing conversation with consumers. And you're just connecting with them in different ways—whether it's on their phone, their television, traditional computer or even in the magazine that they grabbed off the newsstand. At the end of the day, we're able to really just converse and actually move brand metrics in a way like we never have because now we're able to enable commerce as part of that. So it's no longer getting the consumer to move across the line. Now we're using content and video as a storytelling mechanism to really pull them in and be relevant, which is why I think it's working so well.

Bager: Do you feel brands are more educated and aware today than they were four years ago?

Alesi: Absolutely. I think the agencies are always pushing to make sure we're bringing the most relevant opportunities to the brands that are out there. But at the end of the day we have really great partnerships with everybody who I'm sitting here with now, in terms of how we're actually not just bringing ideas to the forefront but ultimately, telling a completely different type of story. And actually allowing the consumers to now be part of that story, using influencers to not just influence per se, but actually make consumers brand advocates because they want to be part of it. And I think that the opportunities will just continue to grow. There's by no means a perfect solution yet, but we continue to reinvent, we continue to have successes and we continue to learn and get better at what we're doing.

Bager: So where do you all see the biggest challenges?

Alesi: There is no identified process for this. It's not like developing video content for a television series because you're often working with talent that isn't actually a commercialized talent per se, but rather an everyday individual that has become a YouTube star. So how you interact with them is very different, their contracts are different. How you interact with your brand to make sure that it still feels real and it's authentic to the consumer is very different. So I think we have a long way to go, but every time we create a new series or every time we push out a new commercial I think we get better at it.

Zimbalist: That's what's exciting about it too, the conversation you can have with the audience in the digital platform—it's something you just do not have in television—and they'll let you know if they love it or hate it really quickly. You referenced YouTube stars as digital influencers that have gained significant audience and engagement and are a force to be reckoned with. Digital consumers chose their celebrity and made them—it wasn't a studio pushing it down on them. You can really see that the power of programming has been given to the consumer and the TV schedule is not relevant here.

Chopra: YouTube has played a part in that as well though, right? They have elevated these stars and redefined what the definition of programming is differently.

Lee: It's also a testament to the millennial generation. They want to participate and they don't want to be told what to watch.

Bager: When you're talking about music and YouTube, it's fairly straightforward, but what about news?

Zimbalist: This phenomenon that we're referring to has created an opening that allows The New York Times, Condé Nast and The Wall Street Journal to enter the video space in a meaningful way because the distribution channels are now open and democratized for us all to take part. We've entered it in three distinct ways. One is as an adjunct to the enterprise journalism that we do, so that any important story is going have video associated with it. And those videos can accommodate prerolls and be monetized in a way we could never do with photojournalism, which was an accessory to the journalism. We've also taken a lot of our franchises and our sections and turned them into recurring series, which is another completely new entry point for us, and those also can be monetized. And then we've created this entirely new business line which is outside of our newsroom, and it's wholly run by advertising which is to produce videos for brands. Any of these videos can have a scale to worldwide audiences.

Chopra: We have this amazing opportunity with these new platforms to reach an entirely new audience and tell stories with video that just previously weren't possible. Early on, the motto we had was that we want to be live when you want it, in-depth when you need it everywhere and anywhere in the world. We are pretty proud of what we were able to build—and it's still so early.

Bager: I want to come back to monetization and the advertising opportunity, but first I want to ask you all what you see as truly premium content?

Alesi: Premium content is the most sought-after content. That's how I would look at it and we've referred to it as the prime time of digital. It's not necessarily a time slot during the day, just the content that's most wanted. When people are looking for news, and they want video, that becomes premium. There's also a production qualification in terms of what makes something premium. But I don't think there's a black-and-white answer.

Bager: What do you say, Michael?

Klein: We say performance is the new premium and that means that it's engaging content, there's real consumer interest and engagement, that it's delivering on the advertiser needs for the consumer. And, ultimately, that the consumer feels there's equity in it and [it] brings them back in wanting more and repeating the sense of urgency and passion that experience gave them and that started building a relationship with the brand. That's how we look at it.

Bager: What's your advice for an advertiser just entering this space with significant budgets to spend in terms of knowing what's really succeeding with viewers?

Alesi: Well there's a lot of data that you need to have in place to be able to properly measure that. We have a really defined tech staff that helps us to answer those questions for our advertisers so that they know that when we're telling them this is premium and is going to deliver best for them there's confidence behind that. It's also about having the data ecosystem in place so that we can continually optimize and measure what's going on.

Bager: What KPIs do advertisers care most about when it comes to digital video? What are they asking for?

Alesi: The right KPIs are about engagement—the consumer engaging with that content. It's not about viewability, and it's definitely not about clicks. Are they spending time with the video? Are they consuming it? And then are they looking for more?

Lee: One of the things we've started looking at are social listening tools to really understand the conversation around our videos. I think that's a really great indicator for brands to understand how content resonates with audiences.

Chopra: That's one of the areas where we're actually growing Storyful. How can you find the most engaging, the most authentic, the most timely of content and get it either in the hands of publishers to leverage or brands to leverage as well? I think that adding authenticity to engagement plays a big role as well. Especially with the growth of influencers.

Klein: And especially to the millennial audience. If it's not authentic, they smell it a mile away and they'll reject it.

Alesi: And the more that it's shared and the more that it is engaged with, the more likely that millennial group is actually willing to talk about it—which gives it additional legs and makes it even more popular and makes it trend.

Bager: So we're talking a lot about millennials. Is that the only group that you can successfully reach?

Alesi: I don't think it's just about millennials. I think every consumer is now capitalizing on digital video, no matter what screen it's on. Some of the latest stats that have come out from Nielsen and comScore show that less than 50 percent of consumers in general are watching linear TV. So at the end of the day the consumers' habits, no matter the demographic of the audience, have changed dramatically. I'm really interested to see what happens with Apple's new product in the fall in terms of moving more consumers away from linear TV. No matter who the consumer is they want to get their content when they want it and they're looking for more economy in doing so. And there's a lot of solutions via Apple TV that will allow you to get that content where you want it at a better economy.

Chopra: I think Pew said 35 percent of Americans are consuming digital video and music content. It's a big number for some of us, and it's a whole new audience in some ways. The age and demographics are pretty diverse.

Zimbalist: There's a new type of consumer emerging who wants video as their primary means of consuming our content, and it's a segment for sure, but among that segment they watch it pretty voraciously. People who watch video on our site are watching about 30 minutes of video a month, which is probably more than the average that they're reading. So the engagement, the time, the attention that's brought through video consumption is something that's only going to get more important and is only going to deliver better for advertisers over time.

Klein: Though I would say for Condé Nast Entertainment, influential millennials are who we target and that's who you can learn from in terms of habits of how they're consuming content. When I look across Condé Nast digital, we have more millennials than E! and Lifetime, Oxygen and Bravo combined engaging with our content. So there's so much to be learned there in terms of how the audience is really engaging with our content.

Zimbalist: Short form, long form—it's all over the place. We have a tremendous amount of content that's one to three minutes that people watch. We have content that goes up to 10 minutes. We have content that we've premiered and turned into full-length documentaries that have been nominated for the Academy Awards. You know there's kind of like this broad spectrum, and there are viewers for all of it.

Bager: So what's the advertising opportunity? How do you monetize this content?

Alesi: There's no one specific format that has nailed it. I think it really depends on the type of content you're in. If you're within a YouTube-type experience where you have a millennial doing some sort of a showcase on a brand or a product, you want to be short and to the point because you own that experience. And you still need to make sure that whatever the format is that it's authentic and that it's tuning into what the consumer is looking for. Otherwise, they're going to skip it and pass through. We've been having so many conversations about viewability as of late—it's a bit ad nauseam. The conversation that we're really trying to focus on is the conversation of attention. If a consumer watches a video for the full 30 seconds and they have the opportunity to skip that video, that means they're engaged and you've made a difference. That should be the core metric because the screen itself is just not optimized to deliver that 100 percent viewability.

Chopra: I heard somebody say last week that if content is king, then context is God. That's probably going a bit far. But it's true that for editorial and for commercial we're at this golden age of storytelling in some ways, and advertisers need to be thinking about it in that way as well.

Bager: Discuss the need for standard video ad formats. We recently formed a video board at the IAB with the goal of creating better understanding on what works in video.

Alesi: It's hard to create standards for creativity and it totally depends on the category, on the type of plan, on the type of experience that they're consuming in, and most importantly, the audience. A millennial consumer is going to be less patient with certain types of experiences where you know somebody who's Gen X or Gen Y are going to be potentially more likely to consume a longer format. So it really depends on who your audience is, but we do have to really lean on our best practices.

Chopra: The three areas that we look at where there could be some standards are interactivity, commerce and leveraging social content … how you take the most authentic content that's been shared across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and leverage it in a way that everyone is comfortable. As you look at brands getting more and more into the business of creating their own content, they're realizing very quickly how difficult it is, how expensive it is and how hard it is to get it discovered.

Bager: So what advice do you have?

Lee: I still think it's about tapping into the passion points of your audience and understanding what they care about and aligning your brand with that concept. So it's really about understanding your consumer.

Klein: When we look at our development, it's audience first and what are their mood states that we can fulfill. Do they want to be inspired? Do they want to feel empowered? Do they want to feel creative? We actually have an audience engagement team that sits side by side with development, so that social aspect is baked into the DNA of the project—it's not "Let's pass this off to marketing." It's inherent from the start and becomes part of it. And that goes back to that authenticity piece.

Bager: If you look at the types of ads that we have today— :15s, :30s, pre- and postroll—what's working best?

Chopra: The interesting part is that the answer we all give today could be drastically different in about nine months. Because when Facebook and Twitter enter the space in a bigger way from a monetization perspective, they'll have the ability to change the landscape dramatically in regards to the type of ads they allow us to use. They're going to try and experiment with different things other than traditional preroll. And that will make for an interesting conversation from both our side and the brand side.

Bager: So back to the NewFronts. What are your expectations? What do you think will be different this year? Will marketers be more engaged than last year?

Klein: I think it's so exciting to see how much the industry has exploded in just the past 12 months. You have 33 presentations this year, up about 100 percent from last year. It demonstrates what's happening in the marketplace and how the advertising world is really embracing digital video. And competition is going to make everybody better. There's going to be a lot of content being pushed out over the two-week period. And you know we talked earlier about the definition of premium. I think you're going to see as a result of that, premium is really going to be defined—because not everybody is going to be playing at the same level.

Alesi: What I love about it is it shows that we are in a constant state of reinvention. There are so many opportunities if you are a brand to see how you can engage with publishers in unique and inspiring ways. It's not the same old upfronts that we were all part of for so many years.

Lee: I'd also say it's about acknowledging how we're getting smarter and what's working and what we're doubling down on. I find that brands are far more engaged this year than last year. We are having way more first-look NewFront meetings.

Bager: The research shows that across the board we're consuming more media on all channels. What do you think NewFronts 2016 will be like?

Chopra: A lot more about Facebook beyond just YouTube, which will be a big change. And I think continued maturity in the market. If you compared the NewFronts to when they started, or even last year, we've all grown up and matured quite a lot. YouTube is probably the best example. Their first show was not very good. Last year was very impressive and will likely be even more so this year.

Zimbalist: The NewFronts, I believe—you guys [Digitas] started the NewFronts back in the day—were always conceived as a marketplace. I think it's getting to the point where it's almost becoming that, and people are really coming now ready to transact more than they had in the first couple of rounds. Which is really important and evolutionary and realizing the vision of what this started as four years ago.

For more insight into the digital video advertising and creative marketplace, see video interviews at Adweek.com/video.

@jcoopernyc james.cooper@adweek.com James Cooper is editorial director of Adweek.