Only four years old, the company has managed to profoundly alter the landscape of video distribution and style. They innovated the bold, blocky text on video that has proliferated since and have jumped entirely on the distributed content bandwagon. NowThis president Athan Stephanopoulos and Ashish Patel, publisher and manager of the Data Insights team shared their thinking and strategy at Digital Media Strategies USA 2016 last week. 

Stephanopoulos began by outlining the simple kernel that created the company’s DNA. It’s “the belief that video was going to become the dominant media type going forwards,” said Stephanopoulos. “And that social was going to have a new impact and role in the distribution of content.” 

Even more condensed, he describes NowThis as “mobile social video.” Perhaps a self-evident statement, but one that has truly oriented the company’s growth. Stephanopoulos said it’s thinking from the ground up about how you bring stories to an audience in this social ecosystem.

Connecting to an audience of young people

The NowThis audience is primarily young people, which means really understanding them and what they want. “We want to tell stories that are important.” said Stephanopoulos. “Issues that matter to young people today.” He reels off some examples like legalisation of marijuana and the cost of education. 

“They’re not beholden to any traditional media company,” he said, recognizing this gives affords new companies a good opportunity as young people primarily learn about the world through their phones. “We know that ultimately you need to cater to them.”

That comes with not dismissing them, he explained. “It’s not just pictures of what they did this weekend,” said Stephanopoulos. “It’s also standing up for something and using these social tools to define who they are.” As NowThis is approaching 2.5 billion video views a month, this influence is something he takes quite seriously. “We recognize is there’s a certain level of journalistic responsibility and civic responsibility that comes with having this level of impact and reach with a younger audience,” he said.

As an example, he noted that after shooting in interview with the vice president, the crew was leaving the White House when a mother, with three daughters in tow, approached the team curious to know what they were doing. The daughters, embarrassed by their mother, inched away as a producer explained where they’d come from. When the mother asked which outlet and the producer said “NowThis” the mother drew a blank but all three daughter’s heads snapped around and one said “You guys are NowThis? That’s where we get our news.”

“Data conscious”

Ashish Patel has a spin on the data buzz. “Data is important to us but I hate to say we’re data driven,” said Patel. “We’re data conscious.” 

He related an early formative moment to illustrate. Back in the early days, they had high drop-off rates on the first five seconds of video, 85 percent was mobile and mainly on Facebook. Patel recalled pulling out his phone, seeing that volume was off and not hearing the video. “Immediately we sat down with producers and said we how do we solve this?” said Patel. “We’re happy to say we’re the ones who first brought that big bold text on the screen.”

Patel says this kind of quick adapting is possible because “we built a true feedback loop between the data science team and our insights team to the content makers and this something that we’re doing almost in real time.” And it’s not simply bringing raw data to content makers. “Data is half the story,” said Patel. It’s about interpreting the data and turning it into new ideas and insights. 

Since they let go of their website, it meant they aren’t pulling visitors to their site but solely sending out content. That shift in structure led to the build a CMS-like platform called “Switchboard” that has workflow functionality like storing video assets and data science capability that gets realtime analytics and pushes directly to platforms using APIs.

But besides the bells and whistles of a in-house production system, it’s also focussing on how to use it. “Virality is not a strategy,” said Patel. NowThis looks at their lowest performing content each month to do analysis, not the biggest hits. From there, they try to understand why. Recently, they’ve moved into machine-learning which scans videos for things like numbers of faces and dominant colors.

Patel isn’t, however, going on the futurist fantasy. “We know we’re never going to create an algorithm that creates a video,” he said. “We know there’s a human at the other end of the screen”

But what about the money?

“We’ve looked at ourselves as the pioneers of the distributed media model,” said Stephanopoulos. But as everything is painfully aware, the Achille’s heel so far is that the money goes to the platforms. NowThis produces 60 pieces of video on a daily basis across multiple platforms. By leaving their site behind, they had to come up with a new way to turn profitable.

In early 2015, they took the studio route. After having built up an iconic style, they launched NowThis Studios which produces branded content. “The same sensibilities that we take on the editorial side and how we think about creating content and how insights feeds that,” said Stephanopoulos. “We’re now able to go through the studio team to brands and bring them those skills.”