Is the rising popularity of video a pink slip, or a ticket to success?

Editorial staff cuts at sites like ESPN, Fox Sports, Mashable, Mic, MTV News, and Rolling Stone have stunned even those in the industry who still had jobs after the dust settled. Writers have been swept away in a fit of deck clearing characterized as strategic necessity, a “pivot to video” intended to stimulate consumers and burnish media brands roughed up in the scrum for scarce ad dollars.

Then-president of Fox Sports, Jamie Horowitz, justified laying off 20 wordsmiths as a response to popular demand: “We will be shifting our resources and business model away from written content and instead focus on our fans’ growing appetite for premium video across all platforms,” he wrote. Mic’s publisher, Corey Haik, envisioned a pending “visual revolution” in journalism as she bid farewell to 25 of her own. Vice cut 60 people—2 percent of its total head count—to better concentrate its focus on video. Variations on the theme swept virtually all of competitive, commercial media.

Amid the wreckage, SkyNews staffer Mollie Goodfellow tweeted, “how do i tell my bf i want our relationship to pivot to video?” Digital pioneer Anil Dash summarized the moment less wryly, “Horse broke its leg, so we had to take it out back and help it ‘pivot .to video.’” For many creative personnel, “pivot” was just a euphemism for “fired.” Video had become an existential threat.

Money Follows Eyeballs

When we take a step back from writers’ reactions, it’s increasingly clear institutional survival and competitiveness have driven media companies to recalibrate their business models yet again.

The shift of online traffic from text to video actually began several years ago, as companies malnourished by display ad revenue set their sights on the bountiful sums devoted to video advertising. Most of the growth around digital content since then has been associated with video. It’s not especially surprising that for-profit media gravitates in that direction. While display ad CPMs (cost per thousand impressions) tanked and the price of acquiring traffic grew, advertisers were willing to pay 10 times as much for video inventory. And while job prospects in the print business continue to fall, jobs in video production are growing faster than average, at around 11 percent.

“The video future may be uncertain, but that’s more hopeful than an almost moribund text-based present,” Michael Wolff of The Hollywood Reporter wrote in early October. “Indeed, every digital media business is now being valued in good part on how efficiently it is deploying and monetizing video.”

Video can expand our creative options by connecting businesses and consumers with conversations, rather than monologues.

Efficiency is certainly a dominant theme in explanations of the current media earthquake. But effectiveness is equally important, since reaching and connecting with people is the prime directive. Is the message—whether editorial or advertising—compelling on mobile? On Android as well as iOS and Windows? How will potential viewers find and share it? Does it scale across affinity groups and viewing contexts? If not, why not?

Every second of engagement counts, and mediocre content must compete for viewers with high-quality alternatives on each and every screen. A recent Facebook study confirms the obvious: As soon as unremarkable content pops up, or interest flags, something else is right there to capture our attention. Streams of unrelated information from other sources now punctuate every narrative experience. To cut through the welter, the study finds that ads and editorial content must “grab [consumers’] attention, reward their time and [be] immediately relevant.”

Something Is Happening Here

In other words, it’s dangerous to ignore the behavioral changes that drive the impulse to embrace video instead of print. Consider the following:

  • Globally, online video will account for 82 percent of all consumer traffic by 2021 (it was 73 percent in 2016). [Cisco]
  • Up to 85 percent of Facebook’s 8 billion daily video views are watched without sound. [Digiday]
  • Sixty-five percent of marketers see video becoming more important for driving offline sales. [Sequent Partners]
  • Social video generates 1,200 percent more shares than text and images combined. [Brightcove]
  • Of marketing professionals worldwide, 60 percent cite video as the content type with the best ROI. [eMarketer]

Those who hope to engage audiences around ideas and brands need to be more visually adept and attuned to shifting consumer preferences, and it’s unclear what all this means for people who tell stories for a living.

The pivot to video amplifies a familiar tension between the two distinct audiences marketers must satisfy: our clients—relatively cautious corporate entities, guided by strategy and business models—and consumers, who vote with their eyeballs, touch screens, and wallets for experiences that engage their emotions and fundamental values. At a time when content options seem to expand exponentially every quarter, reconciling those sometimes-divergent interests will require new levels of talent and awareness.

But at the same time, video can expand our creative options, not just by making messages kinetic and multidimensional, but also by connecting businesses and consumers with conversations, rather than monologues. And the most important—and difficult—pivot of all is the one that requires those media outlets to listen as well as they speak.