In Focus

In Focus: National Geographic on bringing a legacy brand to new digital platforms

JP Polo

Director, Digital & Social Video, National Geographic

Originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, JP serves as Director of Social Video for National Geographic. For the past six years he worked as a producer, cinematographer and editor for National Geographic, producing content for their digital and social platforms as well as TV content. He received his BA, in international Affairs from George Washington University, MA in film production from American University and his JD from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico School of Law.

As a legacy media company, how has Nat Geo been able to maintain and grow its audience across platforms?

At National Geographic we remain true to our mission and to our core content. This has been the key to our social and digital success. We are the top social media company in the world with over 350 million followers across our social and digital platforms, yet we are not a celebrity or a celebrity driven company—we are a mission driven company. When you analyze and understand that, you realize that the reason we have a massive social following is because people across the planet truly and passionately believe in what we do. That led all these millions of people to follow us online. Once you have a massive following like we do, the key is to continue to engage and evolve your content at the rapid pace that social and digital platforms require while making sure not to veer away from what brought those people to your brand in the first place.

We continue to push further, because that is what made us who we are. Our keen instinct for exploration is applicable to the way we produce video content for our social and digital platforms. While other companies were reactionary to social and digital platforms, Nat Geo embraced them from the get-go. Social and digital have become our primary ways to tell stories. These platforms combined with our first class storytelling and access allow people around the globe to not only experience the world from another perspective, but to actively find ways to be part of the changes we need in order to protect this planet.

How has the rise of social media platforms in recent years changed the way you think about making videos and reaching new audiences?

On a personal level, I truly believe that social and digital platforms have not only become the primary way people consume video content but also the primary way they can actively engage with your company’s mission. Gone are the days where social and digital video were an afterthought. They are now at the forefront of every content discussion we have as a company; they drive our audience development efforts and also our revenue discussions as well. In order to reach new audiences, you have to diversify your content offering while staying true to the brand. One of the things we do extremely well at Nat Geo is looking at data to inform our video production but not letting data drive it. If you become data obsessed, then your videos will quickly deteriorate and lose their appeal. In social and digital platforms data is important but it is also ephemeral, so basing everything on last month’s data can have devastating effects in the long run.

When you work on social and digital platforms you quickly realize that all platforms are not built the same. They have different audiences and different video consumption habits, and there are little intricacies to each one. This means our social and digital video teams have to be skill-diverse, they need to be nimble, they need to be fast, and they need to be detail oriented all while staying focused on the overall goal: to promote our mission and entertain our audience. At Nat Geo we we believe in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world. Our social and digital teams understand that social media is a powerful tool for video, it’s a powerful tool for conversation, and ultimately it’s a powerful tool for change.

Nat Geo has has a huge archive of content that you have refreshed and remixed for a digitally native audience. Why the push now into creating original premium content for these platforms?

Unfortunately, social and digital platforms got a reputation for being the place where low quality video would live and possibly shine. While there was no doubt that social platforms could drive traffic and help companies build their audiences, no real effort was put behind producing content specifically tailored for social platforms. At Nat Geo we saw it differently, we took advantage of our vast library of high quality footage and produced highly engaging and educational material for our audiences worldwide. The next natural step was to start producing digitally and socially native original series and content.

That’s where we are right now. We have invested significant resources and expanded our original content slate for our social and digital platforms. There is no doubt most people consume their Nat Geo content online, and we want them to know that online they will have a premium Nat Geo experience, not just repurposed material. Currently we have over 15 socially and digitally native original series in production or in development, and we are constantly developing and partnering with content creators to bring more of this premium experience to our online audience.

What sort of content have you seen perform better on certain networks?

At Nat Geo we produce content for and manage a significant number of social and digital platforms. For Facebook alone we have over 8 pages for different types of content and verticals. Each one of these platforms has their unique audience, and there’s a specific type of content that each audience enjoys. Some are obvious: Our Travel Facebook account features travel tips and our Adventure account highlights visceral adventure content. Others are strikingly different. Take our main Facebook account—its 42 million followers love to consume newsy, timely, and non-cinematic content. However, our Magazine Facebook account is quite the opposite. That audience likes slow, cinematic stories on people and cultures.

YouTube is a great place to host a diversity of content. There you have a more active and captivated audience. We use YouTube for most of our hosted content, 360 VR, documentary work, and experimental films.

How are you, as a team, able to produce such a large quantity of videos across your platforms?

I like to think this is possible because of the quality of filmmakers and producers we attract. They are passionate, dedicated, and extremely good at what they do. It’s also possible because of the diversity of workflows we have in place. Digital and social content is in constant flux, and our ability to be nimble and to work with diverse workflows allows us to produce an insane amount of videos at the quality that we want produce them in. Our team is not about sacrificing quality for quantity. If my staff was not at Nat Geo you would probably see them thriving as award-winning independent filmmakers. We give them a place to call home, a mission they believe in, and the resources to achieve it.

A lot of the success has, I assume, been around the way your audience engages with the videos (i.e. sharing and commenting). What have you learned about the sorts of videos that your audience engages with the most?

You don’t win the internet by being neutral. But you also don’t achieve worldwide credibility by sacrificing journalistic standards in the name of entertainment. Our team is extremely aware that Nat Geo has a worldwide audience because they trust us, and because we have built that reputation since our founding fathers established the Society in 1888. However, we also believe we are experts, and can speak on environmental, wildlife, and cultural topics. Our team’s goal is to inject our expertise into our video content—this in turn gets people to stop, think, and share.

How do you interact day to day with your colleagues who are producing longer form shows and other types of work?

I don’t have a private office, it is a creative and open space for people to come in and discuss ideas. It really feels like a madhouse. On a daily basis I will interact with all of my team, from senior producers to production coordinators. I encourage them to take the helm of their projects. I’ll question their decisions not with the intent of having them change the content to my specifications but rather to serve as devil’s advocate.

The team producing longer form shows are either out on the field or in a studio. Depending on my involvement on the series I will stop by, read scripts, go shoot with them in the jungle, and be involved at many levels. The end goal is to be aware of everything that’s going on but not to micromanage it. The internet is full of diversity and I encourage diverse voices and diverse approaches to how we produce our video content.

In Focus

Eko on Interactive Video and Engagement

Jim Spare

President and COO of Eko

Jim has spent his career growing disruptive tech businesses in the media and entertainment ecosystem.  He currently serves as President & COO of Eko, a venture-backed company pioneering a new medium in which live action stories are shaped by viewer choices in real time. Eko also provides the leading tech platform for crafting and delivering this kind of serial, interactive, video entertainment, and partners with media companies, independent creators, and top brands to create experiences for engaged, digitally native audiences.

At Eko you are creating a new storytelling medium – tell us more about what you mean by that?

Eko is pioneering a new platform for storytelling by allowing viewers to shape stories as they’re being told. By giving audiences the opportunity to affect, control, and influence narrative live-action entertainment, our interactive original series are providing for a brand new way for people to interact with digital media.

How do you see interactive video changing the landscape for branded content?

We are finding that our seamless form of interactivity enables an entirely new kind of “branded content” that allows both the creator of original entertainment and the brand to EACH tell exactly the story they want to tell.  This avoids the conundrum whereby a brand’s involvement can dilute a creator’s vision making an experience less successful, and a creator’s lack of flexibility in communicating a brand message can mute the value to the brand.  By seamlessly inserting authentic and organic brand messages within interactive experiences (we call these “Sparks“), we solve this problem and thereby introduce a new kind of branded content where the brand message is delivered within content, but in a way that upholds the creative integrity and independence of the original entertainment.  

Furthermore, because of their interactive nature, Eko videos measure an audience’s engagement within a piece of interactive content, providing analysis and insights into a brand’s target audience that is far beyond what is possible with standard linear branded content.

You have seen some interesting metrics around audience engagement and interactivity – what are some of the most interesting case studies here?

We consistently see engagement rates over 70%, showing that consumers do seek to actively engage in Eko experiences, especially when the choices have meaning within the context of the story and are not just trivial left/right choices.  In addition, because consumers are naturally curious as to what would have happened if they would have made different choices, we consistently see retention rates of 200% – 300%, meaning on average a consumer will go back and play the entire experience again 2-3 times.

Eko’s interactive VR piece was at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival – tell us more about this piece and the experience of combining interactivity and VR

We see a huge opportunity to enhance VR as a storytelling medium by bringing the ability for the consumer to shape the story as it is being told. Broken Night, the first VR experience built on our platform, points to the future possibilities of greater immersion and control in VR through interactive storytelling in live-action video. Throughout Broken Night, the viewer has multiple opportunities to make choices that shape the way the story unfolds. At crucial moments in the plotline, the direction of the user’s gaze directs what happens next. These branches in the narrative unfold seamlessly, allowing for fluent storytelling while involving the user in the story. And the fact that the user has agency is itself crucial to the story.

In Focus

The Whitney Museum on Digital Storytelling

Sofie Andersen

Director of Digital Media, Whitney Museum

Sofie Andersen leads interdisciplinary teams of digital storytelling and product development across platforms and in-gallery. She designs impactful, user-centered experiences and tells stories at the intersection of art and place. Previously, she worked as a Digital Strategist and award-winning multi-media producer with leading arts organizations and brands including MoMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Tate Modern, The National Gallery, London, Statens Museum for Kunst, The Hong Kong Museum of Art, Discovery Communications, and Hugo Boss. Sofie holds a BA Hons in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art, UK, and a certificate in Arts Administration from NYU. She runs production and digital strategy workshops, speaks regularly at industry conferences, and conducts research on emerging digital storytelling trends.


 

What role does video play within the context of audience engagement?

Video plays an important, integrated role within our digital presentation, communications, and education strategies to engage our audiences. We use video strategically and aim to give artists a platform to talk about their art, as well as to share behind-the-scenes footage of artists studios, and to provide opportunities for the viewer to learn more about our and exhibition installations.

With modern and contemporary art in particular, it is important to see art in context and as true to its intended purpose and original form as possible. During the museum’s move downtown, the museum launched Whitney Stories, an institutional video-storytelling series, which helped us to share the process of moving downtown and building a new building, keeping our audiences alongside us in real time. It helped our audience follow along with the transition and to give authentic behind-the-scenes access. Now that we’ve grown into our new home, we’re focused on using video to help create a connection between our audiences and our dynamic programming and collection.

What platforms work best for you to reach a new audience using video?

We use video for a range of purposes, from live streams of performances or talks, to documentation of works in motion, such as our current Calder show, to more expansive storytelling in the three-part series on the history and themes of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. It’s all about picking the right channel for the content. YouTube and Facebook are the primary primarily platforms for live content, and our deeper content lives across whitney.org, Vimeo, and YouTube. We also post on Google Live. It’s an area we’re looking to grow in as we experiment with newer tools like VR and 360.

What are the specific challenges cultural institutions have in creating original video content?

Resources are always an issue—producing great video is expensive and time-consuming. The Whitney’s exhibition program is very dynamic, so we try to balance restrictions with being nimble. There are also practical considerations for when we work with artists’s estates, and in capturing installation-based experiences. There is also often a balance between providing too much access versus giving just enough to pique our audience’s curiosity.

On the flip side, some exhibitions can really lend themselves to experimentation. So for the Dreamlands exhibition last fall, we created worked with 360-videos and shared less didactic film reels for the exhibition’s related film program. We are also lucky to have an incredible installation team at the museum. So for our current Calder:Hypermobility exhibition, we filmed the works in motion….and experimented with how the audience will activate the videos across our platforms—along with a specially commissioned video of one of the works accompanied by an original soundtrack by musician Jim O’Rourke.

How does video interweave with your bigger digital strategies?

Video is a critical part of our digital storytelling strategy and is fundamental to how we communicate across platforms. Video supports our mission of supporting the work of artists, and so beyond providing engaging experiences, it is critical as part of our function as storytellers and documenters of artists and their work.

In conjunction with our user experience and development strategies,  we are looking to present well-produced videos, that are sometimes fast-paced and engage with larger themes, such as the Biennial, and at other times are more documentary in nature. It’s an investment, but we are increasingly approaching it as we do all other aspects of our programming, with a view to presenting the most engaging and innovative approaches we can. For the Biennial, video helped us tell the story of the show as it was being created, as well as share first-person interviews which formed an archive of the show—culminating in the last episode of the three-part series which came out in the closing week.

In Focus

Dotdash on Building Production Teams for a Digital World

Heather Menicucci

VP of Video, Dotdash

Heather Menicucci oversees video strategy and production at Dotdash. She joined in April 2016 and is charged with building a distributed video strategy, focusing on social platforms, quality production at scale, and branded video content. Dotdash is among the fastest-growing publishers online, helping millions of users each month solve problems and get inspired.


 

What are the unique challenges with building a team for digital video production?

We all consume so much digital video across so many platforms—which is fantastic—but one of the biggest challenges for any video team is the sheer volume of video output that’s required to keep audiences engaged and deliver meaningful experiences. And, it’s not just more video you need. It’s video thoughtfully crafted for different experiences and audience interests, that all needs to be ROI positive in a shifting revenue landscape (just look at the recent announcements by both Apple and Google to limit auto-playing pre-roll).

As a video team, you need to be agile and efficient—able to produce a lot of video at a reasonable CPV. You need to develop a true understanding of audience experience on different platforms and translate that into production decisions. And you need to be able to balance quality with speed and cost. As the head of a video team, I’m looking for really special folks who can play an impactful part in our video effort and help us address all these challenges. I’m looking for people who have a unique creative vision because the final piece of the puzzle is: how do you stand out in the vast sea of digital video?

Videos are being published across so many platforms. How do you build a team and workflow that meets the needs of this kind of pipeline?

Dotdash’s brands (Verywell, The Balance, Lifewire, ThoughtCo., The Spruce, and TripSavvy) are new to the world. Part of my job, on the video front, is spreading news about our vibrant new properties across social media. Another part of my job is delivering fun, smart, instructional video to audiences looking to cook a particular dish, explore a new destination, or learn about the history of a topic for school. Our approach needs to be mindful of things like where the audience might find the video, where are they while they watch, if they are watching with audio on, and how much time they want to invest. Every platform, use case, and audience intention requires a fresh perspective.

The only reasonable way I find you can produce across multiple platforms and verticals is by creating mini-groups of experts within your team and giving them the space they need to actually become experts in that thing. We’ve tried a more scattershot approach and it really doesn’t work for us. Everyone needs time to see what’s working and what’s not, build on it, and improve. We need to be able to specialize, to some degree, in order to innovate.

How do you create a team and workflow that is able to meet these incredible volume needs?

This is truly a challenge. One way we solve it is by having a team that can easily expand and contract as our volume requirements shift. We have a core team of full- timers and then a small family of reliable contractors who we love working with and know us well. This allows us to respond quickly to the changing marketplace which we try to track religiously.

In the year I have been at Dotdash, we have never slipped into a mentality of “this is how we do it, so this is how we’ll do it.” We are always striving to improve what we make, how we make it, and how we deliver it to audiences. In order to do that, we strive for a team that is flexible not only in terms of size but also in their capabilities and interests. Passion for the work unites us but everyone brings a unique set of skills to the table that might be activated sort of unexpectedly as we respond to the market. I think that approach is part of who are at Dotdash and having spent seven years at a startup, that kind of agility is something I believe in.

What makes digital video producers unique today?

I think it’s especially challenging being a digital producer today in comparison, for example, to producing video pre-internet or in the early days of the internet… One thing that really strikes me is that producers must be creative and technically skilled, but they also need to be sociologists of sorts. In film school, one of my favorite teachers was a John Cassavetes expert and we talked a lot about how a true indie filmmaker doesn’t think too much about audience when they make a film. There’s truth to that, because it’s crucial for an artist to focus on the art. But today, digital video producers like us need to analyze what the audience is doing: Why are they watching? Where are they watching? What are they watching? Sharing? And more granularly, things like, at what point in this video do they stop watching, and why might that be? With all of the content out there for audiences to choose from, I don’t think you can afford to not be studying these questions and applying what you learn about your audience to everything you make.

And, it’s not just about your audience. Producers need to watch a ton of video and pay close attention to what audiences are responding to. We work together to analyze data and translate that into production decisions, and we obsessively share great (and not so great) content we come across. That’s a requirement, I think, for any digital producer: watch, watch, watch, talk about what you’re seeing, and watch some more.

 

***

Heather began her career in web video with the launch of Howcast in 2007. During her seven years at the instructional video startup founded by Google and YouTube veterans, Heather oversaw the production of over 20,000 videos. More recently Heather launched a social video strategy for Consumed Media, a division of global ad technology company CPXi. Before moving into web video, Heather produced award-winning short films and video for brands like Converse, Pfizer, and HP. Heather has always been a big fan of all things DIY, and is also the author of Let’s Get Primitive: the Urban Girl’s Guide to Camping (Ten Speed Press).

In Focus

Blue Chalk Media on Nonfiction Storytelling

Greg Moyer

Founder + CEO, Blue Chalk Media

Greg Moyer is an award-winning television and digital media executive with deep international experience and a track record of innovation in channel design, brand positioning, programming, marketing, and global distribution. A creative and inspirational leader, Moyer has successfully operated across senior positions for Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, VOOM HD, and Food Network, among others. Moyer also led Discovery in collecting five George Foster Peabody Awards for programming excellence.

Blue Chalk Media is a video production company dedicated to using the power of nonfiction storytelling to answer the communications challenges facing a wide range of clients. With a staff of 16 split between our headquarters in Brooklyn, NY, and a West Coast office in Portland, OR, Blue Chalk specializes in producing short-form videos that touch both the head and the heart. Since opening for business in November 2013, Blue Chalk has completed over 350 short films for clients ranging from media entities such as The New York Times to philanthropies such as Carnegie Corporation of New York to commercial enterprises such as The Weather Channel.

 


 

Why do we believe so deeply in nonfiction storytelling?

Most of the people who work at Blue Chalk came to their love of storytelling through formative experiences as photojournalists or documentary filmmakers. To a person, we crave authenticity and celebrate when we capture moments of genuine human emotion. This “see it for yourself” approach appears to be the way people want to receive information in this digital age. For us, success is producing a film that allows a viewer to walk authentically in another person’s shoes, if only for three minutes.

How important is it that your work has an educational impact on the audience?

We value education as the cornerstone of functioning democratic society and the means by which individual people can achieve their fullest potential. That said, our videos are not designed to be “educational” in a formal sense. So much of what the world needs today is to be able to empathize with the circumstances of others. We’re satisfied if we’ve delivered some insight into how others live their lives.

Why short-form narrative? What are the advantages or differences as opposed to broadcast?

I spent over 25 years working for cable networks that produce nonfiction entertainment. The biggest difference is that short-form videos have fewer expectations around format and structure required by ad-supported, series-driven television channels. It’s a pleasure to produce outside a three-act, three-break format for a televised half-hour, a structure that fights true documentary-style storytelling. We also enjoy some advantages in the range of cameras we employ given that our films are primarily designed to be distributed online.

As a multi-faceted production company, your award-winning work takes many forms: branded content, social impact, journalism, interactive web content. What is the biggest challenge and opportunity you see in moving between these varying clients/outlets/distribution platforms?

Different clients have different needs. But in every case, we deliver true stories told in an authentic voice. What’s common to all our work is the high level of emotional integrity which comes from respecting the people who are choosing to share their stories with us. We don’t hire actors to appear in our films, and we don’t pay for “real” people to offer commercial endorsements. The stories we tell have to be real for the magic to happen. In that sense, there are few differences in our approach despite a diverse stable of clients.

What’s the impact of your video work created for non-profits?

Most nonprofit organizations are trying to demonstrate their impact on the world. There is no technique that better delivers proof of performance than documentary-style storytelling. As filmmakers, we have the privilege of entering the lives of people who are often living in challenging circumstances. Our job is to show how the work of a nonprofit organization is impacting those lives. It doesn’t get more real than that. The nonprofit films we’ve created have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for their causes and have been seen by millions.

What sort of skills do you look for when hiring your team?

All Blue Chalk team members are enthusiastic, intelligent, humble, empathetic, and possess an unbridled curiosity about the larger world. We also seek out people with demonstrated talent in their respective crafts, whether that is research, producing, handling a camera, or editing a film. Not everyone has years of experience, but it is fair to say that even the newcomers are precocious. In fact, journalism attracts people like this. We consider it a privilege to undertake the work we do.

In Focus

Ghost Robot on What It Means to Be a Creative Company

Mark De Pace

Executive Producer, Ghost Robot

 

 

I’ve been doing this for nearly 12 years. “This” being defined as running a small company and constantly trying to best define what it is that we “do.” It’s an endless, vicious cycle.

It started off as a simple proposition: create a production company that represents a roster of directors for music video and commercial production. At the time, that was the only way a company like Ghost Robot could exist. And it worked—the core of that business model is still the defining structural element of our company.

But since then, we’ve seen a relatively stable, familiar landscape erupt, crumble, and continually re-invent itself, largely because the emergence of digital media has created the need to be more efficient, more flexible, and more resourceful. More media doesn’t translate into more time or money.

We were early adopters of an integrated production model, folding post-production offerings in with our commercial production services. At first, because we knew it was more efficient and creatively satisfying (we began our careers making films and music videos and always edited our own work), and later, because it was expected.

Next, we began taking on more and more creative responsibility. Opportunities where we could help shape the creative began to find us. Our nimble nature allowed us to mold things in ways that are both achievable and indicative of the type of content we would like to see. We could crack creative and logistical puzzles because we knew what we needed in order to make things happen.

What emerged was a business model that allowed us to integrate with any kind of client or agency partner and provide a wide range of services in addition to our core competency of making imaginative film. We can effectively say “we do it all.” And we do—we even turned it into a joke. We boast that we specialize in “Commercials, Music Videos, Branded Content, Immersive Media, Feature Films, and Telepathy.”

But doing it all isn’t exactly unique anymore. Agencies now have production companies and post-production studios in-house, production companies now do creative, we’re all competing with digital media companies—
everyone needs to find ways to do it all. Plus, “doing it all” isn’t always the easiest thing to sell. If we’re all vying to do the same thing, then what distinguishes one company from the next?

Over the past few years, we have taken a journey at Ghost Robot to answer this for ourselves; to find the easiest way to inform our clients and collaborators and make our brand story truly reflect who we are as a company. In short, it’s not really about services anymore. It’s about being more than just a vendor. It’s about creative and culture and community.

A creative company has momentum and drive to create that exists regardless of what’s currently in their pipeline. A creative company has a culture of exploration and inquisition. A creative company is community of people who share similar beliefs and support each other artistically, professionally, and sometimes emotionally. A creative company is a place where things are happening that anyone can be a part of.

We’ve tried to make this our benchmark for success at Ghost Robot and it’s led to amazing opportunities and a diverse body of work. The more we explore our own creative passions, the more we see that being reflected in the work we do for clients. It’s not uncommon for a short film that we funded ourselves or a low-budget music video we made to turn into inspiration for a successful brand campaign. We experimented with graphic novels, a pop-up shop and event series, newsprint zines, and augmented reality. Each of these ventures turned directly into a similar activation for a brand.

At any given time, we’re already in the process of collaborating, brainstorming, seeking out new inspiration, and motivating each other. Often times in conjunction with other creative collaborators—musicians, artists, comedians, actors, and technologists. We’ve started to think of our brand as more of a magazine or newspaper. We’re constantly curating and editing, digging for new stories, and shaping the narrative of who we are and what we do. And we offer our clients the opportunity to seamlessly plug into this web of culture and conversation and let the natural momentum of Ghost Robot help connect dots in ways that aren’t completely obvious.

To stay honest, we ask ourselves, how does this business opportunity fit in with our story? How does this job support our community, culture, and creative aspirations? What would we be doing if we didn’t have a client paying us to create? Most of the time, it’s not that different than what we find ourselves doing on any given day.

If we can attract clients that are excited about our brand and inspired by our culture, our creative momentum, and our community, and are willing to take a ride with us, then we know we will be successful. It means we’re doing something that’s unique. It means we’re truly a creative company.


Mark De Pace is an executive producer and partner at Ghost Robot. Born and raised in the Mid-Hudson Valley, he is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. As a producer, Mark has overseen hundreds of projects across all mediums. Highlights include Björk’s “Wanderlust” in 3D, the feature film “Creative Control,” and U by Kotex’s “The Period Shop.” In addition to his duties at Ghost Robot, Mark is a visiting professor at the Pratt Institute and an adjunct professor at NYU. In his spare time, Mark enjoys spending time with his son, fly-fishing, sailing, snowboarding, and cooking. Fun fact: He is also an Eagle Scout.