Yesterday, video news startup NowThis News announced a $4.8 million round of funding, bringing its total raise to nearly $10 million. The company, started late last year by Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer and former Huffington Post CEO Eric Hippeau, also had some encouraging metrics to report, including 20 million videos streamed in April alone – more than the sum total of all previous months combined – and a total of 3,000 videos created.
Like its close cousin, BuzzFeed, which was also started by former HuffPo execs, NowThis News is attempting to capitalize on a news age that is increasingly social and mobile while targeting an audience of Millennials. That means its short news clips are presented by young hipsters in plaid shirts in a sometimes sardonic tone, with quirky animations and Ace Hotel elevator music adding pep to the proceedings, all topped off with a grabby headline. And, like BuzzFeed, it is finding that the best way to do reach those eyeballs is to spread its content around the Web rather than expect people to find it at a destination site.
While the 20 million streams figure is a solid early start for the seven-month-old company, it seems the vast majority of that traffic is coming through partnerships it has forged with sites such as Mashable, the Atlantic, MSN, the Guardian, Forbes, and BuzzFeed itself. While it makes a big noise about being mobile-oriented, NowThis’s iPhone and Android apps don’t seem to be doing tremendously well. The Android app has been reviewed only 20 times in the Google Play store, where its downloads have been trending downwards, and only 330 times in the App Store. For the last month, its ranking in the “news” category of the App Store has settled at around 300, according to AppAnnie, a long way below its February peak of 7.
Its own website is delivering fairly weak metrics, too. For instance, while the recent Obama movie spoof from the White House Correspondents Dinner garnered about 1,300 Facebook “Likes” via the NowThis News website, a re-posting of the same content on Mashable saw it pick up more than 3,300 Likes and 1,200 Tweets. Similarly, a primer video on “The Great Gatsby” won about 80 Likes on the NowThis site compared to more than 140 on Mashable, which also generated more than 1,000 Tweets.
The realization that it is gaining more traction through partnerships than it is based on its own brand is likely the reason behind the startup’s recent move to ramp up its syndication and co-production deals with other publishers. For instance, it has cut a deal with The Atlantic to produce content exclusively for the publisher, an arrangement that gives NowThis staffers access to the Atlantic’s content long before its publication date. For example, NowThis produced a video based on an interview with MIT Media Lab’s Henry Lieberman to accompany the publication’s February story about how to stop cyberbullying.
NowThis News managing editor Katherine Zaleski says such partnerships not only allow the company to extend the reach of its videos, but they also let it explore new content types. In return, the theory goes, The Atlantic gets to grow its audience by providing the video.
“We’re not placeholders,” Zaleski says of NowThis’s partnership with The Atlantic. “We’re not just popping in videos for articles; we really want everything to be added value.”
Such an approach could be a win-win. NowThis is focused purely on video and now has a staff of 35 people pumping out more than 20 videos a day, most of which are under two minutes in duration. It needs brands like the Atlantic and Mashable to help reach a wide audience, and in turn those publications might well appreciate the resource-friendly, low-risk approach to adding video to their suite of offerings. As PandoDaily contributor and founder of Bleacher Report Bryan Goldberg has argued, online video is difficult and expensive to produce. Not only does it require specialized equipment and talent, but it also takes a long time to make, which can be a heavy burden for the cash-strapped media organizations of the digital era.
Atlantic Video’s executive producer, Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, says NowThis brings an “energetic multimedia approach” to The Atlantic’s stories through expert interviews, archival footage, and animated graphics. “They’ve brought a dynamic sensibility to our long-form pieces, found fresh angles on them, and adapted them for new Web audiences,” Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg said in an email.
NowThis is part of a new media movement characterized by atomization, decentralization, and audience aggregation via social means. Its peers in this group include not only BuzzFeed, but also Upworthy and HuffPost Live, all of whom have found that distributing content through third-party channels – be it Facebook, Twitter, or AOL – is the most effective means of quickly building a modern news network.
Still, seven months is too short a time to prove anything, and while 20 million streams in a month is enough to suggest that the content is doing well enough at this point, long-term sustainability is a more important question. One of the next steps for NowThis News, then, will be making money. To do so, says managing editor Zaleski, it will soon open up its advertising. Zaleski says this will be “social advertising,” which she vaguely describes as “like native advertising” but not so literal. One might expect, then, that the advertising will itself come in the form of video that stands on its own rather than being attached to specific pieces of content.
And in the meantime, NowThis will be trying to get its video to more places. That means going after set-top boxes and consoles, but it also entails expanding existing partnerships and forging more co-production agreements.
NowThis News’s growth, then, is likely to come in bits and pieces with an assist from larger media entities and outside of the mobile apps that might otherwise be mistaken for its flagship products. Whether or not that’s what Millennials want doesn’t really matter. For now, at least, that’s what they’re getting.
(Disclosure: NowThis News and PandoDaily share an investor in common: Lerer Ventures. Both Ken Lerer and Eric Hippeau are partners at Lerer Ventures.)