When conversations turn to premium-quality storytelling, the name Condé Nast Entertainment is rarely far away. The Condé Nast portfolio contains over 20 titles ranging from long-running magazines steeped in tradition, like “The New Yorker,” “Vogue,” “GQ,” and “Vanity Fair,” to newer digital-native publications, like “Pitchfork.”
The company began investing heavily in digital video in 2013 — and thanks to insight-rich content, it’s reaping huge rewards. Across 20 YouTube channels, the media company currently has more than 17 million subscribers, and it’s gaining new ones at a rate of over 1 million per month.
To understand how Condé Nast Entertainment sees the digital video landscape, and where it thinks it’s heading, I spoke with Ian Edgar, the company’s senior director of creative strategy and video programming.
Oren Fliegelman: Your YouTube subscriber base has grown dramatically over the past couple of years. Why do you think your videos have generated so much interest?
Ian Edgar: I think it’s because we focus on packing our video content with what we call insights. Insights are moments people find notably interesting, beautiful, shocking, or inspiring, and, therefore, things people naturally want to share. Examples could be when a celebrity tells you their favorite albums or an expert goes into incredible depth about a particular cheese.
When we’re deciding whether or not something makes the cut, we use a simple test: If someone told you about it at a dinner party, would you share it with a friend?
When we’re deciding whether or not something makes the cut, we use a simple test: If someone told you about it at a dinner party, would you share it with a friend? If not, it’s probably not worthy of being called an insight.
There’s more video content out in the world than ever before. Aside from the high quality, how do you make your videos stand out?
There’s a word we think about a lot, and that’s clarity. Every time someone watches a video, they’re making a decision on how to spend their time. If it’s not immediately clear what your video is about — if it’s about more than one thing or nothing in particular — you’re making it harder for people to make that decision.
Since potential viewers spend very little time making that call — I often think of it in fractions of a second — it’s critical that you make it an easy one. And you do that by focusing on clarity. The video’s concept should be clear and straightforward. Then its packaging, which includes the title and the thumbnail, should make it obvious to a viewer what the video is about, what they will learn, and why it’s worth their valuable time.
It’s interesting, what people don’t see is what we don’t make. For every one video you see on one of our YouTube channels, there were probably 100 ideas that we didn’t even consider and 20 that we explored but then didn’t produce.
People often question whether online video can ever be considered “premium content.” What do you think?
It definitely can. YouTube might have once been known for cat videos, but it now has a huge library of rich content.
If you think about the internet as a brain, it was a toddler for a long time. That meant people were easily distracted by primary colors, kittens, and anything that moved. But now, it’s maturing. People want something deeper and more intelligent. That’s why you’re seeing a dramatic increase in video content with deep narratives, unique hooks, clever concepts, and other critical components of wonderful storytelling — like the “Bon Appétit” series Gourmet Makes, which showcases every technique involved in re-creating a particular junk food, or Notes on a Scene for “Vanity Fair,” which gives detailed breakdowns of camera moves in movies, like Black Panther.
YouTube’s fastest-growing screen is the TV screen. Why do you think that is and how does it influence your strategy?
The job of any video is to make a viewer do three things: sit up, lean back, and lean forward. Sit up when a video opens strong and gets their attention. Lean back when they realize they’re in the safe hands of expert storytellers. And lean forward at the end of the video to engage, share, and subscribe.
Audiences are routinely underestimated by media companies. They’re much more curious than we give them credit for.
TV screens are ideal for prolonged “lean back” experiences. When a video deals with a compelling topic, it’s going to take a lot of screen time to dig into the details. Watching those longer videos on a larger TV screen is simply a better experience, which possibly explains this trend. That’s what we see with our content. For instance, many of our videos that feature really smart people showcasing their expertise — like Price Points on “Epicurious,” It’s Alive on “Bon Appétit,” and Accent Expert on “Wired” — overperform on TV screens.
At the end of the day, people want to be deeply engaged and to learn something from their entertainment content. Audiences are routinely underestimated by media companies. They’re much more curious than we give them credit for.
As for the implications for our video strategy. It means that when we make great YouTube content, we’re also making great TV content. In fact, a lot of our best-performing content is in the 15 to 20 minute range, and that’s perfect for the TV screen.