When it comes to producing news video for social and mobile consumption, visuals are the foundation, emotion gets people to care and informing the audience is the end goal. That’s according to Geoff Dietrich, executive producer of newsgathering for AJ+, a mobile and social news channel run by Al Jazeera Media Network.
AJ+ is also one of the most successful publishers of news video on Facebook and along the way Dietrich says they’ve learned a few things about creating engaging social content.
- First, focus on the lead of the video—those visuals in the first :03-:05 must catch the audience’s attention, so lead with your best close-up shot.
“People stop for visuals more than text,” Dietrich said. “People are consuming while they scroll, and the best description won’t cut through the clutter, so you need a catchy, visual lead.”
- Dietrich says to make a video scroll proof you must be mindful of how people use social media on their phones. There’s ample evidence, for example, that people watch social video with the sound off – even Facebook Live, which Dietrich says turns the tool into a chat room. For that reason, captions are essential.
“We caption everything on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.” Dietrich said. “We use powerful sentences with big text on the screen so it can’t be ignored. We now manually burn in subtitles for the sound bites after we gave up on auto captioning devices, which didn’t give us enough control.”
Dietrich recommends creating a stringent stylebook for your social videos, with a small number of fonts and colors that become part of your brand.
“Stick with one font throughout a single piece. If you were reading a newspaper you wouldn’t want to have the font change within a story.”
- If you’re capturing the video for your piece yourself, think close-ups. Dietrich says the visuals need to be big, but keep that screen size in mind. Smartphones have little space for you to play with and you’ll be adding text over the video, too.
“Shoot some b-roll leaving enough space for the text, but mostly close-ups are better for social video than medium or wide shots because the screen is so small.”
- For your interviews, Dietrich says you need to remember that social is intimate, viewed at arm’s length as opposed to watching a TV, which may be five or more feet away.
“Shoot your interviews head-on. When someone is watching on mobile, it’s intimate and personal; they’re testifying to you,” Dietrich said. “If they’re looking off to the side, it may look like they are avoiding you.”
What makes social video production more challenging is that news organizations have to always be ready for change.
“We think we know the rules of social video, but it’s all constantly being changed by Facebook and Google based on what’s working on their platforms.”
For example, Dietrich says AJ+ is also focusing on square video because that approach is garnering engagement on Facebook. He says it can be a better choice for visually poor stories, but shooting for square stories is still a challenge.
“We don’t have the answer yet,” Dietrich said. “No one has been taught to shoot square, but that’s where the growth is as it’s distributed more by bots and social algorithms. For now, it’s shot 16:9 and cropped to square in the edit.”
For those who dismiss social video as a less robust form of journalism, Dietrich says you can’t escape the need for audience engagement and he jokingly points out one of the format’s pluses.
“We reinvented reading, so overall it’s probably a good thing.”