How MTVNews, Refinery29, Elite Daily and Thrillist move at the speed of social video

The demand for short-form video distributed over myriad platforms—Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine—has lit a fire even under the ecosystem’s fastest digital producers: publishers. How fast are they? MTVNews’ team turns out anywhere from five to 12 social videos a week, according to Rachel Zarrell, director of daily video for MTV News.

To keep pace with their audience’s hunger for eye-catching, easily consumed video, millennial-focused publishers are putting together slim teams and streamlined processes and working with collaboration tools to keep the mess to a minimum. But they still have to work across time zones, hierarchies and departments. Here’s how MTVNews, Elite Daily, Refinery29 and Thrillist do it.

Managing the creative pile-on

“A huge part of my job is just coming up with ideas for when things happen,” said Zarrell. And while a great idea in many cases starts with one person, it’s usually the creative pile-on that gives it life.

Zarrell’s team—which usually includes three to six people, mostly based in New York, as well as key stakeholders like editorial director Dan Fierman in Los Angeles—chime in on concepts via Slack. “We get a lot of inspiration from tweets and other people’s videos. To be able to share all that in one place and to have it pop up and be watchable is kind of like a virtual brainstorm in real time.” Once the idea is fully baked, the concept is handed off to the team to execute.

At Elite Daily, a large video team of 25 producers, shooters and editors produce a wide variety of content, from branded content to documentaries to social video. A separate team of two dedicates itself to social media and handles less-production-heavy video for Facebook and Facebook Live, Instagram and Snapchat.

Like MTVNews, turnaround varies for Elite Daily. “For something that’s trending, the turnaround has got to be ASAP and same-day,” said Tyer Gildin, head of Elite Daily’s video team. “For example, when Pokemon Go was a big thing, we met with our social video producers who create more snackable videos. We had an idea and in 24 hours we turned around a meme video, ‘When you’re the only person not playing Pokemon Go.’”

Beating the creative collaboration time-crunch

To produce videos like “Pokemon Go,” Elite Daily prefers face-to-face meetings, something more easily accomplished inside their NY-based team. During meetings, someone will document observations, complete with time-code stamps, then send an email recapping those notes. “So if something does fall through the cracks,” explained Gildin, the crew has a record of what was said.

Documenting those details is demanding when dealing with video, said Zarrell. “With video, there are just more elements that you have to be concerned with. You can get your point across in the colors of the video, in whether the video has text or not, or animation. There are so many things you can weigh in on, that’s why it’s important for us to get input from people that have different expertise.”

Collaborators can view video on MTV’s own hosting platform, then contribute comments via whatever channel suits them—messaging, email, etc. Elite Daily’s in-office crew also leans on messaging, creating mini-channels for their four-person project crews, Gildin said. “Moving at the rate we’re moving, it’s not always realistic to get everyone in the same room.”

That speed has structural implications, and Refinery29 has built their department with team autonomy in mind. Chief Content Officer Amy Emmerich has created a system of channel-based teams each lead by a captain. “You can trust that captain to run that mini-machine within the business,” she said.

By contrast, publisher content studios work on longer timelines—even for social video—and collaborate with agency and brand partners. At Thrillist’s The CoLab, a New York-based branded content studio, a video/social team of about seven produces content for both the broad video landscape and for specific social channels, said Paul Josephsen, vice president at The CoLab.

For this team, documentation is huge. Team input is collected via email or in creative process documents shared in Google docs, then reviewed during semi-weekly check in meetings. “Our creative teams have multiple meetings per week where they sit down and do full campaign reviews,” Josephsen said.

Approvals on the fly

Even in the fast-paced world of social video, producers must get sign-off from the relevant powers and partners before anything goes live. But with social video, approvals must move faster. “With the amount that you’re creating, there’s no way one human can consume all of this,” Emmerich said.

Instead of creating bottlenecks by holding the reins too tightly, Emmerich relies on her team and her own spot checks along with the overarching guidance of svp of global video strategy Stone Roberts and co-CEOs Phillippe von Borries and Justin Stefano.

MTVNews has also done away with the strict hierarchical approvals process that dominates traditional newsrooms. Instead Zarrell puts herself at the center of the storm, making sure that everything that needs to be seen ends up in front of the right eyes.

“I act as a sort of traffic controller,” she says.  “I check in with all sorts of people at all levels to make sure things are moving along. That might involve anyone from our team of producers to our editorial director Dan Fierman.”

And at Elite Daily, the team relies on end-of-the-month screenings to review video that has largely already run and trade notes about ways to improve in the next go-round. “We watch 5 or 6 videos from throughout the department and give notes on it,” Gildin said. “It gives people on different teams an opportunity to comment on a video and give a note they wouldn’t give otherwise because of how fast everybody moves.”

The Takeaway

The demand for video content isn’t going away. In fact, industry data suggests that in the near future even more content publishers will shift into short-form video to reach a generation raised on YouTube and Vine.  Creative collaboration technologies are making it possible for overtasked social video teams to ideate, iterate, and create in a low-friction environment without being slowed down by distance, physical spaces or hierarchy.

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