Al Jazeera isn’t exactly the media brand that comes to mind as a top choice for today’s news junkies. And yet, a year after its launch, Al Jazeera’s AJ+ offshoot has emerged as a huge success story, thanks largely to Facebook video.
Videos from AJ+ have been viewed more than 430 million times over the last 90 days on Facebook, according to Facebook data shared by the Al Jazeera offshoot. In June AJ+ became the ninth biggest video publisher on the social network, according to video sharing data aggregated by NewsWhip, which lists AJ+ as second only to Nowthis among news publishers.
And growth seems to be accelerating: Last week alone, AJ+ videos made it into the feeds of 153 million Facebook users, and more than 24 million people engaged with posts from AJ+. Facebook now makes up well over 50% of AJ+’s audience.
So how does a news upstart get so successful on Facebook, while many traditional news publishers have failed to catch on? “A lot of these publishers have not thought about Facebook as its own product,” said AJ+ engagement lead Jigar Mehta during an interview this week.
Other publishers often just reshare the same clips they have produced for their own website, YouTube or even TV. AJ+, on the other hand, specifically produces videos for Facebook to both find the right message for that audience and tweak the clips for their viewing behavior.
That includes making videos work without sound, since Facebook automatically plays all videos muted. AJ+ clips often take striking images and combine them with short captions that keep viewers hooked. Clips are seldom over 90 seconds, and often include an obvious hook within the first few seconds. And at the end of every video, AJ+ includes a call to share.
Facebook has been pushing hard in recent months to compete with YouTube. The social network has changed its algorithms to better serve the right videos to the right audience, and is experimenting with a number of other tweaks to make video more pervasive, including a persistent video player that will help users to watch clips while scrolling through their news feed. Facebook said in April that its members were now watching more than 4 billion videos a day.
Earlier this month, Facebook began to share video ad revenue with select publishers, with the goal of opening up video ad monetization to additional partners in the coming months. AJ+ itself isn’t monetizing its videos at all yet, but Mehta said that his team is exploring a number of options, including traditional video ads and native advertising.
Al Jazeera began incubating the offshoot in 2013, with the intent to build a new kind of media outlet for people who don’t watch traditional news networks on TV anymore. In September 2014 AJ+ launched with an app for iOS and Android while simultaneously publishing to Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. AJ+ purposely didn’t build out its own website, trying to find new users in their social streams instead.
As part of this approach, AJ+ has a dedicated social team in its newsroom, which tweaks the length and content of videos for each platform. Mehta argued that having people squarely focused on and immersed in Facebook is essential to mastering the network. “It’s all about setting up that kind of culture,” he said.
That’s also why AJ+ has been slow to add additional platforms. “For us, taking on a new platform is a big deal,” he said. Still, some time in the coming months, AJ+ wants to make the jump onto Snapchat, relaunch its apps and even get a proper web presence.
The growing audience of AJ+ stands in stark contrast to Al Jazeera’s other efforts to cater to U.S. viewers. For years, the Qatar-based media organization failed to get carriage agreements for its international Al Jazeera English news channel.
After buying Current.tv, it launched Al Jazeera America in August 2013 with the aim of providing an in-depth alternative to the existing cable news networks. However, the network has been able to attract only miniscule audiences, and has struggled internally with a wrongful-termination lawsuit and the ouster of former network head Ehab Al Shihabi in June.
Compared to that, AJ+ seems to be a real success story for Al Jazeera — so much so that the company is getting ready to launch an Arabic version of AJ+, and is even exploring other languages. “I think the mothership is very happy,” said Mehta.