From Twitter to New York cabs and airports – where Bloomberg's TicToc is going next

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

They have been dubbed the “New Guard”, the young executive class that is hungry for news but expects it to come to its own primary sources of information – social media on mobile phones.

And one social platform, more than any other, is associated with news. While Facebook has been stung by associations with fakery and propaganda and has purposely distanced itself from journalism in the past 18 months, Twitter has become social’s natural home for breaking stories.

Its feed can be overwhelming as it gushes angrily like an overflowing river in a monsoon, the waters contaminated by toxic material and detritus. Users must sift carefully for facts.

Into this challenging environment at the end of 2017, Bloomberg launched TicToc, a global news service native to the social mobile world. While other news outlets tweeted out links designed to divert users to their own sites, TicToc did all its work right there on Twitter.

Its target audience was this “New Guard”, defined as “individuals in their 20s and 30s who are already in charge of teams, budgets, businesses and other creative endeavours”. These young professionals, “who will only grow in their decision-making authority”, were in need of “a news source that recognises their power and ambition as well as their worldliness and curiosity”, Bloomberg divined.

TicToc’s mission was to discover how to serve a user that relied on only a single media device – their phone – and chose to “dip in and dip out” of content while on the move.

Expanding beyond Twitter

A little over a year later, the network says it has learned a great deal. It is morphing into something bigger. The exclusive first-year arrangement with Twitter has ended and TicToc’s format of short videos has landed on Facebook and its sister platforms Instagram and WhatsApp. It is busy on YouTube and last week created an owned and operated platform: TicToc.video. It is available in New York taxis and Bloomberg has signed a deal with Reach TV to bring TicToc content to 500 screens in 30 airports across America. There are plans to introduce it to OTT streaming platforms.

“Ultimately what we want to do is create a news brand that people trust and that they can rely on throughout their news day, wherever they are,” says TicToc’s general manager Jean Ellen Cowgill. “People expect that brands will follow them today, they don’t expect to have to go where a brand is.”

One of the essential findings of TicToc’s first year has been the importance of what it calls the “Key Frame” which is a pivotal video segment which defines a story in as little as 10 seconds. Cowgill has coined such a clip as a “visual quote”. An example would be a Parisian crowd around the Eiffel Tower, erupting at France’s World Cup triumph last summer. Broadcast news veterans might recognise the technique as similar to the fleeting pictures presented to audiences with a brief headline at the opening of TV bulletins – only TicToc Key Frames are shot in mobile-friendly square aspect ratio and maximise screen space with data and graphics.

The Key Frame is one of a series of video techniques (including live streaming) which TicToc uses on Twitter to explain a breaking story or major news event. Another is the “TicToc Signature”, which aims to provide depth and analysis succinctly. “While each individual story might be only 60 seconds we are creating a portfolio of videos that help our audience understand the issue or event over time,” says Cowgill.

For an audience that snacks on news throughout the day, this bite-sized approach works best. “People fidget, they yawn and get the itch to keep scrolling around the 30-second mark (of videos),” writes Karen L Johnson of Bloomberg’s BHIVE research group in a blog examining TicToc usage. Cowgill says: “On Twitter, shorter is better.”

On Instagram, the approach has been slightly different. “People come into Instagram to dip in and dip out of the cultural feel of what it’s like to be there (at an event),” says Mindy Massucci, TicToc’s head of global content. She cites the Women’s March in January as a news event that worked especially well for TicToc on Instagram. “We sought out influencers that were there… people who were very outspoken, either pro or anti the Women’s March,” she says. “We shared very personal stories on what it meant for them to be there; why were they marching – in their words.”

This has been another important finding of the TicToc project thus far – social users on phones want to be spoken with, not spoken at. The experience of celebrity testimonials and YouTube tutorials has honed an expectation for stories told straight from the source, rather than commentary from talking heads. When TicToc does use journalists on camera it likes them to talk straight into the lens (known internally as “Down the Barrel”), as if conversing intimately with a friend.

Massucci has also detected a universal instinct for social activism among young news consumers on these platforms. “No matter where you are in the world, you care about where you live and how it is being impacted,” she says. “That can cover everything from climate change to human rights, to affordable healthcare to the pay gap to mental health. This audience [is] extremely passionate and outspoken and willing to take a stand. They are very thirsty to find out what is going on in the world around them. They are very savvy and they don’t buy into clickbait.”

Scaling up

TicToc is based in New York, London and Hong Kong and “follows the sun” in its 24-7 global news coverage. The “regional leads” which Massucci oversees in those cities work with “social curators” to identify the stories that will work best for TicToc. Crucially, she also access to Bloomberg’s global network of 2,700 journalists and analysts in 120 countries. “If we are going to be global we have to be on location to cover them effectively,” she says. ‘We are constantly speaking to the senior executive editors, we talk to the bureau chiefs on a regular basis, [and] we are as integrated into the pitch process as any other team.”

TicToc is still closely aligned to Twitter, where it has 579,000 followers. It has only a first foothold on Instagram (74,000 followers), Facebook (14,000) and YouTube (1,172 subscribers). But as it grows on these platforms, “we are going to have to scale up appropriately’, says Massucci of her team’s resources.

According to Cowgill, there is great potential for the network in the out-of-home space, including on buildings and in office elevators. “There are new screens popping up in our lives that have never been there before and we have the opportunity to make that screen time really valuable to people as opposed to full of information they don’t care about,” she says.

TicToc’s “test-and-learn’ approach has also been valuable for Bloomberg’s advertising partners, who are also looking for insight into how to connect with a smart, young audience on social, she says. [Full disclosure: I have previously written for Bloomberg’s branded content arm, Bloomberg Media Studios.] “The kind of advertisers that we are working with are looking explain big ideas – what’s going to happen over the next ten years in tech, business, the economy – and they want to do it in a way that is exciting and interesting and that people will pay attention to in a very short period of time. And that’s exactly what we are exploring.”

As with its editorial approach on Twitter, TicToc’s commercial campaigns have been a mix of formats, including sponsored editorial, branded content and more traditional pre-roll.

TicToc made a big commitment to covering this year’s World Economic Forum, hosting its own panel on combating ocean pollution and producing numerous videos, including “We are going to Davos”, a 94-second edition of its TicToc Signature series ‘Unpacked’. As with other TicToc content, the video was aimed at a general news audience (noting the alleged $71,000 cost of attending the forum), rather than the specialist business content Bloomberg is known for.

Cowgill and Massucci say that, while TicToc can benefit from Bloomberg’s reputation for global and balanced coverage, it is not essential for users of the new network to recognise the established brand of its owner. What is important is that TicToc is learning to do something different. “[We are] creating content and journalism in a new way that I don’t really see anybody doing effectively currently in this environment,” says Massucci.

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell

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