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For newsrooms producing video, having a strong presence on YouTube is usually a key part of the strategy. But how do you move from just pushing out video on the platform to building an engaged community around it?

Russia Today (RT) seems to have found the right formula for them, as it celebrated reaching a billion views on YouTube this week.

The government-funded broadcaster, which describes itself as an "autonomous non-profit organisation", arrived on YouTube in 2007, and since then has delivered a range of video content to its audience, ranging from documentaries and interview-style programmes, to raw footage of user-generated content.

On an average day RT records around 800,000 to one million views of its YouTube channel, which is said to be "comparable" to its own website traffic.

Having reached the one billion mark this week, head of online projects Kirill Karnovich and chief press service specialist Anna Belkina speak to Journalism.co.uk about the channel's strategy and reasons for its success.

Using video to 'spark' a discussion

Russia Today has an engaged audience on YouTube. Compared to a traditional broadcast audience, the audience accessing video on YouTube "tends to be younger, more technologically-progressive", Belkina explained.

Because of this they are "more interactive". "They want to not just watch the broadcast but want to leave feedback, comments, generate a discussion".

Every posted video clip must provoke a response, spark a debateKirill Karnovich, RT
This fits in well with Russia Today's approach to YouTube video content, which is that "every posted video clip must provoke a response, spark a debate", Karnovich said, which works to feed the audience's appetite for interactivity highlighted by Belkina.

"Our YouTube audience, they really like to ask questions," Karnovich added, with RT's documentary and interview-style video content appealing to such demand.

And powerful video also comes in the form of user-generated content, which is often delivered to YouTube as "raw footage".

In some cases, this raw footage happens to capture what turns out to be a big news event, such as the Chelyabinsk meteor strike, which according to RT stacked up "more than 30 million views in less than a week".

Belkina said this sort of video, which captures a big moment - referred to by RT as "event videos" - is the style which "tend to draw a lot of the audience".

The meteor video is "one of those stories that again, doesn't require much commentary, but everybody around the world wants to see it and everybody around the world did see it and use it in broadcasts", she added.

Providing a combination of styles

But this is far from the only style on offer to viewers. In fact RT's strategy is to provide "a huge variety of genres", Karnovich explained.

"Our main task, or any task for any international media, is to grab the YouTube subscriber, to make him watch every video you upload."

He added that part of the recipe for success in keeping the new viewer hooked is in "the concentration of video" on the YouTube channel.

For RT, for example, this is about keeping the content focused on quality, rather than uploading any video. Karnovich added that the channel uploads "less than a dozen videos" a day.

And the output is varied. "It's always a combination," Karnovich said, adding that "big stories, big, breaking news stories" will not solely be covered by unedited footage, or edited packages, but by a range of styles.

Being where the audience is across the web

RT works to reach audiences across the internet, not solely on its own platforms, and it aims to offer a different experience for each community.

Karnovich explained that a key goal for RT is to "get one particular internet user to follow all of our resources".

And, he added, RT"s "policy", which helps it in this goal, is "to offer different things on every online platform".

We really try to make people follow RT everywhere onlineKirill Karnovich, RT
"So that's why, for example, content which has been published to YouTube may differ from the website and the flow of information on Twitter, or posts on Facebook," he added.

"We really try to make people follow RT everywhere online."

And as more news outlets become aware of the best ways to offer their content to their audiences on different platforms, competition is hotting up. "You have to fight for your audience at every platform because the battle is really huge," Karnovich said. "There are a lot of contenders who try to get to be successful online."

One way RT tries to support the growth of brand awareness is by allowing users to "re-upload our content to their YouTube channels", with proper permissions and attribution. This "helps spread the message, spread the content further and further online", he said.

Understanding the audience

As has already been discussed, RT's audience on YouTube is usually of a lower age bracket than traditional viewers - said to be in a "25 to 40+" age-bracket - and "more technologically progressive".

Karnovich added that RT's YouTube audience is "the best audience in terms of age" and "the most interesting audience for advertisers".

The channel also keeps an eye on how long viewers are spending with YouTube video. Thanks to the longer-form video which makes up part of RT's YouTube offering, the average time spent consuming RT's YouTube videos is around three minutes, Karnovich said.

RT's YouTube audience itself is very engaged, with hundreds of comments left below videos. According to Karnovich the channel has received "almost six million comments on just 19,000 videos".

So that's what YouTube is about. It's about videos, watching videos, but also discussing themKirill Karnovich, RT
"So that's what YouTube is about. It's about videos, watching videos, but also discussing them. We try to spark a debate and report on issues which really matter to our audience."

Belkina added that its audience feedback has also helped RT "zero in on what is interesting to an audience at large".

For example, comments left on RT's website and YouTube helped to inform the broadcaster about which stories appeared to me of most interest to their audience, which turned out to often be under-reported international stories or coverage which gives a "fresh perspective on an international story that they weren't getting anywhere else".

"That's how we have become the channel that we are today, and that is in huge, huge part, specifically to our audience being very engaged, being very responsive via our social media platforms, and that's really critical to our brand."

And for RT these engaged viewers in turn then help "make this content popular". For example, Karnovich said RT now "has a very good rating on YouTube", which helps surface its videos when other users search for relevant content on YouTube.

So this helps bring RT's video to new audiences, with the hope they will see the range of content on offer and sign up as a subscriber.

Quality, not quantity

As referred to earlier, Karnovich stressed that the focus is on "quality, not quantity".

He also advised journalists to place themselves in the position of the viewer, and think about what would make them click on it when it comes to a headline or video blurb. He added that the title of a video in particular is "where you grab the audience".

Quality is also important when it comes to the team. Belkina said that RT "always had a young team, very open-minded, very open to technological advancements".

"It's really about - it's a bit of cliche, but it's a cliche for a reason - thinking outside the box, being open to new platforms, different ways of engagement", she said.

RT has a social media team of six, who work on the broadcaster's approach across YouTube and other platforms.

Careful advertising

Via the YouTube Partner programme RT does draw revenue from pre-roll video advertising and banners, but Karnovich stressed the importance of a "gentle" approach.

"Of course we're monetising our content on YouTube, but we're doing it in a very gentle manner," he said.

"For example, if we have news which from one point of view covers a tragic event where people died, we absolutely click off all the video ads or banners, trying not to distract our audience."

He added that this sensitive approach is "really a priority for us".
  • Below is a video by RT on reaching one billion views on YouTube and some of the "huge-hitter" videos in terms of views

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