Credit: Screenshot: South China Morning Post YouTube

Three years ago, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) decided to knuckle-down on a video strategy. As CEO Gary Liu recently said: "We always felt explaining China to the world required visuals."

As a Hong Kong-based news operation, it has a 'vantage point' on China. The fruits of its labour were there to see as SCMP hit a milestone one billion lifetime views on YouTube.

In reality, SCMP had a YouTube account since 2007, and 13 years to hit this milestone may not seem as impressive. But consider that 970 million of those views have come in the last three years since focusing on the video strategy.

What is more, in three years, the account has grown its subscribers from 27,000 to 1.45 million. Mat Booth, director of video, was brought in to steer a team which has grown from four or five to around 25 including freelancers.

Booth spoke to and revealed the SCMP video strategy behind the success.

Why is YouTube - and video content generally - so important to SCMP?

Video is not a nice-to-have anymore, it is an expectation in modern digital journalism. If you do not have video, then you are kind of missing out on great opportunities.

Certainly for millennial viewership, video is key and that is definitely true of YouTube. We have a number of internal targets for millennial readership and viewership, and YouTube ticks all of those boxes because it is a millennial-centered platform: 34 to 37 per cent of our viewers are in that demographic.

But when it comes to video journalism, if you want to be big on video, you need to be big on YouTube. YouTube is the second biggest search engine after Google, so it helps with SEO and to have a presence in that space.

We realised quite early on when developing our video product that we need to diversify our video offering to be on multiple platforms and be in as many places as we could be. We are frankly surprised how quickly we have grown our YouTube audience, it seems a gargantuan task from three years ago.

What were some of the first decisions you made in 2017 to stimulate this growth?

There are a few of things we have learned along the way to developing a YouTube presence, and the first is regularity of publishing.

There are many YouTube channels, including our own, that release three or four videos a week. While you can grow a platform based on that, it will not be very quick.

For our output, we run seven to 15 videos a day, which just builds up this momentum and helps you take advantage of the YouTube algorithm and to capitalise on any successes you have. It makes sure your content gets in front of the same people again and again.

So quantity matters. What else is important?

You have to be able to build a fairly robust production line that will enable you to make a high volume of content as well as quality of content. You could produce a tonne of rubbish and that will not work either.

YouTube has a sweet spot in terms of duration which is between seven and 10 minutes, ideally. That is what YouTube has told us multiple times through seminars with them.

Now, that does not mean anything outside of that will not work, you can still have success with shorter content. But content in that ballpark will tend to work for a really long time.

Your most viewed video is a one-minute clip (33m views), and your second-most viewed video is ten-minute video (26.5m views). So both work?

Yes. YouTube has three strands of content which shows relative success and velocity.

One is evergreen content; explainer level of content. It is often a bit longer and you can tag around particular search terms, so we have made videos specifically for this, like: 'What is Xinjiang?'

This topic has come up time and time again, and will continue to do so. We made that content both because it is an interesting topic in its own right, but we also know how frequently that issue comes up.

That means we get little spikes of interest in that video from time to time whenever it starts trending in the news. It does not have massive peaks but it slowly builds up over time.

Second, you have got breaking news content. That usually has a massive peak and then basically drops away and it is gone, a good example being the recent Beirut explosion. That video did really well and then disappeared.

Finally, there is the softer and timeless type. This can be a quirky or funny video, or a video which taps into some sort of emotional resonance with the viewer: think sad or heart-warming, just something that touches people. This video will exist forever.

It will not have peaks and troughs because it does not come in and out of the news cycle, but it will have a consistently mid-range audience. Because of its universal themes, you can bump into it today or three years from now, like 'the cute boy wanting a hug from security guard' - but that one did really well.

Having enough in your content package that touches those three bases will gear you up for some sort of sustainable success.

Is it evenly split between the three categories?

It is not something we consciously do but we do look at the content of each day and see which bucket that fits into. We are not trying to balance it, especially with breaking news, because when that happens you just do it.

But it is very important to me that our video offering mirrors our publication as well. SCMP has a history of excellence in China and south east Asia reporting, so that is what you will see on our video offering as well. We do lean on that expertise and enhance it, I hope, but also we are a generalist publication. So we also need to cover politics, food, travel, human rights issues and international news.

On YouTube, you can be very successful as a niche channel and focus your energy to be the best on a particular topic. We see lots of that with specialist tech or toy reviewers. But for a journalistic endeavour, if you specialise, you may not have the volume of content you need to be successful.

Where does SCMP content come from?

A variety of places, with three key areas.

Firstly, original reporting that we go and shoot ourselves. That is regarded as the soul of SCMP and what we place a huge value upon. High production value, and the content our video journalists have gone out to get the story, bring it back, and then we work on it. You can only find it with us.

The other is a traditional broadcast source, news agencies and news wires, like Reuters, Ruptly, CCTV and AFP. We take all that as raw footage and put our own editorial stamp onto it, but obviously the editorial priorities of SCMP and CCTV (state-owned media, Chinese Central Television) are very different. However, raw footage is raw footage, and you can spot those stories that fit your coverage.

The third source is from Chinese social media which is where the quirky, heart-warming content comes from. It is a competitive advantage for us because we have a lot of relationships with social media providers who can put us in touch with the original posters.

'Folded man' is a great example of that, and they allowed us to use their video. Because we have so many mainland Chinese members of staff, they are always watching social media anyway and when you see something go crazy on Chinese social media, chances are they will go viral globally or at least on English-speaking social media. It is a great test bed, because again, these themes are universal.

What else has helped to reach this milestone?

Within the last 12 months, we have entered onto the YouTube Player for Publishers programme, which is where YouTube does free hosting for your video. Imagine YouTube on steroids. We have had a lot hosting partners in the past who were excellent but expensive.

This has reduced our costs enormously but it allows our videos to be published upon release with a boost. We had a large success story that we sourced of a skirmish between Indian and Chinese soldiers on the disputed border region. Had we not had this arrangement it would not have gone very far.

The article on SCMP generated a huge amount of interest and everyone wanted to see the video. The arrangement then gave the video an initial push which said to the YouTube algorithm 'This video is important, people are really interested in it'. That then generates its own momentum outside of the article.

That possibility also allows older videos to be revived. If a new story uses an old video, and the story itself does well, that old video can come back to life on YouTube because lots of people are viewing the article.

Is there any single decision you think has really helped you to reach this milestone?

A commitment to the platform, frankly. Once we decided that YouTube was a platform that we wanted to take seriously, we decided we were going to take the advice of the platform on how to be successful.

So, when they tell you to make attractive thumbnails, that thumbnail text should be readable on a phone, or to do a front-load headline with SEO markers - do it.

Tagging is hugely important and not enough people pay attention to it. It basically tells YouTube what your video is about so they can also suggest it as companion video to other videos not done by your channel. If you do not tell YouTube what your video is, it is very hard for them to recommend it elsewhere.

End-boards - the tiles at the end of a YouTube video suggesting other videos or a call to action to subscribe - are important. That call to action gives us about four to six per cent of our subscribers every month. That adds up.

But the most important philosophy is a commitment to make it work. Once you make that commitment, you can achieve things you did not think possible when you were standing at the bottom of the mountain looking up at the summit.

How difficult is organic growth?

You will always get organic growth with a YouTube channel. For example, we have a channel called SCMP archives which is nothing more than a logistical channel that we created to get legacy content off our old video host onto YouTube so that we could re-embed them into legacy articles. It is not a channel we have ever tried to sell or promote - even that gains subscribers over time, but it is glacially slow. So to really supercharge growth, you must do all the tricks.

But now that we have a large channel, we are using that to grow our other new channel, SCMP clips which is growing at a much faster rate than our main channel had when it started - success begets success, in a way.

Having a large subscriber base is fantastic and all the people who have subscribed do come back, but as a news channel, the vast majority of your views are going to come from non-subscribers. That is the nature of the beast.

However, YouTube assigns value to a channel based on the number of subscribers it has. So if you have a large subscriber base and there is a breaking news event, then your content is more likely to be offered up by YouTube as authoritative and respected content.

As a overall strategy, is your main concern with building native presence or redirecting viewers to the main website?

Neither, frankly. Our main focus on YouTube is added exposure for our content to the widest audience possible. It is to provide functionality within our website to have a robust video platform that we can use.

It is also about using that global audience to leverage the SCMP brand, because three years ago very few people outside of Hong Kong had heard of us. Now, many more have and I dare say that is because of videos that people have bumped into on Facebook, YouTube or on other platforms.

Of course, YouTube is a revenue play as well. Once you start to generate some momentum, the amount of money you bring in becomes more significant and eventually we hope to see some improvements there. We have the same goals as any video department which is to be self-sufficient because videos are an expensive way to do journalism - but it is effective. YouTube is one way you can do that.

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NB: Answers in this interview have been edited for brevity, all figures accurate at time of publication

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