NEW YORK: Vox's Explainer Studio, an arm of its in-house brand studio that focuses on its popular explainer series, is moving into short-form video content on TikTok and Instagram.
VP of creative Heather Pieske answered questions about partnering with brands for sponsored videos, adapting the in-depth explainer style for social-first videos and avoiding perceptions of hopping on the short-form bandwagon.
Brandon Doerrer: Talk about what inspired the move into the short format.
Heather Pieske: Increasingly we've seen, as we all know, how beneficial it is to have short form that still accomplishes inviting audiences to go down a rabbit hole and come away with something really valuable, really quickly. We are bombarded with content through our devices and through our desktops all day long, and there's something really exciting about becoming what feels like an expert in something really fast.
We've seen the success of that on things like TikTok and YouTube and Instagram, where a topic, whether it's politics, sports, pop culture or something totally unexpected. We can accomplish learning about it and getting a handle on it exceptionally quickly now with that short form.
BD: Financially and creatively, what are some of the things you're going to be measuring and the metrics you're going to be looking at to define success?
HP: On a more production and budget offering, success to us looks like increasing access to brands to have explanatory content available to them faster and less expensive. If you're investing in a three- to five-minute video, it's going to be a longer lead time; it's going to be more expensive. We see how there's greater ease at creating short-form content at higher volume and lower price points that still has an effect, if not more impact on audiences' attention and also our ability to inform them. One measure of success is to increase access for brands to be able to put their name on really engaging content without having to break the bank and without having to invest months and months of time in production.
BD: What else does this open up? Either what you'll cover or how you approach making the explainers themselves?
HP: Creatively for brands, it opens up access to give them something faster that's very valuable. Brands are very patient to go deep with us on a subject but this gets them something faster, which means that we can respond to culture faster, we can respond to current events, we can respond to anything timely and topical that a brand may want to participate in.
BD: How do you plan to avoid seeming like you're hopping on a bandwagon or engaging in a form of content that some people have been vocally fatigued by?
HP: Culturally, the numbers don't lie as far as the salience and power of short-form content; that isn't new. What Vox Media has proven that debunks any bandwagon anything is that we've been proficient in staying ahead of social trends and paying attention to how audiences engage differently on these platforms and making content accordingly.
BD: When you talk about Vox's strong social media presence, can you just clarify what you mean?
HP: NowThis is a great example. NowThis editorially has done a fantastic job to create accolades and also a very active audience when it comes to follower count, likes and engagement, specifically on short form through Instagram and TikTok.
BD: When are you planning to launch this expansion and start to make some of these short-form native-first videos? When is the first one coming out? Where will it be? How long is it going to be? And how long are these videos generally going to be?
HP: You're going to be seeing in the next month to three months of Q4 to Q1  videos that are Instagram- and TikTok-first in nature, videos that are ranging from that 30- to 60-second sweet spot. A lot of which have some talent-led things, some personalities, but also some formats that feel like more exciting franchises that brands can participate in. I would say look out for that in the next couple of months. Our priority over the next year is to build that portfolio. We have, after five years of the Explainer Studio, hundreds of that fuller-length explainer, that three to four [minutes]. We're hoping to do the same, hundreds, if not, dare I say, thousands of short-form over the next 365 [days]. Hopefully my production team doesn't kill me.
BD: What are some of the challenges you're anticipating running into, whether it be creatively approaching making these videos and properly explaining stuff in that short amount of time or marketing that you're doing these?
HP: One challenge is that we cannot play by the same creative rules and processes as we have been with our longer-form that requires a heavy lift of scripting and working with experts and spending time with a topic that really takes a while, which is why they are more expensive. There are longer lead times and re-learning how to accomplish something similar of delivering entertaining information and leaving audiences with something valuable, or at least entertaining and exciting; that's a new way of working. For those who have been so steeped internally in the traditional explainer formats, having to adjust and adapt for something quicker, quipier, faster, more upbeat, but still substantial, that's a learning curve.
BD: For brands that are interested in working with you, but perhaps have some hesitancy about the new creative approach and ability to execute explainers properly in a short format, what are some of the ways you would ease their concerns?
HP: It's always helpful for brands to see an example of what they're going to buy. There are a lot of brands that are hungry to do something that hasn't been done before, but the reason traditional explainers have been so successful is that they're an instant get. Brands know what they're getting, they can see themselves in it and we want to apply the same rules to short forms.
BD: Is the expectation that you'll try to get brands on board right away? Or are you going to build a few examples and then try to bring brands on board?
HP: We already have several brands on board that are ready to go. What I would predict and hope is that we have so many brands that are return brands, who have bought or worked on explainers with us several times. Those are the brands that are already showing the most excitement about being able to break into short-form.
And then obviously being able to go after brands that are already very social-first, very socially minded and already understand the audio-visual world and the sandbox to play in is another helpful thing for us.
BD: Can you share any of the brands that have signed up to work with you on some of the early short-form stuff you're putting out?
HP: [Work management platform] Asana has been a tremendous partner with us. We've done long-form explainers with them.
BD: It'll be a mix of brands you have experience with, brands you can show this long extensive portfolio to and then brands who have already been playing in that space, so it'll be easy for them to imagine getting on board with you.
HP: Yeah, but we also want the newbies. We want the brands that have never experimented in social and this can be the opportunity to link arms with us — we know how this works. We've done it before, and we're going to be a great, accountable partner versus telling you exactly what you need to do. We love that collaboration, and it's sort of meta to say, but we love to explain and inform as part of the production process of creating content that explains and informs.
BD: What are some things we haven't touched on about the expansion into short form?
HP: I would like to celebrate the team internally, it's led by Daniel Littlewood who's been the explainer studio EP for several years and he's been instrumental in spearheading so much of this. Thank you everyone for letting me be the voice today. But he and the team have really crafted a style and a vibe and have been very tremendous partners to brands.
BD: What's the size of the team?
HP: It scales, but right now we have more than 10 people who are dedicated to this. Depending on the opportunities, we can scale it up to 20-plus.