Quality online video creators are gaining a tremendous amount of power now that Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube are all trying to fill their feeds with video content. And there may be no better lens for seeing this shift than through the transformation of Shots, the Justin Bieber-backed company known for its social app by the same name. In a striking move, the company is prioritizing producing video content for competing platforms, betting that creating quality online video will be a more lucrative business than running a social app used by millions.
Shots’s move comes at a time when social media is moving toward a future in which video is the dominant content format. In that world, each platform will only be as good as the video it hosts. And just like TV, the most compelling video is likely to draw the biggest audience. But good video costs money, and the platforms are already paying for it — Twitter is paying for football, Facebook is paying for live video — with more payments likely to come as the battle heats up.
“If I had to choose on betting on an app or a creator— I'm putting all chips on the creator,” Shots CEO John Shahidi told BuzzFeed News in an interview inside the company’s San Francisco headquarters. “While these companies all fight over features and stuff like that, I’d rather focus on content, because at the end of the day, that’s what they’re all going to need anyway.”
Shots is taking an untraditional approach to creating its videos. The company, under the new name Shots Studios, is signing promising social content creators, providing them with business guidance and resources like sets, writers and distribution, and then sharing video revenue with them. Six creators have already signed with Shots, each publishing at least one video a week, and the company plans to sign around six more by the end of the year.
Shots is currently publishing its videos only on YouTube, though it plans to publish on other platforms as well. Its creators’ videos regularly notch over 1 million views, with many reaching into multiple-million territory.
From Backyard To Bieber
Shots started in 2010 as a mobile gaming company called RockLive. Using an idea hatched when Shahidi and his brother were neighbors with then-USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, the two created celebrity-themed games based on Mike Tyson, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Usain Bolt. In late 2010, the Shahidis met Bieber, who partnered with them to develop the Shots app, which debuted in 2013. Shots, a selfie app that later evolved into one focusing on comedy content, still has millions of users. Building it taught the Shahidis how content spreads on social media and helped them master the type of content the under-30 crowd is interested in. And the two brothers found their first stars, then-emerging Vine creators Lele Pons and Rudy Mancuso, inside their app.
As Shots developed, the social landscape changed. Mobile internet speeds increased, smartphones became even more powerful, and social platforms with an eye on revenue began to push more and more video, now playable without dreaded buffering, into their streams. When they surveyed the social video landscape around them, with all its redundancies and feature copying, the Shahidis made a tactical decision: They'd rather be arms dealers than combatants in a war being fought with video.
Shots’ engineers, brought on to work on the app, review data like what themes dominate video comments, at what point people stop watching videos, and who people search for after landing on their videos. They then use this information to help find Shots its next big stars. The data team plays a big role in Shots’ decision-making. Once, relying on insights such as someone's likes-to-comments ratio, it decided to turn down an Instagram user with 15 million followers while signing another with only 1 million.
Shots' bet comes at a good time. Video creators are now more boldly exercising their power than ever before, winning real concessions from social platforms who are coming to terms with their users’ clout. Late last year, for instance, a handful of Vine creators walked into Twitter’s headquarters and demanded payment for their work. Twitter eventually relented, cutting Vine creators in on pre-roll ad revenue with a generous 70/30 split. And last month, YouTube angered its platform’s stars with a small tweak in the way it notifies them when their videos are no longer eligible for revenue sharing. The tweak, although very tiny, was enough to get the hashtag #youtubeisoverparty trending on Twitter, and sparked a dire warning to platforms regarding their treatment of video creators from the YouTube allstar Casey Neistat: "Loyalty is a very delicate thing," he said.
Without quality video creators, these platforms would be stuck with the same amateur videos their competitors have, so their businesses rely on making the equation work for the creators too — something John Shahidi knows well. “At the end of the day, we’re seeing the same thing on every app. It’s the same picture, it’s the same selfie,” he said. “Are you going to get the regular, me walking down the street, me doing this, me hanging out with my family? Or are you going to get, fresh brand new sketch comedy or music? Which is what we’re providing right now.”
To The Moon
Not only does Shots provide logistical support, like sets and writers, but it’s able to regularly get its creators' videos in front of thousands of people via a built-in weapon: John Shahidi’s Twitter account. Shahidi is followed by over 500,000 rabid fans on Twitter. And, when he tweets, his followers go so nuts that if he mentions you, your notifications keep buzzing for weeks (I know, it’s happened to me). The phenomenon even has its own name: Getting Shahidi’d.
When Shahidi tweets a video, his highly engaged followers clicks through. “Everyone’s always wondered about this whole Shahidi thing; how does this turn into a business? Well, this is how it turns into a business,” Shahidi said. "We create great content, we’re responsible for the first 15% or so of the traffic, and from there, the content is great, and it’s just going to go viral.” Viral videos help add subscribers, which guarantee a recurring audience. Shots' first stars are doing pretty well: Pons now has 1.7 million subscribers, and Mancuso has 693,000. The company began dabbling in video content production in October 2015, so it knows what it's doing.
If that’s not enough to attract great video creators, and get their videos moving, there’s also Justin Bieber. The recording superstar is involved in each signing decision, and meets each creator before they’re signed. “Justin is not just an investor, he’s a partner,” Shahidi said. “So he’s got to be on the same page as Sam and I. He’s got to really like the person. He’s got to appreciate their art, whether it’s comedy or music, and also like them as a person as well.” And there’s always a chance Bieber will appear in the creators’ videos as well, as he's done in the past. Bieber has also tweeted a few videos himself.
In a letter to investors announcing the company's shift and adoption of its new Shots Studios name, Shahidi said he's going after millennials: “Why do we need a new MTV? Their viewership has dropped by 40% in the 12-34 demo over the last five years. Meanwhile, YouTube is becoming the new television for millennials, with its total watch time up by 60% over the past year.” Shots, Shahidi continued, is already generating over 1.5 million views a day on YouTube with an 80% retention rate. Not a bad start for a company on a mission to provide other platforms with video, and then watch as the dollars pour in.