With so much unrest in the world, we spoke to two USA TODAY innovators about creating a positive, video-first community that thrives on social.
USA TODAY is a mammoth of a publisher, with publications spanning the entire U.S., from local towns to bustling metropolises. With so many articles in the USA TODAY network, two USA TODAY/Gannett innovators saw there were stories that stood out from the rest — stories about positivity and the resilience of the human spirit.
Following a hunch that these anecdotes worked for social and that there was an audience hunger for such stories, Lauren Ready and Cathy Kononetz launched Humankind, a video-focused vertical that brings those positive stories into life.
Today, Humankind has nearly 665,000 followers on Facebook and a highly engaged community of do-gooders. We spoke to Cathy, the senior director of digital video production at Gannett, and Lauren, senior digital video producer at Gannett, about how Humankind started and what it’s accomplished.
How did Humankind get its start?
Cathy: Lauren and I work at Gannett’s Video Production Center. Our job is to create videos for the entire USA TODAY NETWORK. A couple of years ago, we saw that our network had all these amazing stories about people doing really great things, positive things. We decided to create a brand out of that. At first, we weren’t sure we could do this daily. We started with just a couple a week and quickly we saw that there was enough for daily videos. We also saw that these videos could do well on social, maybe even better than on the USA TODAY desktop and mobile platforms. So we wanted to create an outlet for that.
We created Humankind through Gannett’s Innovation Program. The year we participated (2014/2015), there were 70 ideas and at the end after presenting to a group of Executive judges, we were given the green light to go ahead. We continue to receive support and funding from Gannett’s Innovation Lab.
Humankind officially launched in the summer of 2015. We were existing for a year and a half before that, under a different name.
What makes Humankind unique?
Lauren: Something that we’re proud of that we don’t see in many other brands, is that we have a huge network of properties to lean on for inspiring stories. We have award winning reporters and photographers in our USA TODAY NETWORK that are finding these stories from all across the country.
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Humankind has the ability to further produce these stories in a unique way, and create videos that reach a national audience.
How does that work, in regards to adapting their articles to video?
Lauren: We utilize the reporters’ research, media (photos and/or video) and interviews, and we pull out the key facts to tell the story in a way that works for social. Humankind’s videos rely a mix of emotional video moments and text on-screen to help tell the viewer what’s going on.
Once Humankind’s video is ready for publish, we boost the local property’s article to usatoday.com’s desktop platform and pair it with Humankind’s video, as well as posting the video and local article to Facebook.
What’s the community like?
Lauren: We have a great interaction rate. We have many positive comments saying “this is what the world needs right now, this is what’s missing in the news”. We reply to as many of these comments as we can.
There is a lot of negative news out there, and we want to find the stories that restore faith in humanity. There are sometimes heated debates about the more controversial topics that we cover. We monitor those, and occasionally jump in and remind people that this is a positive space.
We also respond to questions. Oftentimes people ask, “How can I get in touch with this person?” that we featured in a Humankind video. We had a video of a man named Morrie who was very ill and in hospice. Even in hospice, he was still knitting hats for the homeless. With that sort of selflessness and kindness, people want to participate. Everyone wanted to know how they could send yarn to Morrie. We tried to spend as much time answering those as we could.
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We had another story about a mechanic in Powder Springs, Georgia. He fixes cars for free for people who don’t have the money. We had so many people reach out and ask how to donate cars, money, time, and car parts. We even had Michelin give him a free set of tires.
We have no agenda except spreading these amazing stories from around the country, and spurring people into seeing the world as positive and reaching out.
What has the audience growth been like for Humankind?
Lauren: We’ve had steady growth over the past year, and we’re so proud of what we’ve done. We’ve grown such a great foundation and now, within the company, we have a regular network of reporters who send us stories. We have pitches from reporters multiple times a day.
Cathy: The local reporters know that getting Humankind to cover their story, can get their story so many more eyeballs and more attention than their own social media accounts and smaller outlets.
With such a vast resource of stories across the U.S., what sort of stories does Humankind focus on? Local, national, international?
Cathy: It doesn’t matter where these stories come from, and that’s what makes them good. They are just about real people doing amazing or kind things. A lot of our properties want to use Humankind stories on their own social platforms, even though they didn’t take place in their local area.
Lauren: These are just human stories that anyone can relate to no matter where they live. They’re ordinary people. They’re not necessarily enormous feats of changing the world. They’re stories about things anyone can do by being kind. I think it’s really easy for people to connect with what’s going on in our videos.
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Cathy: Every story that you see on Humankind originates in some local place. These are things that globally, people can connect to. The fact that we have all these journalists on the ground finding these stories is great, so these stories can be turned around and are relatable to anyone.
We have small local news outlets that use Humankind’s videos on their social pages, as well as our bigger ones, because these stories do so well.
What are some of the challenges for Humankind?
Lauren: At the beginning, finding content was very challenging. We’re a very large NETWORK. Finding that content with a small production team was a little daunting. We’ve overcome that situation where we were constantly looking for stories. And now we have such a great connection with local writers that they’re coming to us with stories. And we pitch them story ideas too, “Hey this is happening near you, would you be able to cover it?”
What platforms does Humankind exist on? What does your strategy look like for these?
Lauren: Facebook is our main social platform that we’ve created video content for, and we’re focusing on Instagram and Twitter now that Facebook is strong. Over the last year, we’ve tried to really hone in on what works for our audience. Are they engaging here? Are they viewing our videos with sound?
Not only do we have our network of reporters to help us, we’ve also been a video brand from the start. We don’t ever do a story without a video component to it. We’re video first. That has made us strong on Facebook.
We’ve had some interesting findings with the different platforms. It is a different audience. Our comments on Twitter are different than on Facebook. We’re very excited when we see the interactions — we’re fairly small on Twitter so far and Instagram has been slow.
We’ve been growing on all three platforms organically, without paid. It’s been a slow and steady process. We’re trying to post once a day, and trying to follow best practices.
Speaking of best practices, what sort of features are you experimenting with? Instagram stories, live-streaming, etc.?
Lauren: We’re trying to do more Facebook Live videos. We’re looking to connect more with ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
We did a Facebook Live with the mechanic from Georgia. Another one we are setting up is with a woman who breeds and trains mini-horses to be therapy animals. She takes them to places like the Cleveland airport and nursing homes. We’re really lucky because the farm is outside of Cincinnati and one of our local properties is Cinncinati.com, so we’re connecting with the reporters on the ground there to help facilitate the Live event.
How do you understand what’s working and what’s not?
Cathy: We’re constantly looking at what’s doing well and not doing well, and changing some of our video and production choices based on that. On Facebook, things are constantly changing.
The nice thing is that we’re a smaller brand in a larger organization, so we can play with things and share those learnings with the other brands. So, we can use Humankind to help us with our other projects.
What have been some of your triumphs?
Cathy: I think back to when we started. This idea started with our small innovation group. There were four of us on the initial team, and since we launched, we have never had more than three people at any given time.
Now we have other brands coming to us to partner with us. It’s been incredible to accomplish that, and to see the comments and how appreciative people are to have these great stories, and to have that impact with such a small group.
We haven’t had millions of dollars to promote Humankind, we’ve just done this through hard work.
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Lauren: It was very much a grassroots effort to grow Humankind. We don’t have sponsored or boosted posts. This was 99.9 percent grown by the people who like our content and the ordinary people who are in our videos, and it’s grown so much since we started.
What’s a day in the life like for Humankind?
Lauren: We have three Humankind producers in total. We start our day by looking for new stories. What has bubbled up overnight? Has there been anything pitched? Do these stories get you “in the feels?” Is it an “emotion explosion?” Those are the ones that do the best.
We make sure that our videos fit into one of three buckets — acts of kindness, special relationships, and triumphs.
If we’re on the fence about something, we’ll ask ourselves, “Does this fit into a bucket?” If there’s something we like and it doesn’t fit but we post it anyway, we’ve found that it doesn’t do well a lot of the time.
Each of us writes, edits, and produces all of our own content. We write the video scripts and have a copy editing process between the three of us. We all have our own strengths, but we all do everything too.
Cathy: A lot of the best stories fit in more than one bucket. A lot of them hit more than one of those, or even all three. That’s something we didn’t necessarily know at the start, but have learned over time.
Lauren: We didn’t have our third producer until January. We’re hoping to expand and that’s our short-term goal that’s not related to content. We want to expand our team so that we can expand into newsletters, more content, experimentation on more platforms, and give those platforms more attention.
What is the one emotion or message that you want your audience to take away from your stories?
Lauren: Positivity. There’s so much that you can read in the news that is sad or makes you mad or is confusing. We want people to walk away from our content and feel better. The world isn’t a bad place.
Cathy: Heartwarming is maybe the closest emotion. I’d want them to feel there are really good people. It’s easy to forget that, but when you see Humankind, you see that there are more good people in the world than bad.
Thanks so much, Lauren and Cathy! We love hearing about how new verticals are finding success on social and discovering stories their audience will care about. For insights into the stories predicted to go viral and win with your audience, check out NewsWhip Spike.