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Meet the company behind that viral Beto O'Rourke video

“We live in a scrolling economy,” said Athan Stephanopoulos, president of NowThis. “How can we get people to stop and engage in an asset and keep them as long as possible?”
Image: Beto O'Rourke
U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) pumps his fist for a cheering crowd before departing a campaign rally at the Alamo City Music Hall on Nov. 04, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Texas Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke was speaking before a roomful of voters when he answered a question about why he supported NFL players who protested during the national anthem.

The moment, captured on video and then later set to a gentle backing of piano music and given subtitles, would end up spreading across the internet, bringing national attention to the relatively unknown O’Rourke. The video caught the attention of TV host Ellen Degeneres, who would later have O’Rourke on her show.

The video, which has since racked up 67.4 million views on social platforms around the globe, according to online video measurement firm Tubular, was the work of NowThis, a social media-focused, youth-oriented news organization started in 2012. Six years since its start, the company is still focused on making video for social platforms — a proposition that has proven to be challenging territory for media organizations.

“We live in a scrolling economy,” said Athan Stephanopoulos, president of NowThis. “How can we get people to stop and engage in an asset and keep them as long as possible?”

NowThis has weathered many of the challenges faced by digital media startups even as companies like Facebook, which account for a large part of the company’s audience, change their priorities. The company has around 125 employees and remains focused on producing social media-friendly video, where it often bests traditional media companies.

"They understand the social video audience and understand what to create and it all came together in a perfect storm with Beto,” Allison Stern, the co-founder of online video measurement firm Tubular, said of NowThis. “But this is not an anomaly they're generating video hits all the time."

In September, the company’s politics vertical and its flagship NowThis vertical recorded 274 million views and 268 million views respectively on Facebook, taking the No. 2 and 3 spots in social video in the global news and politics category. Daily Mail was number one with 974 million views, ABC News and CBS News came fourth and fifth, according to Tubular Labs data. The company shares up to 100 videos a day across Facebook, Facebook Watch, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat and collects around 2.5 billion views monthly, according to NowThis.

NowThis has been particularly active in following Democratic politicians in the runup to the 2018 midterm elections, following O’Rourke as well as Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29 year-old who is running for Congress in New York’s 14th Congressional District.

The company has focused particularly hard on first-time candidates with a series called “Firsts” about 30 candidates who could make history if they win their races.

“There are so many first-time candidates and a record breaking number of women,” Stephanopoulos said.

NowThis is part of Group Nine Media, a company that owns a variety of digital media companies including animal-focused TheDodo, Thrillist and Discovery Digital Networks’ Seeker, a science-themed destination. The company is run by Chief Executive Officer Ben Lerer, the son of Ken Lerer, the former AOL communications chief who went on to become a successful venture capitalist, investing in The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed.

Some digital media companies have struggled in recent years as platforms have shifted priorities making it harder to monetize video. Facebook's changes to its News Feed punished some NowThis competitors such as Little Things, which shuttered earlier this year.

Stephanopoulos said Facebook’s changes were more of a risk for outlets that were not as immersed in Facebook as NowThis.

“I think those algorithm changes have a much bigger impact for publishers who play in Facebook a little bit,” he said.

Jessica Richards, managing director of North America at marketing agency Socialyse, said NowThis is on her radar as she tracks how young news consumers are using social media.

“Their stats indicate about 60 percent of the audience is made up of the standard millennial segment of 18-34 year olds,” Richards said. “It speaks to change in consumption patterns for content with current and future generations.”

While NowThis may not be a household name, Stephanopoulos said he realized the company was making an impact when a mom stopped the NowThis team after they conducted an interview with former Vice President Joe Biden to ask who they were with.

The daughters were embarrassed and hung back until Stephanopoulos revealed they were with NowThis.

“The three daughters came running over, and said, ‘mom this is where we get our news,’” Stephanopoulos said. “I thought to myself, ‘that’s it.’ It was a solidifying moment.”