My first encounter with online video was in 1997 at a trade show in London. A large grey mysterious box named a ‘streaming encoder’ was being demonstrated to a handful of passers-by and it was, we were told, going to take-off in a big way, most likely for creating pay-per-view music events via the Internet. To the left of their box sat a video recorder playing out a concert performance, to the right was a Windows NT workstation showing the exact same concert after it had passed through the box and been fed over a 56kb/s dial-up connection. The quality of the video and audio was horrendous, no where near a standard that anyone could view for an extended period, let alone pay to receive. No one I knew associated the Web with viewing videos in any case, so it felt like an iffy delivery medium aimed at a non-existent audience. I took a brochure and moved on.
Forward to 2005, YouTube launched, its growth enhanced by fast unmetered Broadband access which was becoming commonplace. Audiences viewing online video grew exponentially, as did the numbers of individuals creating and uploading their own video content or sharing video via social networks. Statistics generated by this activity are being published continually, and they are getting ever more difficult to get my head around. By 2014 Cisco estimates that 90% of all Internet traffic will be video; hardly surprising as YouTube alone intakes 100 years of video every day - no, that isn’t a typo - end to end it would take 100 years to watch all of the video which is uploaded to the site each and every day, and whilst it is the largest, YouTube is far from being the only video portal on the Internet.
Businesses are finally beginning grasp the fact that online video is now one of the largest marketing opportunities ever. This is especially good news for startups as it is a medium where great creativity doesn’t necessarily demand a huge budget. Furthermore if you involve and excite your target audience they will further distribute your content for you. Indeed, many niche startup businesses have become some of the leading exponents of the medium, often using it as their sole marketing activity. I spoke with Jordan Harbinger, co-founder of New York and LA-based startup ‘The Art of Charm, Inc.’, a business that teaches men advanced social skills and dating science. Jordan uses YouTube video and podcasting as the only form of marketing for the business, which now has revenues in excess of $1m. Jordan explains, “The company started in a friend’s basement as a podcast show and quickly grew into a coaching business that now teaches men from all over the world how to improve their charisma and self-confidence. Our podcast now receives well over 1,000,000 downloads”. Rick Mathieson, author of ‘The On-Demand Brand’, writes “When you create something that's so inherently targeted to a core user group, and that they can directly influence, they become evangelists on behalf of the video and the brand”.
Barbara Crowley is the founder of Snabbo.com, a social network for baby-boomers. Snabbo.com wished to leverage pressure coming from kids who disliked the notion of their ‘embarrassing’ parents joining them on Facebook. Crowley commissioned a viral video targeted at this Facebook crowd which you can view at http://www.ihavefacebookmom.com. The two minute viral arguably has many of the characteristics of an expensive agency-led campaign, but was in fact the product of filming some simple yet very entertaining scenarios, “We recruited actresses to audition via word of mouth at a local theatre school. We filmed with under-cover cameras and the crew was just myself, writers and producers Brian Dunaway and David Bartholow, and actress Gina Roberts” Crowley explains. “The tangible benefits we have reaped from the video has been increased membership, driven by the kids of the demographic we are targeting. Having an ad on more traditional media may have given exposure to the site, but it would have cost an arm and a leg at a time when we are just starting out with this endeavor”.
Central to all of this is one key question, a tough question, which must be asked before embarking on any video production aimed at promoting your business on the Web, “Why on earth would anyone want to watch this?” If the honest answer is “I don’t know” then you need to return to the drawing board. Faris Yakob is Chief Innovation Officer at agency network MDC Partners, “The internet is the great dis-intermediator, it connects everything else... previously mass media aggregated attention and brands bought it. To earn your own attention you have to do things, create content, that people actually elect to spend time with”. In other words if people wouldn’t watch it out of choice - they more than likely won’t watch it at all. Jordan Harbinger backs this view regarding The Art of Charm Inc’s marketing, “We do use Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about our videos and media, however the subject matter itself is pretty juicy so people tend to spread it on their own. The fact that the podcast now has a large audience of loyal fans doesn't hurt either, but that has all developed organically over time”. In exactly the same way that brands do not get built overnight an online video strategy has to take a medium-term view, and real persistence, whilst trying to grow a following; as Rick Mathieson points out in his book, “Viral isn't a strategy, it's an outcome”.
One business which strives to achieve viral outcomes is New York’s Lucky Viral Branded Content, a hybrid agency and production company based in Brooklyn. I spoke to Mary Crosse at Lucky and she talked me through the methods employed to try and attain the Holy Grail of ‘going viral’. “We partner with companies to seed our videos on the web. You can’t just make a video and expect it to go anywhere on its own, you have to actually put together some kind of strategy to seed it. That means getting it to bloggers, and influencers on key social media websites, you need to put it somewhere first, and I think a lot of people forget that part, it’s also a lot of work. I think the strategy also depends a lot on the video itself, you don’t want to blast a video to inappropriate places, depending on what the video is about you want to get it on blogs related to that kind of content, and develop relationships with them”. This seems to be an element of video marketing campaigns which many businesses fail to follow through on, either themselves or through third-party agencies; Mary adds, “It seems like a lot of clients don’t really want to pay for seeding, it is another cost in addition to production but I think that when they see how much more success they get with seeding it is actually what makes the production worthwhile”. Lucky’s team has an enviable track record in creating top-flight videos for some of America’s largest multinationals, and many large businesses outside of the US. I asked whether the common perception of online video as being able to get away with cheap and cheerful appearances still held true. “I think many forget that a production is a production, no matter where it ends up you still have to pay your crew, you still have equipment, you still have editing and all the costs that go into production whether it’s on TV or on the Web; where you’re saving money is in the media platform, you’re not paying for commercial airtime. Sure, on the web you might still be paying for seeding and digital PR but it’s nowhere near the cost of what a TV commercial would be in terms of media placement, but yes a lot of people think that because it’s on the web the quality should be less, and should cost less - I think it’s changing though, a lot of the big viral videos now are really polished high quality productions, comparing to music videos in terms of costs”.
So, by its very nature the Web demands bold content. You can say and do a lot of things online - but boring your audience is never acceptable. As Lucky, Snabbo, The Art of Charm, and countless others demonstrate - no matter what video content you produce, the goal is to forge good quality deep engagements that foster further communication. The purpose of communication is to give and receive information, and the best information is that which fosters further communication. Get all that right, get your viewers on your side, and video marketing could just be the most powerful sales tool in your armory.
Tom Mountford is the Senior Editor at The JMS Group, a UK production company whose expertise spans Online Video Marketing, Advertiser Funded Programming and Television and Radio Advertising. You can see examples of their work, and get in touch with them at http://www.jms-group.com and also follow Tom’s Twitter feed at http://www.twitter.com/jmsgroup