This is the first article in a series for operators of businesses who actually want some real practical everyday answers about streaming video and online advertising – what's the best way to do it, and how does it work in the real world?
First of all, let me dislose that I'm a producer of streaming videos and online advertising. I've been making commercials and online tours using streaming video for local businesses in Perth, Western Australia for about the last three years, after coming from a background in film and television. From what I've experienced, there's a steep learning curve and a methodology particular to streaming video, not only in a technical or production sense, but also in terms of business use and marketing.
If you're like me, you've probably done your fair share of googling for information about streaming video and how it works. And there are some genuinely good articles out there.
But many focus on aspects which, although relevant in some respects, do not directly address the concerns of business operators who just want to know the best way of adding video to their website. A typical selection of articles will focus on the greater trend of streaming video in terms of a global or nationwide user base. You know the ones I'm talking about – "40% of such and such …" and "3 billion users by …." etc. Others will talk about the technological issues: servers, formats, delivery models etc.
This is all well and good, and valued information. But, if you're the owner for a small to medium sized business, you'll probably be interested to know how it works on a very local level. That is, how do you get it done, what's the best way of doing it, and what's the best way to optimize your video once it's been produced? Hopefully I'll be able to provide you with some tips that will hold you in good stead should you wish to go down this interesting track. I'll break this down into a couple of areas, beginning with the initial decision about how to go down the streaming route.
I'll gather that you're already aware of why you want to use streaming video (or audio) on the internet. So we'll skip the "why video?" question for the moment and move onto the "how and who?". I'll then discuss tips that will give you ideas about how to get the most of the production and deliver a great video, and then how you can get more people to watch it and feed into your website.
WHO should I get to produce my streaming video?
This can be dependent on the level of presentation you want for your video. In general, I've never recommended that operators go the DIY route. I know you'd expect a video producer to say this, but there you go. Why? Because most often than not, the final product is a piece of crap which total value is the merest slice of novelty. There, I said it. Sorry if this causes offence. It's not just a technical issue. To a certain extent a typical audience will end a less than professional image or sound quality if your final video is incredibly entertaining and engaging. But that is unbelievably rare, and also the reason why a lot of these guys selling these DIY video streaming packages are kidding themselves and trying to kid you. It's fine for basic video blogging, but does not cut the mustard when it comes to online advertising.
The production standards are likewise less of a concern in the personal video blogging domain, but generally sub-par production standards reflect badly on a business website, no matter what the content. If you're in business and you value your business image, you need to stay at a really high standard of presentation. You would not, instead of using a professionally printed business card, choose instead to scribble your name on the back of piece of chewed up cardboard taken from the back of your breakfast cereal box. But that does not mean you need to spend megadollars on a big time media-producer. If you do decide to go down the DIY route, you'll have to accept that you will require some basic training and practice in video production. If you plan to have a video that you will update on a monthly or even weekly basis, this may have some merit, and repeat visitors to your site may put up with less than perfect standards in exchange for the positive of regularly updated content. Be warned however, first time visitors will not be impressed with anything less than a high professional standard.
At the opposite end of the spectrum you have your larger video production companies who traditionally produce corporate videos for DVDs and commercials for TV. I also engage in this market as part of my own business. They're set up for larger corporate clients and their often larger production demands. These production companies typically structure their business in accordance with these demands. They operate with larger crews, have more staff, and the production process has to pass through a number of stages before final completion. An efficient and reliably cost-effective structure if you're into producing something with a budget of a television commercial. But if you just need to produce a simple but professionally produced video for your website, you're going to find the final bill pretty hefty – a whole lot more than your own website. I know because I came from this production world, and I know the costs involved.
That's why I determined that the only way to service small clients with this particular form of advertising was to set up a small business structure, with an incredibly streamlined production process that was still able to deliver quality customized videos. To give you some idea, you can look at any of the samples on the video showcase page of the Online AURA website. Typically the 2 minute promos done for tourism and real estate clients were shot in a single day with one operator, scripted, voiced and edited (with original music) over the course of a few days, and then added to the client's website. A turnaround that is basically unheard of for TVCs or any other traditional form. It's not an easy job, and it's taken some years to perfect the process, but you can see for yourself the quality that can be produced using this model. So the answer to the question is – try and find a small production company that shows a genuine specificity in producing online video. Oh yes, and make sure they're actually specialists in video production, not an IT or web design company. Nothing against IT or web design companies, but many of them seem to be offering streaming video production as an addition to their other services, and it's evident they know almost nothing about the craft. If there's a single major determinant of quality, it's basic video craft – from scripting, to lighting, to editing and image grading. The process of finally encoding a high-quality master into a streaming video format (eg Windows media, Flash etc.), adding it to your website or to a new page is a relatively simple task.
Tips for your video content
Length of your video – This depends what you're selling, and who you're selling it to. A common thing you'll hear out there is that "the shooter the better", and that online advertising videos should be less than 30 seconds in length. While this may have some merit for the particular model of advertising usually discussed in relation to this (usually "interstitial advertising" spots that are placed before or after genuine content), for the content that we're talking about, this is incorrect. A general rule of thumb I used for producing streaming videos for real estate tours or tourist operators in Perth was 2 minutes duration. Beyond this, without your content is either blisteringly good or your audience highly specialized, it wears a bit thin. 90 to 120 seconds seemed to work reasonably well, and made the video a chance to develop and breathe. Why not make it just like a 30 second TVC? Just because that's an established norm for television, does not mean it needs to be a norm for online video advertising. If anything, online advertising should break out of those imposed conventions. It does not have to be 30 seconds and does not need to be. If people are on your website, they're most likely taking an active interest in what you are and what you're offering, rather than passively consuming a TVC between breaks of Idol.
In our research, users have wanted to have the full experience, the detail, not just the flashy summary of a 30 second sales pitch. This of course depends on your content. Say, for instance, you wanted to produce a streaming video demonstration for each of your products. My guess is that each demo would not exceed 20-30seconds, especially if it were something relatively simple. My own video introduction to my business takes about 1 minute, although for other businesses I could see shorter and longer form videos. And do not forget, there are ways in which longer form videos can be broken up, like chapters on a DVD that are selectable. Give your audience the choice of which section they'd like to watch.
Get involved in the scripting of your video – This may not mean writing the final copy for it, although if you have that skill it will prove advantageous to the final product. But make sure the aspects of your business that you want to push is understood by the video production company doing your online commercial. If they care about their job, they should be actively consulting you about the direction and approach of your streaming video advertisement. Even if you're not exactly sure what you want to show, give them your thoughts and ideas. They'll be able to translate some of these ideas into a rhythm and visual flow.
Make it personal – While the copy on your website needs to convey a professional image and spell out the features and benefits of your product using specific language, you're video does not have to be a total sales pitch. One of the strengths of video is its ability to build identification, familiarity and emotion. I suppose this point can be applied to marketing in general. Customers do not necessarily gravitate toward companies that they feel offers them the most in hard benefits. They often choose companies and businesses that they identify and feel comfortable with on a human level. That's why many people still choose to buy from local businesses, and also why businesses with marketing campaigns that emphasize people over product do very well. Video has this ability to humanize what else would feel impersonal and cold. Look at many of the most successful websites and how they are designed visually. Note how many use images of people, and particularly faces, as a fundamental part of their visual design, regardless of what product they're trying to sell you. This design approach is used to counteract the feeling of a website as an impersonal cash-register waiting to gobble up your money. Video has the strength of being able to take this further, by offering life and personality, the texture of a person's voice and face. Think about this when you do your video. Think about whether your entire video should be focused entirely on your product, and entertain the idea that maybe people want to see the culture of the people behind that product as well.
You're selling a lifestyle – When I do streaming video advertising for tourism and real estate, the important thing I keep in mind is that I'm selling a lifestyle, and not just a 'product'. You're always selling an experience. Even if it's for bug spray, in which case you're selling the wonders of a bug-free life for your customers. So make that a fundamental part of your video. It's very tempting with video to show and explain everything – I've had clients in real estate for instance want me to go into detailed descriptions of all manner of architectural features. But even though part of my job is showing off the actual features, primarily I'm creating a film about the lifestyle that living in such and such a property provides. That's also why there's a lot of emphasis on the culture surrounding the property, not just the structure itself. If you're working with a video producer, let them know you want to focus on the lifestyle your product or service conveys, and let them know the kind of feeling you want your viewers to experience. The end result will be a lot stronger and your video will be far more effective.
Voice – A lot of streaming videos include voice-overs. They're very effective in terms of lending a narrative or story to your video. I have a dedicated voice-over artist do all of my video voice-overs. And it's amazing what the effect of having a good quality voice will do to lift an advertisement. On the flipside of that, having a poor voice will bring down even the strongest visuals. If you can not afford fantastic live video footage, at least you can make up for this in some degree by having an engaging speaker.
Music – Another underrated aspect of videos online is music. You'll run into a lot of video production companies that use generic or "stock" music. It's usually terrible stuff, and makes your video seem contrived and artificial. AURA does not have that problem, because we also have a background in original music production, and so develop our own music tracks. Ask about music and, if possible, run through a selection of available soundtracks for your streaming video.
Tips for your finished video.
This is the part where you've gone through the process of producing your video. You've found your producer, the final streaming video advertisement is great, and you're ready to add it to your website. Here are some tips:
Make it visible – Although this looks obvious, many businesses inexplicably choose to place a tiny, barely visible link to their video on their website. Having a tiny bit of text in 8pt saying "video" with a hyperlink does your video no justice, and greatly reduces the effectiveness of your streaming video ad. A prominent display on your homepage is preferred, with some kind of graphic (animated graphics work best) that attracts clicks from users. Video is still a rarity of most websites, and users will easily overlook that a site even has a video without it is significantly signposted.
Portal power – If your business lists its products on portals, why not include a link to your video. Sometimes, with accommodation industry ports, they forbid direct links to your website because they work off decisions from people booking on their site. In my experience however they are far more open to allowing links directly to video content, given that it does not take people off to a separate webpage. This is sometimes the advantage of having a simple link to your video, rather than relying on it just being embedded in your webpage. Ideally, you should have both. That way, people can see it inside your site, but you can also email people links to the video directly or list it as a hyperlink on other people's sites.
Video search – This is the area making big waves at the moment in the search engine world. With Google video, Myspace, YouTube and other players, your video can be a key part of your search engine strategy. Arrange to submit your videos to all these sites, and provide keyworded descriptions of the content and a link back to your website. It will not cost you a thing. Video search is going to take off in a big way, with major players Google, Yahoo and MSN all putting big money into marketing and developing this new arena. Also keep in mind the paid video ad market that will emerge in the future with Google and Yahoo. You can have a highly visible direct link to your video straight from search. For uploading purposes, ask your streaming video producer for a higher definition version of your video, either in Windows Media format or MPEG-2.
Offline action – Your video should be able to be supplied to you on physical media in some form or another for little extra cost. This could be DVD video, as part of a CD-ROM presentation, or just as a digital file on disc. Videos are typically shot and edited in very high-quality and then compressed very much for streaming delivery on the internet. This means that the producer will most likely have a broadcast quality master, either on tape or on digital file. At AURA, we store uncompressed masters on external hard drives or DVDs. This means also that the streaming videos are future proofed – should some new fabulous video codec, like a new version of Flash or Windows media come out, we can take the master and re-encode it again to take advantage of the new technology. Also, as broadband becomes quicker, we are able to up the bit rate of our videos.
Having a high quality digital file means you can use your video for other things, like showing it at a trade expo at DVD quality, or re-packaging it as part of a CD-ROM presentation or CD-business card.
Hopefully what I've discussed will help you as you embark on the wonderful adventure of producing your first streaming video advertisement for your website. I'll be back later to discuss other aspects of streaming video, and also another interesting media element that has been much underutilized on business websites – streaming audio. Until next time, take care, and if you have any questions, feel free to email me or visit my website at www.onlineaura.com.au [http://www.onlineaura.com.au]