Web Video

There are a lot of things that make web video different from other cinematic efforts. Here’s a quick guide on how to approach making videos for the web.

Length and Formality

Web video demands brevity and informality. If it’s too serious, it’ll bring a laugh; and if it’s too long, it won’t bring anything. Here’s a link to 4 web videos we did for Minnesota Online. Each is brief, informal, and authentic. So authentic, in fact, that the positioning phrase “works for me” came from the people we interviewed, not the other way around.

Persuasive video didn’t start out this way. It used to be authoritative, arrogant, pedantic in its approach. It was Murdochesque in its approaches to communication… :-) This illustration compares the various flavors of motion pictures and how audiences interact with them today.

Length of production and the formality of each presentation

Features are comfortable where they've always been; everything else is trending noticeably toward brevity and informality. Mobile video is showing more tolerance for long programs than might be expected.

Once upon a time, there was a thing called Business to Business video. Today, it’s on life support because the brevity and informality of web videos have made self-serving, PR presentations feel silly and antiquated.

But I put it on the chart as “Trad B2B” to demonstrate how things have changed in the last few years.

Today, business videos tend to be just as sophomoric as a lot of YouTube dorm room chatter. But it’s still possible to make “serious” videos that are light-hearted enough to gain a credible viewing.

One of the best ways to do this is through personal, informal yet informative productions. The tone of these must be informal or they won’t get watched. They must be brief or they won’t be finished.

Here are some recent examples:

In these 2 examples, a serious business perspective is addressed with transparency. But two entirely different learning styles are addressed by the artistic approach. That’s the beauty of web video. Audiences will follow you where you take them, if they sense that you are doing so with self-awareness and integrity. Lose the integrity, make claims that feel over the top… and your audience will tune you out. And in every case, a short attention span is a given that must be accepted.

Sports and features, on the other hand — entertainment and fictional or real-life drama — continue to hold audience attention for longer spans of time. Features are as formal as we get in this culture… a dedicated space, without distractions, where it is considered rude to leave one’s cell phone on. How many business meetings and schools can command that level of commitment on the part of an audience?

One interesting trend I see is that longer videos are being watched in the mobile space. This is because people have their players with them all the time. However, I believe viewing habits are becoming more fragmented. Getting folks’ undivided attention in a dark room with a grand and formal setting is increasingly on the decline. The formality we afford movie theatres is losing ground to homes and informal “third places” where folks can speak up and get distracted by their mobile devices and each other.

This is not the first boom in B2B video. The first one began in the late 80s, and continued till the mid 90s. Then as now, I was a little late embracing it… then, because I preferred the quality of multi-image 35mm photography, and disliked the inauthenticity of formal, pitched presentations. My clients pushed me into video, and I eventually found that authenticity was even more possible with a moving picture than it was with stills.

This time around, I had trouble laying aside my preference for longer, more complex presentations. The new web video environment demands brevity, and it takes an unswerving commitment to that principle in order to achieve it. You can’t simply keep editing, whittling away at a complex, meandering structure. To achieve authenticity with brevity you have to know what the essence of your message will be right from the start, and then dive right in.

Now that I’m on board with that reality of the B2B web video medium, I find the format refreshing and challenging. It really does bring out the best in any communicator. Cut to the chase. Ditch the details. Prioritize, design, and go for elegant simplicity.

The range of possible production values, as well as what’s acceptable, has¬† also dramatically changed.


The ever-strengthening preference for unscripted, authentic presentations by real people instead of paid pitchmen; and the increasing reliance on inexpensive equipment, fuels a trend toward lower production values and fewer narrators and spokespeople.

Who has not noticed that celebrity endorsers are under scrutiny? In fact, let’s look at the Tiger spot to remind us how radical a change we’re talking about here:

Notice the production values for this national TV spot. It’s a piece of hand-held video. It was shot to look like a clutzy news guy did a choppy zoom. Of course, the 2 Nike logos are perfectly positioned at top and bottom of frame. But the emphasis on Tiger’s face, and the earnestness of his expression, reveal that today we want to see into the heart and soul of our celebrities and we’re the ones asking the questions.

So back to my point: the public, especially the educated public, is increasingly impatient with drummed-up, made-up “fans”. We get irritated when we can tell that something artificial is behind any product that has “followers”. (“Astro-turf” instead of true grass roots).

Intrinsic qualities of the medium itself have elevated flip cams and phone cams to their own category of credibility. Movies and spots are often shot with DSLRs or camcorders, not just to save money but because the look is cool. (That’s changing…) And while feature films have been happy in their traditional formal setting and time length, many Hollywood directors have embraced lower-end equipment for certain kinds of movies.

On the other hand, I’ve painted the arrow of Biz web videos both ways, because in the business space, high production values, when they don’t detract from authenticity, still have their appeal.

In my diagram, spots remain in the high end realm, and command the highest production values. Advertising needs to be slick to be watched. Traditional B2B videos, which once occupied the middle space of highly produced, highly inauthentic videos, have all but faded away.

Which brings me to the actual persuasive tone of messages:

Audiences resent direct pleading or manipulation; they distrust authority; and they respect the right comedic touch as a sign of emotional maturity and self-awareness. That's why Jon Stewart is our most respected news source. Really.

Hollywood stopped preaching years ago. In fact, I think Hollywood (and Indies) should be respected for how often we find refreshing honesty in their portrayal of the complexity of human nature. Where film heroes of the past were good guys, and villains were bad guys, the reality is that good men have inner struggles and significant flaws; and bad guys have redeeming qualities.

What’s changed recently is that the business communication arena has started to warm up to that fact. Increasingly, some PR firms are encouraging their clients to let down their hair, and allow the authenticity of mixed messages to show through. It’s a tough balance to find. Too much humor, and you risk destroying the brand. Too much seriousness, and you risk the appearance of arrogance or even dishonesty.

In my diagram I represent traditional B2B video (what’s left of it) as being almost humorless, and prone to excessive or manipulative emotional or persuasive attempts. I also show sports as being low on the humor scale but very high in the area of emotion. Sports guys are almost the only spokespeople who are allowed to get away with raw, over-the-top enthusiasm without being laughed off the stage, baby.

At the other extreme of humor … over the red line humor where a lot of people are uncomfortable … you find personal video, lots of mobile and YouTube video, and lots of TV spots. TV spots really are distributed from the middle of the scale to the top.

Hollywood covers the gamut of humor, which of course is nice. They go from the saddest of the sad to the most insanely comedic heights imaginable…

Where does B2B web video rightly belong? Well, I’ve drawn it in the lower third on the humor scale, because I think it’s risky to do all commercial videos tongue-in-cheek. You’ve got products, services, features and benefits, and the truth is that you want to inform as well as persuade… so while light-heartedness is important and occasional humor is necessary, you should be careful.

Institutions, especially, need to be cautious about trying to use sarcasm to build a brand. I’ve drawn the biz web video zone with a wide range of persuasive intensity, from very ambivalent to passionate. If you’re an entrepreneur talking about your own company, you can safely occupy this serious, passionate self-advocacy space. If you’re part of something big and speaking to a youth culture, go for a more postmodern, self-effacing vibe that’s a little higher on the humor scale and a little more fragmented in the intensity of its persuasive posture.

In summary, how should entrepreneurs approach their web videos?

Put content first. To the extent there’s a style, make sure it is comfortable in its skin, and not a reach. (that’s a great current campaign, by the way). If it’s humorous, make sure it’s funny. If it’s a period piece, pay attention to the details. If you want to get away with a low budget, don’t assume it should LOOK low budget; allow the budget thing to be an appropriate compromise for the importance and authenticity of the message you need to get across.

If you are going to speak on the video, make sure you speak from the heart. Don’t use a teleprompter. Let it be pleasingly imperfect, or memorize and rehearse so much that it no longer feels like a performance … it feels like YOU.

Don’t ever risk your brand — your reputation and your integrity — in order to save money. Save money, perhaps, because that’s part of your brand. But what you are communicating is what counts. Say it simply, say it well, and move on.

Feel free to ask me for advice about your particular web video … without feeling obligated to hire me to produce it. The first hour is no charge. And if you’ve got an idea you’d like to float before you do it …. or are looking for an idea that you’d like to produce yourself … feel free to call.