Not-So-Moving Pictures


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Years ago, the CEO of a then-young video search firm insisted that some day soon everyone would need a query box to navigate the video records of their own lives. Video camera technology was becoming so cheap and light that many people would take to recording every moment and then dump it onto those equally cheap multi-terabyte hard drives at home. Facial recognition algorithms and speech-to-text operations would help you index everyday video so that you could query footage of grandma at your kid’s fourth birthday just as effectively as Googling a keyword to find articles.

Go over to Justin.tv to see at least the first part of this dubious prediction become tedious reality. Justin has been “lifecasting” directly from his helmet-mounted cam for 42 days as of this writing. Every second of his day, every achingly uninteresting moment is here. This stunt is vaguely reminiscent of that “DotCom Guy” who lived online for a year back in 2000. It proved nothing, except that morning radio jocks will pretty much interview anyone.

To listen to many publishers on both consumer and B2B sides of the aisle, there is enough demand for pre-roll ad inventory to fill Justin’s and just about any other video bucket many times over. I had the occasion to interview more than 20 managers of digital operations for major print brands online, and to a person—to a person, mind you—every one said they were investing heavily in video in the coming year. It is everywhere. One small trade news site for engineers now has weekly video of the editors letting vendors pitch their wares in the guise of an interview. A major IT news network has hired a former writer from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to do a weekly comedy news show for an audience of IT managers.

When I ask publishers about the costs involved in adding video to their sites, many of them defend their investment heatedly. They say one of two things: either that the ad money is already there to support video or that, in the YouTube era, the tolerance for cheap, unpolished video is high. It is a low-risk endeavor. Strap a cam to a staffer, send him out to a trade show floor, and bam, you’ve got a virtual expo. Justin.tv meets trade magazine. 

Well, not quite. I am among those who argued long ago that online publishers needed to think about video sooner rather than later [“Resistance is Futile…Get a Vid-Cam,” February 2006], so I don’t say this lightly: Cut! Stop the cameras and let’s think this one through. There is so much video coming online so fast, and with so few proven ad models around it, that publishers of all stripes had better take a breath before this bubble bursts in everyone’s face. One recent study found that while overall video streaming rocketed nearly 40%, competition among video-enabled sites actually helped decrease the number of streams served per unique user by about 10% at major media sites. Let’s just pop a few myths about video. 

We don’t need video everywhere. In fact, several magazine publishers admitted to me that their early video offerings produced surprisingly little traffic. Anheuser-Busch’s experiment in branded broadband entertainment, Bud.tv, has been staggeringly unsuccessful. Users don’t associate web video with some media brands. Nor should they. I suspect that one of the hard lessons of the current video craze is that we will soon discover its limitations.

Advertisers are not buying everything. It is a widespread myth in the industry that all video pre-roll inventory is scarce. In fact, media buyers say that “quality” video placement is scarce. There is more than enough junk inventory out there and it is usually composed of one-off clips and low-res web-cam materials that are meant to look like a video show. Nicely polished, repurposed 10-second pre-rolls look silly and out-of-place as bumpers to cats playing piano or grainy, shaky video of crawling through a trade show. 

Quality, regularity, and depth are going to matter here. “Opportunistic video,” or video that publishers place on a site at random intervals, is not a business model. Advertisers want reliable inventory and users need to expect fresh content in order to identify a site as video-rich. More to the point, the video needs to make sense within the context of the site’s purpose and editorial mission. This takes money and it takes planning. Next month we will look at some of the content, ad, and distribution models that really make sense for online video.