Three Rules for Online Video

How do you make an online video successful?

I’ve been looking at the charts daily for a year, and I think I’ve found some patterns. This week at BeeBCamp I had the opportunity to talk about this with some people who know far more about this than I do.

With their help, I’ve come to some conclusions – it seems that all successful online videos share three essential qualities. I’m keen to hear what you think.

1. Simplicity

Online videos need to be simple and straight to the point. This isn’t the place for subtle editorial/artistic complexity. Decide what you want to say, say it plainly, with impact. Online video is haiku, not the Illiad – even in chapters.

Because of this, you need a Ronseal title. Not many people will click on a video called ‘BMX Jump‘, but plenty will click on ‘German ghostrider crashes at 140km/h!‘ When I wrote this, the first one had 180 hits, the second over 4 million. (Yes, they were uploaded 12 months apart, but even if you tally up views per day, German Ghost Rider is still way ahead.)

People will click on the title (or not) on impulse. So videos need to be short – 30 seconds is good, one minute is good, 3 minutes is about the maximum effective length. Online videos are sent to people by people (not companies), so you can’t rely on people having come to you because of a deep interest in the topic. Most people will click your link as a gestalt impulse response to your title.

2. Authenticity

Updated thoughts from a couple of days ago . . .

Online video isn’t like television. It’s a lot more like radio – an intimate medium.

Radio is intimate because of its production and distribution methods. Producing radio means that one well-spoken person shows up to meet you in a quiet place, and you talk, eye-to-eye, like people talk. You tell her your story. Oh, and she’s holding a microphone. Doesn’t matter. You forget about that, quickly, as you get into talking about yourself.

Radio distribution is intimate, too – I remember one of my profs at J-school telling me that radio is like whispering in someone’s ear. People listen with headphones, or in the car, or in the kitchen. It’s more a personal thing.

TV is Public

TV, in contrast, is produced publicly. A TV interview means a team of people shows up at your house. They have big cameras, lights, cables, tramp over things. It takes half an hour to set up, and the sound guy has you stick your hand up your shirt to fix the mike. Finally when they’re ready to hear your story, you’re flustered and sweating and looking into the bottomless depths of a huge lens.

TV is watched in public, too – in the living room, in the TV room, or even in the pub. People talk, flip channels. It’s a family thing that brings people together. There are a lot of distractions in the house, so it needs to be showy and produced, to attract your attention. (Online video, in contrast, is the distraction.)

Online is intimate

Online video is produced intimately – just you and your webcam, sitting with your laptop or goofing off with your friends, like you always do anyhow.

Online video is viewed intimately, too. You watch it at a distance of about two feet, on your laptop screen. You do so at work, or while studying, on a tiny 300-pixel screen window. It is a direct, two-way link with the creator of the video. You can usually comment on their page. So anybody that gets in the way of that one-on-one communication is a hindrance. Over-produced videos are lame tigers online – the high production values imply that producers, editors, publishers and so on have tampered with this video, making it less of an authentic conversation between you and the creator.

Television is mass media. You send a video to 20 million people at once. Online video is social media. You send a video to one person – 20 million times. And they can all talk back.

3. Currency

Online videos need to be current, in that they capture what people are talking about. But they also need to be currency, as in something you spend. (Many thanks to Jo Twist for this neat formulation of the idea.)

Online videos are used as parts of a conversation – embedded in blogs, linked to in e-mails, posted to facebook, shared between friends and acquaintances. People use them as social currency – they link to them because they’re thinking “If I send this funny/cool/awesome/striking video to my friends, they will think that I am funny/cool/awesome/striking.”

Online videos need to incorporate this thought. The Evolution of Dance didn’t make it to 100,000,000 hits because it’s a deep commentary on life. It blew out YouTube because when I link to it, you think I’m funny. I’m not that funny – Judson Laipply is funny. He’s 100,000,000 views funny. But some of his funniness rubs off on me when I link to him.

Three Rules

  1. Simplicity – Haiku, not Illiad.
  2. Authenticity – You and one member of the audience. Talk with them (not at them).
  3. Currency – Make it something they want to spend.

I’d say that’s why comedy and news are on the top 20 of the viral video chart almost every day. Nothing is more simple and authentic than a good laugh. And politics and news make you look all cultured and sophisticated if you link to it.

3 thoughts on “Three Rules for Online Video

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