Kathleen O'Grady, a writer and researcher from Ottawa, wanted to buy a new tent. She had an idea of what she wanted, but looking at boxed items in the store left her uneasy.
"The one that we wanted was the Marmot," she recalls. ( Marmot is a midsized American outdoor-wear manufacturer. "But it's hard to look at a picture and get a really good sense of it, especially when you're dropping 600 or 700 dollars."
So she did what most consumers do these days. "We Googled their website - and up popped a YouTube channel."
What she found was a simple video in which a representative gives a simple, four-minute tour around the Marmot tent, showing its features and interior. O'Grady says it was enough to put her mind at ease and help seal the deal.
With online video increasingly cheap to create and easy to host, individual entrepreneurs and small business can use it to showcase their wares, highlight their personalities, and advertise their services in ways that text and pictures alone can't. Done right, videos can range from dead-simple to slick, but they'll all boost your visibility and - hopefully - your credibility.
Todd Lucier runs Northern Edge Retreat on the verge of Algonquin Park, about halfway between Huntsville and North Bay, Ontario. Mr. Lucier says he built his business primarily using the Web for publicity, and has increasingly been moving towards video as a way to show prospective clients what to expect.
His videos both showcase the natural beauty of his operation's surroundings - yoga by the lake, for example - and answer prospective clients' practical questions - like, a Q&A about what parents can expect when their children go on canoe trips.
What does video provide that a static description doesn't? "Intimacy," says Mr. Lucier. "You're getting a real sense of what this place is like."
Mr. Lucier's work is polished and high-end. In fact, he's invested in equipment, hired a videographer, and is now making professional online videos for other businesses. But you don't need a full editing suite to make an effective video, as long as you have the performance chops.
Mark Bowden has made a career for himself as a communications consultant, becoming known as an expert in using body language. He's used simple online videos to introduce himself to the viewers, establish his credibility, and last but not least, boost his Google ranking.
As Mr. Bowden cheerfully points out, running a Google search for "body language expert" produces a number of web pages from around the world. However, Google gives priority to YouTube videos (unsurprisingly, since Google owns YouTube), and one of Mr. Bowden's videos appears near the top of the page.
His YouTube clips include image-enhancing media appearances, on the CBC and elsewhere. But they also endearingly low-fi efforts, like an introductory video, awkwardly self-shot at the Royal Ontario Museum dinosaur exhibit, his young son saying hello in the background. Mr. Bowden is an engaging speaker, though - it's his job, after all. Online viewers, accustomed to all kinds of video quality, are willing to overlook some roughshod production values if the speak is compelling enough.
Interested in the director's chair? Consider some of the following starter hints:
1) Cost it out. Making videos isn't free, though it's cheaper than it used to be. Marie Nicola, co-founder of Green Rabbit Media in Toronto, and blogger for Karmacake.ca, recommends the popular Flip video cameras for entry-level work, which can be bought for less than $150. Most personal computers come with video editing software, like Windows Live Movie Maker and Apple's iMovie software. If you're looking to make something as simple as a video slideshow, consider the website Animoto.com, which - for a marginal price - produces slick movie-trailer-like videos from collections of still images.
2) For the best Googling, use keywords. YouTube is the best place to host videos today, if for no other reason than its connection to Google, and its search results that consumers today use like they did the Yellow Pages yesterday.
To take advantage of YouTube's potential, Google has to know what you're offering. Do this by making sure your video's title is full of the keywords you'd like the search giant to pick up. The more precise you are, the better. Be sure to include the terms your customers will be searching for. For instance, a video about cat-supply store should be titled more precisely than to mention just cats. "Instead of cats, maybe it's "Cat Grooming and Supplies," says Ms. Nicola.
3) Pay attention to the basics. Lighting and sound are critical. People often pay attention to the lighting of photos, but don't take the same care when shooting videos. Unless your video is aiming to be deliberately low-fi, try to keep the camera still with a tripod, and let your subjects do the moving. Sound is another critical consideration: the microphones that are built into most camcorders are of limited quality, and will pick up the sound of the wind blowing. A lavalier microphone (or a "lav mic" - the kind that clips onto your shirt) that plugs into the camcorder can be bought for around $30.
4) Keep it short; keep it simple. The goal of the exercise is to give clients a simple picture of your products or services - or, if you are your own product, yourself. Ninety seconds to three minutes is probably the ideal length, lest the modern viewer tune out.
As for production values, simplicity is your friend. "You don't need to do anything more fancy than straight cuts," suggests Mr. Bowden. He also suggests using rights-free music - but at a very low volume. "You put it very gently in the background, almost imperceptibly," he says. "And it just drives the energy of the content along."
5) Think from your customers' perspective. Try to answer questions that your customers will have as they look into your service. If it's a service-industry business, what are the surroundings like? What does the food look like? If it's a retail business, answer questions about the products.
Ms. Nicola, for instance, recently shot an online video for an automotive headlight-maker, answering customer questions about headlight flicker. "What story do I have to tell about my business?" asks Mr. Lucier. "Who's my audience, and what do they want?"
6) Virality is (probably) not your friend. Remember that the goal of an online video is seldom for it to "go viral." Businesses that go out on a limb to make an offbeat video in the hopes that it will become wildly popular - as opposed to targeted and useful - risk pouring time and energy into an effort that might hurt their image more than help it. Virality is a phenomenon that continually surprises even the most seasoned Internet veterans.
"You can't really work to achieve virality," says Ms. Nicola. "If it's going to go viral, that's a random and crazy thing. Don't ever do anything that would sacrifice the credibility of your brand."
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