Online video a must-have for these four businesses

Adding video to the mix has helped drive sales, among other things.

Adding video to the company website can set retailers and other businesses apart from the competition -- and ultimately boost the bottom line.

The falling price of bandwidth and rising consumer demand has motivated a variety of organizations -- from retailers to music publishers and credit unions -- to add video to their websites.

[Extending video beyond the firewall]

In fact, eMarketer, a market research company, forecasts a 5.6% increase in the number of people who will view online videos in 2013 compared to last year.

"We're seeing videos show up in a much broader range of verticals and a much broader range of enterprises," even in mid-sized companies, for uses including training apps, videoconferencing and CEO broadcasts, according to Robert Mason, a Gartner analyst.

Mason says he's seen an upsurge in using video as part of unified communications. "Video is becoming much more a part of the mainstream experience," Mason says.

Some companies are using video in an attempt to set themselves apart from the competition.

Showcasing both shoes and corporate culture

Zappos.com, an online shoe and apparel store known for its friendly and unscripted customer service, added videos to its website in 2009. Visitors to the site have the option to view a video with a live person describing a product and, in some cases, demonstrating it.

"The videos did several things for us," says Austin Blair, photo/video manager for Zappos, based in Henderson, Nev. "Since we don't have a brick-and-mortar store, the videos allow us to show the quirkiness in the Zappos culture. Otherwise there's no customer service interaction unless a person calls us."

The 30- to 45-second videos "provide certain things you can't get from the written description or a still image," says Blair. "For example, you can see the flexibility of a shoe, which may help the customer make a buying decision."

One of Zappos' product videos, available on its own site and on YouTube.

Getting the videos up and running was not difficult. Some front-end development work went into getting a player live and some other tasks, says Blair. "We were able to use a customizable player that we integrated into the site. In-house developers had the back-end process up and running within a month," he explains.

Once the coding was done it was just a matter of putting the products Zappos wanted to showcase on video and uploading the videos to the site. The company started with only a Flash player and has since moved to HTML5, which supports mobile devices also.

Currently the video department consists of 14 people. An internal IT team handles testing and pushing changes to the video player, and two editors handle everything else involving the videos.

Filming, editing and pushing videos to the FTP server requires a 24-hour turnaround, says Blair. "The actual process of recording and producing the videos has become very streamlined." The company creates several different file types including Flash and MP4 files for mobile devices, and archives the videos on a six-month rolling rotation.

A flexible architecture

The process is constantly evolving, says Blair. "Bandwidth is becoming cheaper. There are new players and new codecs that give you higher quality at lower bit rates."

Zappos can incorporate new technologies fairly easily. "We've been able to lay down a pretty scalable infrastructure that allows us to change and adapt," says Blair. "However, we still run into challenges, such as maintaining a balance between image resolution and quality."

The company keeps the videos short to avoid affecting Zappos' SEO value with pages that take too long to load, says Blair. "Plus, we have customers all over the place with different broadband connections, so we rarely want to go over a 5MB limit. This ensures the videos will play quickly no matter what type of Internet connection you have."

Initially, the small staff assigned to do the videos would pick and choose products to feature, but now the goal is to provide a video for every single item sold on the website, Blair says. "Anything on the site without a video means we simply haven't gotten to it yet."

Since 2009, Zappos has uploaded over 250,000 product videos, including 104,000 produced by the video team this past year alone. Company spokespeople would not comment on what proportion of its overall product portfolio that total represents.

The biggest response to the videos comes from those featuring shoes, says Blair. Customers can see the shoe on a model's foot and can see how far up the boot is on the leg, for instance. "One woman was about to purchase a shoe and saw on the video that it had mesh on the side, which she did not want, so it helped us avoid a return," Blair says.

The videos have been a sales success, Blair says. "Although we can't share the figures, I can say that products that have videos tend to sell better than those without videos."

Music to their ears -- and now eyes, too

Longtime Guitar Player magazine subscribers may recall issues featuring instructional articles that offered an 800 number. Readers could dial the number for an audio version of the lesson that appeared in the print publication.

Readers would then use the keypad of their touch-tone phone to rewind, fast forward and otherwise control the playback of the audio lesson courtesy of Notes On Call, an interactive phone-lesson company founded in 1991.

Video is core to TrueFire's business, but there is not yet any true interaction on its website between students and teacher. "You'd have connection issues," says Zach Wendkos, online media director for TrueFire.

Flash forward to today. After collecting thousands of audio guitar lessons, Notes on Call changed its name to TrueFire in 2000 and began offering lessons using video. "We now call them video guitar courses," says Zach Wendkos, online media director for TrueFire. Customers can take the courses as well as practice rhythm tracks via MP3 files.

"Once we realized there was this great demand for video, we focused our efforts on that," explains Wendkos, who says videos are now the company's core business.

TrueFire's video guitar lessons can be streamed or downloaded from the website for $15/month or $149/year. Lessons are also available on disk for Windows and Mac computers, from $9 to $49 per course, or as apps for iOS-based mobile devices for prices ranging from 99 cents to $9.99.

Now with over half a million registered members from over 200 countries around the world, TrueFire's 12,000 video guitar lessons cover virtually all musical styles and techniques. "Video allows students to see the action [of your hands on the guitar strings] as well as hear the audio," says Wendkos.

TrueFire launched its online classrooms last year, although there's currently no live interaction. "You'd have connection issues," says Wendkos, "because of different Internet connections used by students around the world. With video messaging, you can record a high quality video and upload it whenever you like. Plus, since students are from all parts of the world, scheduling the right time would be difficult."

So instead, the paid instructor uploads the material, then students do their homework, record their practice regimen and send it back to the instructor. Once the instructor evaluates the student's work, he or she sends it back.

Classrooms include between five and 100 students, who can send messages back and forth on the site, making it a social interaction. Students don't require any special technical knowledge, says Wendkos. "They just hit record on their [computer's] webcam and upload."

TrueFire uses a platform from Mirror Image Internet, a global content delivery network based in Tewksbury, Mass. The platform allows TrueFire to adjust videos by enabling looping a section of the lesson, using slow motion, zooming in closer or going full screen.

"We had zero capital investment," says Wendkos. "Mirror Image powers the back-end video streaming that allows us to do what we do." Three different versions of each video exist to accommodate just about any Internet connection, says Wendkos: low, medium and high. "We can autodetect using the technology."

TrueFire did not need to upgrade its own internal network or add bandwidth at all, says White. "Mirror Image was a turnkey solution."

Credit union builds its own studio

The Michigan Credit Union League (MCUL) offers several channels of video content; its video portal is called CUBE (Credit Union Broadcast Experience).

Launched in 2008, CUBE TV started out as a way for the MCUL to provide video content on its website, including industry updates and information about MCUL's strategic plans and financial performance, says Dave Adams, MCUL's CEO. "It allows us to provide direction to the staff and board of directors for approximately 300 credit unions." The initial concept was inspired by the growing popularity of videos on YouTube.

A MCUL video posted on YouTube five years ago. With a proprietary TV channel it's hoping to monetize, the credit union no longer makes its videos available in this way.

With a subsidiary that creates websites and web content for credit unions, Adams decided to pursue the idea of developing videos in order to put content out in a more compelling manner than using a simple online newsletter or printed publication.

"As a trade association, one of our core functions is education and information for our industry," Adams says. While focused on the Michigan market, Adams and his team create information in a way that allows it to be shared with their counterpart state trade associations across the country.

An internal task force and a manager initially set up the video channels and decided how much content to put into each channel, says Adams. "We ask our staff to set realistic goals for the number of videos we can produce, and we defer to them for topics. Our technical people have a good handle on that because they're already producing the digital content."

Currently two full-time staffers, plus one part-timer and an intern, are dedicated to CUBE TV. An additional two to three people provide regular content, such as monthly video. Between the high-grade equipment -- including JVC pro video cameras and editing software -- and a staff with broadcast experience, the videos are top-notch productions.

An annual government affairs conference inspired the first streaming video. Many people from the state were unable to attend, so Adams and his team decided to take the video crew on the road and do a "live from the event" broadcast that could stream through the website. The live event proved to be such a success that they've done it for five consecutive years.

Another channel, the Credit Union Compliance Connection, offers 100 different vignettes dealing with compliance issues and has become CUBE TV's most popular channel.

Dave Adams, CEO of the Michigan Credit Union League, says he hopes to be able to sell his organization's videos as a way of driving revenue from ads, among other things.

The site currently has 128 videos available, up from 112 in 2011, and was on track to reach 150 by the end of 2012. Currently, two other credit union leagues, Georgia and Illinois, provide CUBE TV on their websites.

There's been a 200% increase in video views, from just over 8,800 in 2011 to 18,000 in 2012, Adams says. He admits, however, that the videos still need some improvement. "We're still working on the functionality in the streaming quality," he says.

Adams hopes to eventually leverage a national delivery system, which would involve selling the video service to state associations for a nominal fee. These other associations could plug the videos into their websites and potentially be able to share advertising revenue with the state associations in their markets, Adams explains. "If we build a national market within the credit industry we might be able to attract sufficient traffic to become an attractive advertising spot for certain companies as well."

Selling niche products

Jeff McRitchie, vice president of marketing for MyBinding.com of Hillsboro, Ore., jumped into video marketing in early 2011. As an online retailer specializing in binding machines, laminators and the supplies that go with them, McRitchie had a feeling that videos would set him apart from his competition.

"We're not the lowest price in our industry so we have to work to establish ourselves as experts," he says.

A MyBinding.com video posted on YouTube in April 2012.

McRitchie experimented with a number of different strategies before finding a formula that worked. Initially he posted his suppliers' videos with their permission. "It was the easiest way to get video on our channel," says McRitchie.

It took six weeks to post approximately 600 videos. In the end, though, this didn't produce what McRitchie considered to be "a MyBinding video," he explains. "Some were old and dated and others seemed overly promotional and more like a sales piece. Many of these videos were trying harder to sell the product when they were supposed to help the customer learn about it."

Unhappy with this result, the firm hired an overseas company to create short animated videos. It flopped, and the company pulled out of the deal after three months. "They looked good but our customers hated them and they weren't effective in driving sales," McRitchie says.

McRitchie then looked into video production services but could not justify the cost of $600 per video. He finally decided to set up his own studio. MyBinding set up the studio for about $1,000 with the goal of making each video at a cost of $50, an amount that provides a reasonable return-on-investment for the company.

Jeff McRitchie, vice president of marketing for MyBinding,com, says video has been "game-changing" for this online retailer of binding machines. "It's helped set us apart from our competitors and allowed us to establish ourselves as an authority in our space."

Most MyBinding.com videos demonstrate how to use a machine after taking it out of the box. "Our products aren't really exciting, but when you want know how a binding machine works, chances are we're the only company that's made a video on how to use it," McRitchie says.

MyBinding currently creates an average of 10 videos per week and has posted approximately 600 videos at a $30,000 investment. The company has posted its videos on YouTube as well as on its own channel.

Video has become a huge branding tool, he says, with almost 3 million views on MyBinding's YouTube channel. "It's also helped us increase the conversion rate, average visit duration and average order value for our site, resulting in more revenue for the company."

All told, video has been "game changing for us," says McRitchie. "It's helped set us apart from our competitors and allowed us to establish ourselves as an authority in our space."

Linda Melone is a freelance writer based in Orange County, Calif. She specializes in consumer topics ranging from health to technology and business. Contact her at Linda@LindaMelone.com.

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