We all know that technology advances quickly, but sometimes the speed at which one application is usurped by another still takes us by surprise. About a year ago, it surprised Ron Priest, a videographer who had just mastered the science of DVD demo reels when he realized that they weren't bringing him the clients that he counted on.
"I probably booked about 25% of the DVDs I sent out, but it slows down the whole process of booking an event," says Priest, who runs Digital Creations Video Productions in Louisville, Kentucky. By the time potential clients received the demo, got back in touch with him, signed a contract, and sent a check, several weeks had passed. "And that's if I heard back from them at all," he says, adding that oftentimes the requests for demo reels turned out to be another videographer looking for a "free copy of my work."
For Priest, the benefits of DVD—chapter menus, nonlinear navigation, and picture quality—weren't enough to overcome the fact that it's still physical delivery, with all the drawbacks that entails. If he wanted to build his business and stay competitive, he knew what he had to do: start streaming video clips from his Web site. Today, Digital Creations Video Productions has more than five dozen clips from various weddings, plays, and music videos (more than four hours of video), so that Priest can be sure that when a bride and groom visit his site they can see both the breadth of his work and the consistency of his style.
"I book 95% of my clients without even meeting them face-to-face," Priest says, adding that the majority of his wedding couples are out of state, returning home to Louisville for the big day. "They find my site, look at my online demos, and everything is accomplished via broadband."
Priest's story might not be the typical tale told by most videographers, at least not yet. But the ones that don't have online video demo reels are becoming fewer and farther between, and more and more also are offering streaming as a delivery option for couples who want to show their wedding to faraway friends and family who are unable to attend the actual event. And in the corporate environment, the ability to offer a streaming version of an event can help seal the deal with firms looking for a low-cost delivery method.
In short, the time to ask yourself whether you should add online video to your toolkit has long passed. The costs are low—the monthly fee for a streaming service provider and the extra time it takes to encode and edit clips for the Web—but the returns can be high and range from improving your profile vis a vis your competitors to signing not only more but more sophisticated clients, both of which positively impact your bottom line.
"Those of us who have good-quality streaming video certainly have a competitive advantage," says Anne Kearns Fers of Gold Star Video Productions in Trumbull, Connecticut. "We are moving-image artists, not still-image artists, and we should portray that. I've had several candidates say that my Web site stood out from others because of my video clips, and I've booked several clients who have only seen my clips on the Web."
This article won't address the how-to of streaming, something I covered in "Streaming for Videographers" in the August 2004 issue of EMedia/EventDV and in various installments of Studio Streaming. Rather, it will focus on the ways several videographers have used streaming video to build their business, sharing the lessons they've learned along the way.
Gold Star Video Productions' Anne Kearns Fers is no stranger to the cutting edge, so it should come as no surprise that she's been streaming video clips for several years. As an upscale, documentary-style videographer whose work has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and Live with Regis and Kathie Lee and whose portfolio includes NASCAR and World Cup Soccer, Fers views high-quality streaming video as a way to attract higher-end clients.
"I felt it was very important to show video clips on my Web site to set me apart from those who weren't doing it," she says. "It set me apart because it showed that I could keep up with technology, which is very important in my business, especially when I wanted to attract a more sophisticated clientele." In September 2004, for instance, Fers shot a four-camera, high-definition wedding video in Newport, Rhode Island.
Fers specializes in corporate event videography and destination weddings shot in Europe and the Caribbean, as well as across the United States. As such, she frequently encounters couples with relatives or friends who aren't able to make the journey to the actual event. So she offers streaming delivery to clients for those who can only be there in spirit. "They love it," Fers says. "I have one client whose family is in France. Many could not travel to the U.S., so they will get to see the wedding via the Web."
She started out using HomeMovie.com's combination DVD authoring/streaming service, but says that almost all the clients or prospective clients she sent to the site "had problems viewing the clips smoothly." So she decided to take on the task of delivering the video from her own Web site via QuickTime files, using a progressive download approach that's not pure streaming. She likes the video and audio quality of the QuickTime codec, as well as the progressive download method, which has no buffering and starts playback almost immediately for broadband users. She also keeps her clips short—around a minute—to help ensure better playback and to keep prospective clients' attention.
She lets visitors to her site know upfront that they'll need a broadband connection to guarantee a decent viewing experience, but with more than half of U.S. computers now on broadband, the high-speed vs. dial-up dilemma is becoming less and less of a concern—especially with higher-end clientele. If a client doesn't have broadband, Fers will mail them a DVD demo. "I don't want potential clients to view my demos at anything less than the highest quality," she says.
Though the streaming vs. progressive downloading debate isn't as hot outside the streaming industry as it is within, videographers differ over which delivery method is best. As Fers argues, progressive download avoids lengthy buffering times and stuttering on broadband, and also lets dial-up users get in on the game (as long as they're willing to wait for enough of the file to download).
But if you're looking for a vocal advocate of streaming, look no further than Ron Priest, who pays $25 a month to Los Angeles-based streaming hosting provider Stream Hoster for 1.5GB of storage space and 120GB of data transfer of video encoded at 512k. He went with streaming rather than progressive download because he felt it would be a better experience for the viewer and knew it would provide him more control over his content, since streamed video is never downloaded to a user's hard drive.
Provided the viewer is on a high-speed connection, streaming buffering times should be minimal, and may even be less than the wait time on progressive downloads, says Priest. Furthermore, streaming gives viewers the ability to skip around within a given clip without waiting for the entire clip to download. If it comes down to seeing how a videographer shoots the reception rather than the ceremony, giving couples the chance to quickly jump ahead to that portion of the video can be a quite useful feature.
"I can post very long videos, say 15 minutes, and give the viewer the choice to skip around if they don't want to watch the entire thing," Priest says. "The point here is to provide the viewer with way more video than he or she needs to see the consistency of my work. Once they've seen enough, they don't have to watch any more, but I think that should be their choice, not mine. If all I did was present a few short three-minute videos with pretty background music, the viewer wouldn't get a complete representation of my work."
Some of the lengthiest clips on the site aren't of weddings at all, but of theatrical productions. These aren't clips that the theaters paid for; rather, they're another part of Priest's commitment to showing potential clients everything he's capable of. "Nothing is in it for them, and I'm not promoting those theater productions to sell video," he says. "But I don't believe you can ever have too much for the viewer. They can spot-check (clips) at their option to see that my consistency runs throughout."
And though the streaming-only option effectively rules out dial-up viewing, Priest sees that as a way to self-select potential clients. "If the viewer doesn't have a broadband connection, either at home or at work, then he or she probably can't afford me in the first place."
Priest does offer clients streaming video, with restricted access, in his silver, gold, and platinum packages or for an extra $150 on other packages. For that price, Digital Creations will stream the video for 90 days after the wedding.
In the end, Priest feels that offering video online—streamed or via progressive download—is crucial to videographers who want to succeed, and part of his philosophy of giving potential clients everything they need to know, whether it's the style of his work or the cost of his services, on his Web site. "People don't have time to haggle," he says. "They want to get their business done and over with so they can move on to other business. That's why I post my prices on my site. I want them to know right off the bat how much I charge. If they can't afford me, then they can move on and find someone else, and we aren't wasting each other's time."
Bob Farnsworth's Video Madness has shot more than 2,000 weddings in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1989, and he added streaming to his offerings and his own Web site three years ago. His online demo clips are separated into five segments, each one highlighting a different aspect of his work. One focuses on weddings from many different cultural traditions, another emphasizes picture quality, and still another is a complete version of one of his specialties, the short-form wedding video. "The more clips, the better," says Farnsworth, echoing Ron Priest's sentiments. "I feel that clients like a choice."
That choice extends to the player on which the viewers will watch the video, and the speed of the connection. Farnsworth contracts with The Broadcast Team, a hosting provider based in Ormond Beach, Florida, to offer clips for both Real Player and Windows Media Player. The Broadcast Team also handles encoding the clips at two speeds, 56k and 300k. When potential customers click the "Video Clips Online" link on the Video Madness Web site, they're pointed to The Broadcast Team's site to view the actual clips, which are displayed in a window branded with Video Madness' logo.
Farnsworth says that he's discovered that he's not even competing with videographers who don't have clips on their Web sites. "Clients tell me that videographers without samples weren't even considered," he says, adding the caveat that the only good streaming video is streaming video that works every time, so it's important to find a reliable, high-quality hosting provider.
"No streaming video is preferable to streaming video that does not function well on your site," he says. "By using a competent, third-party hoster, we rarely encounter the ‘It doesn't work' problem." He says his streaming costs have totaled about $1,200 a year.
Farnsworth also says that the video on his site has helped him attract more tech-savvy and upscale clients. "However, residing in Silicon Valley makes our average client more tech-savvy, anyway."
Like Farnsworth, Leo Espinosa—head of Dream Video Productions in Miami— thinks it's important to offer viewers as many videos in as many formats as possible. His Web site includes a half-dozen clips, including bridal prep footage and a photo montage. He says his biggest challenge was trying to figure out the best compromise between video quality and delivery speed (he settled on 320x240 at 600k), but that once he figured that out, streaming put few demands on his studio.
"It does take up a bit of computing time, but my studio has more computers than employees," he says, so they're able to encode video without tying up workstations that might otherwise be needed for editing. As for the cost of streaming hosting, Espinosa's lucky—a friend of his provides the bandwidth and hosting for free.
Like most of the other videographers I spoke to, Espinosa will send a DVD demo reel to potential clients upon request, and he includes a note on his demos page reminding viewers that "the quality of video on the Web is not representative of the high video quality that you get with our DVDs." Even with that in mind, however, he says that the quality of the clips on his site have proven good enough to garner him plenty of customers.
"I get many calls from out-of-towners who can't meet with me but love my Web site design and content," he says. "A well-edited demo reel, streaming from my Web site, is a crucial part of my business. If you're not streaming, you're missing out."
In the Spotlight
The Broadcast Team http://streaming.tbteam.com
Digital Creations Video Productions www.videocrafter.com
Dream Video Productions www.dreamyvideos.com
Gold Star Video Productions www.goldstarvideo.net
Stream Hoster www.streamhoster.com
Video Madness www.videomadness.com