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Information Today, Inc.

January 25, 2006

Table of Contents

Executive Decisions: Proactively Building a Contact List
Strictly Business: Success Secrets for Your Web Site
Studio Time: Bio-pics

Executive Decisions: Proactively Building a Contact List

I've done some of my best proactive planning as a corporate video producer for the price of a cup of coffee. OK, maybe for the price of a few cups of coffee, since the get-togethers I've had with freelance production pros have involved more than one trip to the local coffee shop. On occasion, the investment has been nothing more than lifting the phone to my ear or taking a few minutes for a meeting at our studio. This time has been spent building relationships with talented, experienced individuals who can help make our corporate projects a success, and the networking has resulted in our assembling a contact list of writers, performers, and specialized production crew that our company can rely on when the demands of a project require that extra firepower.

In my event video work, I always anticipate being able to complete any job that comes to us exclusively using our in-house team. As a corporate video producer, however, I recognize that I need the flexibility a larger talent pool offers. Following are some examples of production professionals on our proactive contact list.

Writers. Scripting is an essential part of every corporate job we produce and the responsibility for creating a workable script almost always falls on us. Sure, we'll have corporate clients from time to time who say they already have a script, but even under those circumstances the script still needs some adjustments before production begins. I've done quite a bit of writing in my day; I love kicking around big-picture ideas and I'm not afraid to tackle scriptwriting duties, but whenever possible, I prefer to bring in a scriptwriter who will focus exclusively on that task.

Where do I find these scriptwriters? Sometimes they find me by sending a résumé and samples of their writing, and sometimes I meet them at local production association meetings. Each time I meet a writer who seems like a good match for the work we do, I make it a point to learn more about their work, see the videos that resulted from their scripts, develop a professional rapport, and keep in regular communication with them. Using this approach I've assembled a contact list that includes several talented individuals that I can turn to for different types of projects. I know their rates and capabilities and I keep in touch with them often enough to know their availability to work on a freelance basis.

Talent. The vast majority of corporate videos we produce include the use of a performer either as voiceover talent, on-camera spokesperson, or on-camera actor within a scene. Voice talent is the type most commonly used in our productions, and there are a wide range of resources available that can help you build your contact list. An Internet search will return a vast array of professional voiceover artists who have their own home studios and can record and deliver a script within a short amount of time at a reasonable rate. My list includes artists I work with on a regular basis that I've never met face-to-face.

I also work often with local talent agencies for both voice and on-camera talent. Most metropolitan areas have several talent agencies, and many have Web sites that include streaming media samples of their clients' work. Many talent agencies also send out CDs of their voice talent or DVD demo reels of their on-camera talent. Get to know your local agents, talent, and rates for union and non-union performers. We've worked so often with certain local talent that we have dubbed them "The PixelPops Players." Our contact list of talented actors includes a diverse group experienced with teleprompters and earprompters, comedy or drama, spokeperson work or scenework.

Specialty Production Crew. We shoot the vast majority of our corporate video projects ourselves, but we have a strong and constantly growing list of seasoned production professionals that we can call on for freelance specialty assignments as needed. This list includes teleprompter operators, directors of photography, and crew with specialty gear such as Steadicam rigs. Our list also encompasses local soundstages and audio recording studios.

We often use a professional teleprompter service on our corporate projects and find it to be a great investment. We could purchase the prompter equipment and do it ourselves (and maybe someday we will), but the real value of hiring a prompter service is the experienced professional who runs the prompter. Whether the on-camera talent is a corporate executive or a professional spokesperson, I know that the prompter op is going to help us get the smoothest read possible. The rate is built into the contract, and using the service gives me peace of mind that the job will be done right.

There are fewer circumstances where we hire a director of photography, but I take every opportunity I can to get to know the work, rates, and personalities of the freelance DPs in my market. When jobs come up that require specialty lighting or Steadicam work, I don't want to guess whether I can get it done or how much it will cost. Referrals, the Internet, and local association meetings have been a great resource in helping build this part of our list.

Some of our contact list has been assembled in the mad scramble that follows an urgent client request such as, "I need helicopter footage immediately!" But I've attempted to think ahead and create relationships with a wide variety of freelancers that I can call on when needed. By proactively developing this network of trusted video production professionals, I approach potential corporate clients with greater flexibility and absolute confidence in our ability to get the job done right.

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Strictly Business: Success Secrets for Your Web Site

The World Wide Web turns Sweet 16 this year—and what a tiger it has turned out to be!
       Internet surfing has replaced watching TV as the "preferred entertainment" for adults. But it's much more than entertainment, such as looking for pictures of Jessica Simpson or the latest basketball scores. Prospects are also looking for someone who can help them with their video production needs. And that means you have to be there, ready and available to help them.
       It's no secret the Internet is rapidly changing the way we find information and resources. According to a recent study by Pew Internet, of the 94 million Americans who went online any given day last fall, 63% used a search engine to locate resources.

It's obvious that a good Web site is a must-have tool for your business. Never before has there been such an easy, economical, and persuasive way for videographers to attract clients to their businesses—if they use it right.

Which means that, in order to maximize your marketing opportunity on the Internet, your Web site has to do more than just show up. It has to educate your prospects, present the benefits of doing business with your company, reassure prospects that you're the right person to handle their video project, and let them know how to get in touch with you—and do it quickly and succinctly.

Without person-to-person contact, prospects visiting your Web site usually have two questions foremost in their minds when considering doing business with you: "Who are you?" and "Why should I do business with you?"

Here are a few basic steps you can take right now to answer those questions and help turn your site into an effective tool for success.

1. Include your contact information. This is the easiest credibility-booster to implement on a Web site. Yet many businesses ignore the power of simply stating where they're located on the planet and providing a telephone number and email address. If you don't provide real-world ways to contact you, some visitors will wonder whether you are real or just another Internet scam, and whether you can be relied on to deliver the goods. There's no time for false modesty when it comes to promoting your video business and your services. By including contact information on your site—meaning your name, address, and phone number(s)—you'll come across as a legitimate business. I highly recommend that you include this contact info on every page of your site.

2. Use your photo. You don't need Hollywood looks to make an impact on your Web visitors by including your photo. As long as you aren't frowning or looking depressed, a photo makes you seem real, appealing, and accessible. Likewise, pictures of your company location or of your staff (clearly not stock-photo models but actual staff members) help bring your company to life. You don't want to do business with faceless corporations devoid of all human personality. Neither do your prospects or customers. So a few lines about your experience, your clientele, and the benefits of doing business with you are essential as well.

3. Include testimonials from satisfied clients. Benefit-laden quotations from satisfied customers posted on your Web site attest to your legitimacy, and help defuse your prospects' anxieties. For greatest effect, testimonials should be brief and specific, and signed by a full name, along with a meaningful identifier, such as a company name or city and state or province. As with any good marketing tool, I strongly recommend that you put a different testimonial on every one of your site's pages.

4. Speak in plain English. Forget the technical jargon! Remember that 98% of your audience doesn't care that you happen to use the very latest Thunderbolt HD 12-chip camcorder with dual exhausts and triple XLR ports. All they really want is to be assured that your creativity and talents, combined with your professional equipment and software, will capture their event flawlessly, or show their products in their best light.

5. Practice what you preach—show samples. EventDV columnist Russ Jolly of PixelPops says—and I heartily agree—that your streaming video demo is the strongest "draw" possible for your video production Web site. This is what your customers want to see. "Video is the reason they want to find you," says Russ, "and you can offer a video viewing 24 hours a day, seven days a week." With the advent of low- or no-cost streaming software, there's no reason your site shouldn't include some clips of your very best work.

6. Let them know you're available offline, too. Interactive Video CDs are popular for advertising your production services because they're easy to mail out as samples or hand out to prospects anywhere you travel. Let your Web visitors order a hard copy demo right from your Web site. And when you're putting that demo together, use interactive authoring software that will allow you to include a link back to your Web site from the interface of the CD. This way, your prospects can see more or different video samples and get additional or updated information about your production services.

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Studio Time: Bio-pics

Hal Slifer doesn't think of himself as a videographer, but means no disrespect in saying so. For the past 25 years, he's certainly acted like a videographer, producing more than 1,200 wedding, bar/bat mitzvah, and other milestone event videos, as well as 2,500-plus "family histories" for clients throughout New England and across the country. He also attends industry conferences, actively participates in WEVA and the National Professional Videographer's Association of Massachusetts, and presented a seminar at the first-annual 4EVER Group Convention in January. He even reads the trades and, starting with this issue, writes for one. (His EventDV column, Making History, kicks off this month, complete with illustrative videos streamed from Hal's own site.)

Given these activities, it seems odd that a professional videographer would describe himself as anything but, but EventDV's newest columnist can explain. "Just shooting events isn't my style," he says. "What I'm doing is capturing the history of a person or a family via video technology. The videos we produce today become the histories of tomorrow's families." And for just a few hours on very special occasions, he revels in being a part of those families, delivering images and memories that he says "are already in the room in people's minds. We're dealing with what people know best: their memories."

The Way We Were
By "we," Slifer means the team of full-time, part-time, and freelance professionals who have made Newton, Massachusetts-based Hal Slifer Video Productions and its affiliate, the Video History, the videography studios of choice for thousands of families in the greater Boston area. "I started in the video business just when the evolution of event video was beginning," Slifer says of his early days behind the camera. "There were a few of us videotaping [special occasions] in the early 1980s and we all were just winging it, making a business out of video production in the process."

With a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in communications from Curry College and Boston University, respectively, Slifer was working in the Boston Public Schools system as a media director just as video equipment was becoming increasingly portable in 1980. "The school system at the time was sinking [financially], so I suggested that the schools teach students [the basics of] video, give them cameras, and charge a fee" to those in the community who wanted their productions or special events videotaped, he recalls. "I thought it was a win-win solution for the students and for the school system, but school officials were too conservative in their thinking and rejected the idea. It was then that I realized there was a business model in videotaping events, so I started producing video events on the weekends. Eventually, I left the school system and cashed in my retirement money to buy my own equipment.

"Videotaping weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other special events was brand new at the time; no one had seen it before," Slifer continues. "At the very first wedding I did, I decided to show photographs of family members on a large television during the cocktail hour. I could see the guests' enjoyment on their faces and I listened to them holler when they saw a favorite family photo appear on the screen. I was hooked."

Before long, Slifer had a business model that made him the go-to guy for commemorative videos of special occasions. "Most of our events include the showing of a video," he says of the niche market his companies serve. (The eponymous Hal Slifer Video Productions functions as a special event videography studio, while the Video History specializes in transferring family photographs and home movies to DVD.)

"Originally I thought I would do event videos of weddings and bar mitzvahs on the side while I tried to get more involved in industrial video," he says of his initial professional intentions. "I did my share of industrial videos, but I found doing weddings every weekend to be more profitable than trying for one big industrial [project] that would take six months to produce." He also found he enjoyed the family camaraderie his work inspired, the memories of time and place and emotions it conjured for his clients and their guests. "What other business is there where a customer will look at the finished product, cry, and then hug you and give you a check, and say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you'?" he asks. "It's exhilarating."

Tell Me a Story

Today, Slifer and his team devote the majority of their time and energy to weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and family milestone occasions. "Clients can hire us [in the form of Hal Slifer Video Productions] to videotape their events or they can hire us [in the form of the Video History] to produce a video of their family history, but the companies are different in name only" since both use the same tools and processes, he says. In addition to producing video biographies for special occasions, Slifer's companies assemble photo and video montages, including the "Wedding at the Wedding" and bar/bat mitzvah candle-lighting ceremony videos for which he is best known. (Prices vary depending on the services chosen. Clients can order photo montages of up to 100 photographs—a.k.a., "family histories"—for $395 to $595. More sophisticated video biographies "like those shown on A&E" cost anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000.)

Slifer says family histories and video biographies are what people have told him they most remember from attending other people's events. The feelings those videos inspire often lead them to come back to him as clients seeking something similar for their own meaningful occasions. "My business is very much a word-of-mouth operation," he says.

As a self-described "video historian," Slifer makes accurate and moving storytelling his highest priority. "Most of the scripting is done via the story the honoree and his or her family tell us," he says. "We give them five or six chapters in which to tell their story." For an anniversary, for example, Slifer and his team would ask the client to supply "photographs, home movies, and their personal stories regarding the honoree's early childhood, teenage years, courting, and dating leading to a wedding, starting a family, friends and family experiences, and looking back," he says. Anything "that represents those chapters in their lives" would be important. "When clients come to the studio, we have them put the pictures in chronological order, with the best pictures in ‘Group A' and the next-best in ‘Group B.'

"We like to have five or six family members tell their perspective on the same chapter," Slifer continues. "We can weave the same story from different angles. A husband has his memories of 50 years of marriage, the wife has hers, and the children have their own view. Putting them all together creates a loving story told by many different people."

Slifer says his team also strives to be discreet in terms of what a family history video reveals. "We are always very concerned about family politics and we always use ‘selective memory' to tell a story," he says. "Divorces, deaths, illnesses, and other family tragedies are discussed in the scripting meeting, and we let the client decide how much or how little they want to touch on those issues. We also make sure to use the same number of pictures of each child when doing a family history so no one feels slighted or left out."

Another Slifer staple is the Wedding at the Wedding, a 10- to 12-minute video that combines previously edited biographies of the bride, groom, and their families with footage shot on the day of the wedding. Not every client requests the "Wedding at the Wedding" option, which adds anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 to the overall cost of having a videographer shoot the event (already a $3,995 expenditure), but Slifer says 80 to 85 percent of his wedding clients do. "It depends on the family dynamics and what they want for the day. It all comes down to the history of that family. Whether it's a $2 million wedding or a wedding in the basement of someone's house, the memories elicit the same emotions."

Search for Tomorrow

Already a 25-year veteran of the videography business, Slifer foresees more of the same for himself and his companies in the future. "My long-term goal is to continue producing events and to specialize in producing family histories and biographies," he says. "This is the same goal I had 25 years ago, and the business model still works."

Even so, Slifer has observed a palpable shift in his clients and what they expect from the videography profession. "When I first started out in the video business, our clients didn't even have VCRs to view their video projects," he says. "They were excited just to see us videotape their events, and no one was concerned about style and technique. Today's clients are more educated and choose videographers based on their ability and talent. This challenges videographers to continue to [reinvent] themselves with cutting-edge techniques and to balance that with maintaining the integrity of the storytelling.

"The skill of telling someone's story is a craft that [always-evolving technologies] cannot replace, however," he adds. "Once we, as videographers, learn [and perfect] that skill, we will be in business for many years."

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