Three years of video screencast reviews: some lessons learned

It was three years ago this week when I began an experiment in producing a new form of IT product reviews, using video screencasting technology, combined with my years of testing thousands of products. Since then, I have done more than 65 reviews, which works out to about two a month. After putting a product through its paces, I write and record the script and then publish the video far and wide.

Certainly, online video has come a long way in the past three years: streaming sites have come and gone, YouTube has gotten more powerful, and social networking now plays a key part of how anybody’s videos find an audience. And the consumer side seems to be leading the way: Now we are talking about “cutting the cord” of cable TV and how more people are going online to get their content. Netflix and Hulu have a robust streaming business. And Centris has found that approximately 56% of households are using a combination of traditional pay TV and PC or mobile-based Internet consumption approaches to view video.

The reviews are paid for by the vendors themselves and have been a big hit, if I do say so myself. I have repeat business from some of the major computer vendors, including McAfee, Symantec, Blue Coat and Dell as well as smaller niche players such as Hytrust and TuneUp. They really help explain the product and provide a potential IT purchaser the basic context of how the product works, or won’t work, in their particular environment. Several VARs have called my vendor clients wanting to bring their customers to the table because of something they saw on one of my videos. And they continue to collect views months after they have been posted, including on sites such as Tom’s ITPro.com, InfoSecIsland.com and ITExpertVoice.com. My YouTube channel (davidstrom2007) has done very nicely, with several videos getting more than 5,000 views (Symantec’s videos are the most popular there).

So here are some lessons learned from the experience.

1. YouTube isn’t the only game in town. There are other sites, particularly for how-to and business audiences, where videos are watched. 5Min.com, which is now part of AOL, is one of the best. VideoJug.com and Metacafe.com are also up there in terms of my stats. But that is just me, and who knows why these sites connect and others don’t – your mileage may vary. But what is clear is that one site’s popular post is another site’s dog. For example, a video I did for McAfee’s Trusted Source has more than 40,000 views on 5Min, but is going nowhere on YouTube with less than 200 views. So if you are going to post, post everywhere you can to garner an audience.

2. Length matters. And the shorter the better. I use a hosting service called Wistia.com that can track how many people tune out over the length of time for the video, and about half tune out before the ending slide pops up. When I started I aimed at five minutes or less. Now I try for three minutes. We are all ADD. Wistia did a survey a few years ago across their hosting site and agreed with me. The key is having dialog supporting action: just don’t spew platitudes but back up the action you have on the screen with something important to say. For most of the videos, I talk quickly because I want my viewers to really listen. I can see places where they have stopped and rewound the stream and think that is a Good Thing because they are more engaged with my content.

3. Formats are still painful and plentiful. Every streaming site has a different collection of which video codecs and formats it will accept. Flash (FLV) files used to be best, now I produce MP4s, which seem to be accepted in most places. Make the biggest size video that can fit your site, but realize that a lot of the streaming sites will downcode it to 640×480 or something less than optimal. But this presents a problem to show many computer products that like to sprawl across a 2000-pixel wide display.

4. Get the best quality mic and record your soundtrack first. I don’t use any special music or effects; it is just me narrating the video. But I get this track nailed down first; always keeping in mind the action that is going on the screen. This is the reverse of traditional movie making, but you don’t see me on screen – it is just the computer app that I am reviewing. It is a lot easier to synchronize the video to a fixed audio track than the other way around. Some screencasters record the audio while they are clicking around for the video capture at the same time: I don’t think that works as well.

5. Put a call to action at the end. Do you want a viewer to download a free trial or get a white paper or register for something on your site? Include a URL in the video where they can go do these tasks. If you are using the video for lead gen, do you have a trackable URL reserved for this purpose?

Thanks to all my video clients for helping make this series so spectacular. And if you would like me to produce a video for you, or teach you how I have done it, you know where to find me. The videos by the way are all posted on Webinformant.tv.

3 thoughts on “Three years of video screencast reviews: some lessons learned

  1. David you summerize the ways to optimize getting content out in a video format quite well, and right on target. It is always surprising the quality of audio and how it varies on sites such as How-To vidoe sites. Some true experts took time to record for all a quality lesson with decent video and good content, but the audio stinks. One other tip would be to focus on “backdrop”, and since your video is of a screen that is left off, but for other non-screen cast type videos focus on keeping background clean with no movement, and focus some lighting on key subject of video.

  2. The “get the best mic you can” advice can’t be overstressed. You probably
    should also have added, “and record your voice-over in the quietest area of
    your home or office,” because noisy, low-volume, or “peaky” audio is a HUGE
    audience-killer. (I’ve been doing home digital audio recording since the
    turn of the century, and my background in professional audio recording goes
    back to the 1980’s, so I know whereof I speak. And, FWIW, my professional
    experience in video production and post-production began in the 1970’s.)

    It may interst you to know that the audio-first approach to production is
    the standard for animation. The Simpsons, The Venture Bros, Futurama – in
    fact, all animated productions since movies acquired sound – are all
    produced by first recording the audio, then generating video to match it.
    (All those great old Warner Brothers cartoons, with the incredible Mel
    Blanc voicing them? Voices first, then visuals, then effects, music, and
    sweetening.)

    Regards,

    Thom Stark
    http://www.starkrealities.com

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