Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to make online video that engages people

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on June 20, 2011

Online video is growing: in consumer demand for it, but also in the desire for organisations to start using it. I work with lots of think-tanks, NGOs, businesses and publishers who all want to do more online video.

Lots of companies will tell you that you must start doing online video, and that it’s a sure-fire way to hook, engage and convince your viewers.

In many cases that is the case…but onlyand only – if it is done well.

Plastic video

Here’s a story of two online videos each competing for your attention – and your support. The first is a trailer for the 2010 independent documentary Bag It directed by Susan Bereza. It follows the journey of an ‘ordinary guy’ trying to find out the consequences of our reliance on plastic, and trying to cut it out of his life.

It’s got the key elements of a successful documentary here: a character, a journey, a narrative. We aren’t told about plastic – we are shown it. The voice over is conversational and informal: he speaks to us not at us.

Anyway, Bag It unsurprisingly irked some organisations in the US, including the American Chemistry Council which ‘represents the American chemical industry’ – who of course make plastic. They had some points they wanted to clarify about Bag It. And someone convinced them they needed to do it in online video.

This is a classic case of online video being done badly. Firstly, in style it sets out to mimic either  a TV news piece or a political campaign message – neither of which the public trust. We get a wholesome American guy (with a quite sinister stare) talking to us in a measured – but utterly unengaging way: he is talking at us, not to us.

And that’s all he does – talk. Our only break from him is some lazy b-roll of cars and milk cartons, and some amateur graphics. It is lacking visuals, it is lacking a story, and it fails utterly to hold our attention or make us care.

You could even argue this film harms their message: yes, online video can do damage as much as it can do good.

So let’s look at the stats. At the time of writing, the Bag It trailer had 46,900 views on Vimeo. The American Chemistry Council had 188 – a mere 250th of the audience. Now, I’m willing to accept that Bag It may have had some marketing support behind it, especially after a festival run. But I think the bulk of Bag It’s views come from that fact it is worth sharing.

The American Chemistry Council wanted to get their message across, and thought that online video would be the best way to do it. But online video done badly will, at best, skip off of the surface of the pond unnoticed; at worst, subject your brand to ridicule or heavy fire.

H/T: the digital naturalist