Why Web Videos Work . . . And Why They Bomb

Virginia Heffernan, New York Times writer on digital and pop culture, offers up commentary on what makes web videos successful and why they fail miserably. “When Shilling on the Web, Think Small” was inspired by two recent efforts that bombed, one by Mariah Carey and one by Barack Obama. Heffernan begins:

Mariah Carey and Barack Obama each had something to sell this week, and they made live videos to do it. Both videos bombed. Ms. Carey’s pitch on HSN, for tracksuits and other sundries from her fashion label, was too weird. Mr. Obama’s pitch on the networks for Congressional compromise wasn’t nearly weird enough.

Both impresarios made the same mistake. They failed to understand the shifting dynamics of the very small screen, and instead aimed to produce traditional TV spots. Spots like these nearly always misfire when they are played on the Web, where most people now see them. And analyze them. And satirize them.

What difference does it make if you don’t craft a message with its medium in mind? A world of difference.

According to Heffernan, those who aspire to make effective web videos should pay attention to what users of YouTube and related sites want:

Online video requires drastically different media skills because it is consumed in a highly specific way, particularly on YouTube. People don’t “watch” online video like they watch television. They “play” it. That’s not just semantics.

. . . . .

So what do all these people look for? Two things: surprise, and a moment that they can manipulate, post to a social network, recut or reframe.

From my modest experience, I think Heffernan is right. I’ve put up fifty-one videos on YouTube, mostly scenes of my kids performing in drama and music. These get a few hundred visits. My most popular YouTube video is some footage I shot in 2007 while riding on the “Journey to Atlantis” ride at Sea World in San Diego. It doesn’t have surprises, per se, but there are some entertaining though rough shots of roller coaster action. So far, this video has 178,662 viewings.

My son has lapped me with a silly little video he made in 2007. “The Magic Cup Stack” shows my son making a stack of plastic cups when something surprising happens. His video has been viewed 365,136 times. It has also engendered a bizarre stream of comments, many filled with expletives, concerning whether the surprise in his video was rigged or not.

I am not savvy enough about web media to evaluate Heffernan’s proposals. But I do know that she is right about taking seriously the way online viewing requires a different approach to making videos.

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