Harnessing the Power of Interactive Video

When big-name entertainment web sites announce huge layoffs or fold up entirely, you have to wonder just what’s wrong with that segment of the business. Is it their business model? Is it their target market? Or is it their technology? For a few of the recent newsmakers, the problem may be all three.

News of the demise of web sites such as Pop.com and DEN.net has prompted discussion on why such high-profile entertainment web sites were not able to succeed. At the same time, Shockwave.com announced layoffs and a change in the types of content it will provide.

The sites that have made news by shutting down, rather than by launching or reducing staff, originally made news by announcing they would provide original entertainment content. Each site touted its own approach to providing original video material and interactive features. However, all three have changed their plans because of the difficulty in finding a suitable business model for web-based original video entertainment.

While many web sites are struggling to make a profit, the commonalities of these three sites highlight how difficult it is to provide entertainment over the web. At the same time, iCast is moving forward on creating a new comedy site with animation clips, live-action video, and web radio.

Since there may be a lesson here for all of us, let’s take a look at what these sites have in common. They are (or were) all backed by companies with well-known executives who are successful in other areas. They all have spent lots of money. And they all use – or planned to use – video material. I love video, but I think video on the Net today needs to be targeted at specific audiences for specific purposes.

The Pop.com executives indicated they could not see how to make money with the video format. It’s no wonder that film executives who are used to spending millions of dollars on a film would want the same high quality for their web product. However, creating original video content for a web audience is very different from creating a feature film in many ways.

First, of course, are technology issues. The large screen in a theater is thousands of times larger than the small window used for most Internet movies. The reason the large screen works so well for films is that filmmakers need the audience to “suspend disbelief” in order to feel the movie. This is much easier to do with a large screen than it is with a small PC monitor.

The difficulties these sites have experienced are similar to the market reaction that interactive and on-demand television ran into during its highly publicized trials in markets around the United States several years ago.

While it may seem obvious to some people that PC users want to watch compelling video entertainment on their small computer screens, the market has indicated otherwise.

Filmmakers have known for years that the best way to immerse viewers in an environment is on a large screen in a movie theater. In that environment, audience members sit back in comfortable chairs with friends to share the experience. As large home-theater televisions have become popular, so has the idea of a group gathering to watch a commercial-free DVD that was bought or rented.

Topnotch films depend on getting an audience to suspend its disbelief in order to enjoy the movie. This is much easier to do when the audience is relaxed and immersed in the environment. But it’s just not possible to become immersed in a video delivered over today’s broadband connection.

This isn’t to say that streaming media today is not valuable. There are many web sites that deliver audio or video content that receive a great deal of traffic. However, these sites either use audio-only programming that can be played while the user is engaged doing other work on his or her PC, or they use a specialized video that requires attention.

While walking through our offices I’ll see several developers playing audio from a variety of web sites. In the morning I like to listen to Brian Cooley at CNET and David Lawrence at Online Today to hear the latest news about the industry. However, it takes a compelling reason for me to sit in a chair leaning over a computer to watch a video over the Net.

People use the Internet to accomplish a mission, not to lean back and enjoy the entertainment. Internet users want to interact with engaging content, either with a personalized web site or with other people, not be passive in a noninteractive environment.

There are many ways to use video and interactive environments even with today’s bandwidth limitations.

For instance, some users enjoy playing games that are interactive, especially when they compete against other users connected over the Internet. These real-time, photo-realistic environments respond instantly to each user’s commands, demonstrating that interactive environments are possible today.

Many online training sites provide short video clips that add significant value to their interactive text material.

In other words, it’s not a problem of technology as much as it is a problem of technique.

For most companies, video or interactive graphics can help tell a story, whether it’s pure entertainment or an entertaining way to sell a product. However, these technologies are often used to create a flashy site, not to tell a compelling story that moves people to action. This means using a team that is experienced in creating new material, or adapting existing material, for the web.

If you already have sales or training videos prepared for offline use, those can frequently be edited into appropriate segments for use on your web site. In addition, Flash animations can be created to enhance a prospect’s understanding of a complex product or process.

The key is to understand how an audience uses video to accomplish its purpose for using the web. It is only by using these technologies to help people better understand our products that we can ever have a chance at selling them our products.

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