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The Price of Artifice

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Last night’s Lucky Strike Social Media Club (LSSMC) dinner featured a presentation by Phil Thomas DiGiulio (@holaphil) of Wellcomemat on “Video and Social Media”.  I thought it was an interesting topic in and of itself, and am grateful to Phil for coming by to have the conversation with us.

During the dinner — as is normal for LSSMC — a topic came up that I thought needed more elaboration and discussion.  One of the sub-themes of social media and its impact on marketing is how professional it ought to be.  Should companies, for example, have an “official” corporate Twitter handle, like @onboard?  What topics are appropriate for a corporate blog?  And so on.

Video, as it turns out, is directly implicated in this sub-theme.

Professional vs. Confessional

One of the biggest barriers to implementing video as a marketing strategy is cost.  I have priced out what it would cost to have a professional video made for my employer, and the ease with which one can spend $15K on a 3 minute video is staggering.

Video is inherently a more difficult medium for an amateur.  Video editing — even as it is made easier with technology — remains a more technical, a more difficult, and a more expensive proposition than editing text.  Simply consider the fact that you may need to buy a piece of software to edit video.  And that’s assuming that you have the visual aesthetic sense, a talent for crafting narrative using motion pictures, and skill with blending sound and image and motion — all of which are somewhat specialized skills.

Phil usually recommends that you hire a professional to do a well-crafted video, and for good reasons.

On the flipside, however, there has been a growing trend in the world of video towards a more intimate, more amateur, and more “raw” approach.  Perhaps the explosive popularity of reality TV is reprogramming our cultural expectations.  Perhaps the wide availability of cheap equipment and editing software is bringing “moviemaking” to the masses.  The popularization of sites like YouTube certainly helps to spread video works that wouldn’t have seen the light of day in earlier times.

For example, Nigahiga is one of the top subscribed channels on YouTube.  This is a typical video:

While Nigahiga videos are hilarious, with decent editing, a story, and some really funny actors, part of the appeal is its extremely amateurish production values.  The exact same script, exact same actors, exact same everything, but done professionally by a TV production crew would be horrible.  Audiences would be making fun of the terrible script, the bad acting, and the not-so-funny jokes.

Why is that?

Audience Expectations: Artifice

I think the reason is that the modern audience grew up in the era of mass media.  Few of us remember a time before movies, a time before television.  The Millenials don’t remember a time before the Internet.  Few Gen-Xers remember a time before VCR’s.

Movies and TV are a part and parcel of our culture, our memories, and even our identities to some extent.  As we grew up surrounded by filmed entertainment, our knowledge of and expectations of motion pictures have also grown.  We are no longer fascinated, as the first viewers of movies were, by grainy black and white footage of a train pulling into the station, over and over and over again.

As filmmakers advance their art, as TV producers get savvier, as actors and directors and lightning and sound engineers and editors and the rest of the production industry continue to improve their art and technology, our expectations of professionals continue to rise as well.

Just last decade, CGI was a big deal special effects wise.  We audience members oooh’ed and aahh’ed at movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park.  Today, we take CGI for granted, and harshly criticize crappy CGI work.

The result of all this improvement and sophistication on the part of the audience — as a direct response to the continual improvement by industry-leaders in film and television — is that we hold professionals to a far higher standard.  We are so jaded by movies, by TV, by big explosions, by car chases, and special effects that to break through our awareness and make an impact requires something extraordinary.

For example, this Sprint ad:

From a marketer’s perspective, having worked at an ad agency, the level of execution on that video/ad is incredibly high.  The amount of thought that went into it, the CGI-work, the models, the video shoots, the ad copy, the script, the voiceover work… all of it likely required thousands upon thousands of manhours of work by some of the best and brightest in the advertising industry — namely, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the winner of the 2008 Ad Agency of the Year by AdWeek.

That is the level of skill, of art, needed to break through with professional video.

In contrast, when the audience is confronted by video that is clearly not professional, and is intended not to be professional, then the expectation changes.

Audience Expectations: Humanity

The Nigahiga video on YouTube embedded above is a perfect example of changed expectations.  The martial arts fighting sequence in the Nigahiga video is hilarious precisely because it is so amateurish, and intentionally so.  What the viewer is responding to isn’t the technical perfection of the fight scene, but the humor and the personality of the actors (and the filmmaker) as evidenced by their staged “fight scene”.

What the audience expects in an amateur production is humanity, not artifice.  They want authenticity and personality, rather than perfect execution.

In that situation, I believe that the bad lighting, the bad acting, and low production values are a bonus rather than a detriment.  They help to create authenticity.

The Nigahiga videos would not be improved by professional lighting, or a soundstage.  They would be hurt by it.  Getting professional actors to act out the skits would not make the videos more interesting or more entertaining; I rather think professional acting would make the videos less entertaining.

This is, frankly, the connection to “social media”.  Video, I think, has a unique ability to help viewers assess the honesty and authenticity of the person on camera.  Visual cues, speech patterns, the facial expression, gestures — all of these things help a viewer decide whether the person they are viewing is “keepin’ it real” or faking it.

If you understand social media properly — that is, as an expression of the Cluetrain concept of authentic human connection, rather than as a collection of technology tools — then you will implicitly grasp that video is just another tool for that expression.  Based on that, you can make decisions on whether and how to use video to maximum effect.

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

There is, however, real danger with video, and one that I don’t think is well enough understood.

The danger is not the unprofessional video with shaky cameras and bad lighting.  No, the real danger is the mediocre professional video.

Because the audience expectation is so high when it comes to professional work, in order to avoid looking like an idiot, your execution must be extraordinary.  This is both prohibitively expensive and incredibly difficult.  The difficulty is easily illustrated with this video from Cyberhomes (which is a good company of good, smart people):

The cheesy stock photography, the horrible music, the “professional” voiceover, all combine to make what is a deadly boring corporate video.  This is not to say that the team at Cyberhomes didn’t do a good job — it did.  But the video is not extraordinary, and it couldn’t possibly be — it isn’t a Goodby Silverstein campaign costing millions of dollars.

Once the decision was made to go the “professional” route, Cyberhomes could not help but fall into the “crappy corporate video” hellhole, not because of anything its team or videographer or editor did, but because what they could not possibly do given the likely budget for something like this.

There is a price for artifice.  A rather significant one in the current media environment.

If you are unwilling or unable to pay that price, then your video project is doomed from the start.  It may be a better strategy to go the other way and go for an amateurish, human connection driven video play instead.

I think Jim Duncan‘s “hey, I’m talking on camera while I’m driving somewhere in my car” videos are absolutely fascinating.  Unfortunately, I can’t embed them on a WP.com blog, so go view a sample here.  An embeddable sample is from Robin Greenbaum, of Prudential Douglas Elliman, in New York:

The parts where Robin’s real voice comes through, when she’s giving her opinions and views rather than when she’s reading off some description of the Windermere, are fantastic.  She sounds like a human being, like an interesting person with strong views, with whom one might be able to have a conversation.

And that, my friends, is social media.

-rsh

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Rob Hahn
Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Great post… I love your comparisons on “professional” vs. “amateur”…. I know that creating an entertaining or helpful video isn’t for anyone, and understand the need to have professional video done for some listings. With that said what a video like Robin’s & Jim’s does is create that engagement that makes you take action to pick up the phone, call them or send a DM for advice…

    That is the beauty of Social Media, it’s real life. This is the reason why people use one particular Realtor over another because the consumer likes them & trust them and “nothing says it better than video!”

  2. Great post… I love your comparisons on “professional” vs. “amateur”…. I know that creating an entertaining or helpful video isn’t for anyone, and understand the need to have professional video done for some listings. With that said what a video like Robin’s & Jim’s does is create that engagement that makes you take action to pick up the phone, call them or send a DM for advice…

    That is the beauty of Social Media, it’s real life. This is the reason why people use one particular Realtor over another because the consumer likes them & trust them and “nothing says it better than video!”

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