The great whiteboard way

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Why can’t the Internet be more like TV? With the pervasiveness of broadband connections even for home users, and easy-to-use free video players readily available online, more and more media executives are asking this question.

Part of the answer is to produce quality video programming inexpensively. Internet users don’t necessarily expect the same production values online as they would on TV, but the content still has to be worth watching—relevant, informative and actionable.

With its newly launched Whiteboard Videos series, CNET Networks may have cracked the code.

"The Whiteboard Videos series eliminates some of those concerns about production values because we show an executive in a natural setting doing exactly what he would do at work. That is, he goes up to a whiteboard to explain a business concept or demonstrate a technique," said Ted Smith, senior VP-B2B portfolio, CNET Networks.

CNET didn’t find a way to get better quality videos more cheaply; rather, the team found a way to make cheaper videos make more sense to the audience "because they are true to the speaker and the workplace," Smith said.

Whiteboard Videos were actually the brainchild of one of CNET’s broadband producers. Before the Whiteboard series, CNET’s business video programming often consisted of interviews of key executives in a studio setting.

"One of our producers who went on a lot of these noticed that executives would often use whiteboards to explain points while they were preparing to go ‘on air,’ " Smith recalled. "She noticed that these people were able to convey a fair amount of complex information very quickly by using diagrams, drawings, arrows, etc. She noticed that this was a very natural way for these executives to speak, even though many of them stiffened up when they were put into a studio setting. So she came up with the idea of just taping them doing what they do naturally at work."

The producer first raised the idea with Smith and others late last year. "It got a green light in January," he said. CNET’s b-to-b group produced 10 videos and posted them. And the concept took off right away.

The other key to the Whiteboard Videos is that they are very short, only two to three minutes long.

"They’re fast and to the point," Smith said. Because individual videos are so short, CNET found, people who view one video are very likely to watch more. "We see usage patterns where a user will look at one and then they’ll immediately view six or seven others. This told us that we were onto something," he said. Individual videos also averaged four times the viewership of the more traditional TV-type videos CNET had done over the prior six or seven years.

The Whiteboard Videos are extremely inexpensive to produce. The presenters aren’t paid, but they are chosen because they are stars of a sort within their specific areas. The film crew can go out into the field to visit the presenter, and they go with two cameras rather than three. The field production staff will have the speaker go through his presentation once. Then, they’ll give him some feedback so that he can quickly improve in one or two important areas.

For example, producers warn people about unusual repetitive gestures, ask them to raise their voice, make more eye contact and so forth. After one or two takes, the video is done, saving CNET a lot of money that previously would have gone into post-production editing.

Once CNET knew the Whiteboard series would fly, the company went forward to quickly generate a library of videos, starting with a bank of 50. They only took about six weeks to produce.

Then the videos were shown to advertisers, who had already discovered that their ads are much more likely to be watched when they are integrated into an editorial stream rather than running on their own. Smith noted that a number of the largest technology companies design commercials specifically for the Internet, which, like the Whiteboard series, are designed to be short but compelling. (Each Whiteboard video begins with an advertiser’s commercial.)

Where the Internet really beats television hands down is in its measureability. While television’s Nielsen ratings are based on a sampling technique, projecting the behavior of large audiences based on a small subset of people, on the Internet, everyone gets measured, Smith said.

Every component of the video player is tagged, so that reports show when a video was paused, fast-forwarded or muted. "And you get 100% measurability" rather than projections from a sample, Smith said.

The best part of the program has been that CNET was able to recoup the money spent on those first 50 videos through advertising, breaking even on the new idea right out of the gate.

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