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The Future of Online Video: It’s about more than Video

(this post first appeared in The Huffington Post and M&M Global)

In popular use, the word “TV” is a convenient catch-all used to describe the medium of television, the physical box one receives it on and the content itself.  If you think about it, this stopped making sense many years ago: the three are actually completely different things.  Today I can watch TV—the Content—on my computer, I sometimes enjoy TV—the Televisual Medium—in the form of a film on a big screen at the cinema and the main things I watch on my TV—the Physical Box—are video games.

The spectacular adoption of Online Video has further muddied the meaning of TV.  In the online environment, offline-TV companies and networks cling to terms like “made for TV” or “Television produced” or, perhaps most questionably, “Professional”, in order to position their content as better or more valuable than the (presumably sub-par) stuff made by others.  Meanwhile a crop of newer companies have built a name for themselves as the ‘x’ of Online Video .  Ooyala and Brightcove are the Online Video platform providers, Brightroll and others the Online Video Ad Networks and blinkx.com, of course, the Online Video Search Engine.  But all of this Video-centric positioning is as meaningless as the so-called ‘TV companies’ of the offline world.  You may want the world to think you’re different, you may even believe you are different, but you are only truly different if you are different to your most important constituent – your audience.

Steve Jobs famously said “You have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology – not the other way round.”  Try doing this with Online Video.  Do you sit down in front of your computer (or phone or tablet) and think to yourself, “I’m going to do some Online Video now”?  Or do you sit down and think “I need to know about X” or “I have half an hour to kill, what should I watch?”  I would bet it’s the latter.    Sometimes you watch it because it’s the best way to understand something (how to tie a bowtie), sometimes because it’s the only option (the FT runs some amazing Leadership interviews that do not appear in print) and sometimes just because it fits your current mood (I could read The Economist, but I’d really rather sit back in front of an episode of Chopped.

Furthermore, I’m willing to bet you freely mix Online Video with other, non-Online Video content.  Sometimes I watch a video I find particularly interesting, so I tweet it or stick it on Facebook to see what others think.  Sometimes a TV show we’re watching at home gives rise to a debate that is answered by watching a video on YouTube.  Sometimes I’ll watch news headlines on the bus on my phone (I can’t read in moving vehicles) and then open new browser tabs on certain stories to read in depth when I get to my desk.

Interestingly, if, as Jobs suggested, you work back from this consumer experience to the technology, it turns out that there are no technical constrictions affecting this freewheeling use of video in the context of the Internet. .  From a technology perspective, the Internet simply transports data from one place to another.  The nature of the data is abstracted from the underlying technology and your computer doesn’t care whether the link you just posted is to video, an image or a piece of text.

What does this mean to those of us in the Video (or TV) world?  It means we must think differently and stop limiting ourselves with artificial, outdated terminology.  Yes, there was a meaningful business to be had being a Video Advertising Network or a TV production company, respectively two and twenty years ago but, in the next twenty years your customers won’t see it the same way.  Video Ad Network?  Why bother?  If I promote my brand, I want to buy ALL media that reaches the people who need to know about my brand.  Video Production Company?  Nope.  If I’m a commissioner, I don’t just want the show – I want the second screen app my viewers are going to use alongside the show, I want the web AND the social presence that’ll sustain my audience community in between seasons.  At blinkx, we realised this a few years ago and began  translating our lead in video to build a product that we knew our customers would want over time.  This is why you don’t have to come to blinkx.com to experience our technology: you can use it at your regular default search engine where you search for video alongside text, images, news and everything else.  It’s why we embed relevant content directly into text pages so you come across it while you read at the right time, in the natural place.  It’s why although we lead with video, we can sell you other ad units around the video to complement the entire campaign you’re trying to run.  None of this means we don’t focus on video, it just means we obsess over understanding its place in the ever-changing context of media consumption.

While there’s a need for corporate bravery in navigating this kind of industry transition, it is worth keeping an eye on the prize. In the future, as a brand you will be able to engage and interact with your customers across an infinite range of connection points; It’ll be like you know them, and can talk to them, can listen to their concerns and modify your products and offerings to suit dynamically.  From a consumer perspective, it means you’ll be able to access whatever you want, whenever you want and in whichever form makes the most sense.  I think that’s a New World worth being Brave for.

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