Don’t bother mentioning the “I” word to Socialcam CEO Michael Seibel. Ever since Facebook famously bought Instagram for $1 billion or so, the press and VCs have been swarming around the purported hunt for the next Instagram. “I think it is more distracting than anything else,” he says. The enormously popular video-sharing app and site gets that treatment all the time. Seibel and his crew of four spun off from Justin.tv, where he was a co-founder, in the fall of 2010 to launch SocialCam in spring of 2011. But VCs are not his main target and hurdle, he argues. “In video we have a fundamental challenge. We need to convince people that taking video is extremely easy and valuable.”
Instagram and photo-sharing apps had the long legacy of snapshot photography working in its favor. Transferring those user reflexes to the mobilized video cam is not as easy as it seems. “Convincing people to take videos at all is a harder problem,” he says. For all of the talk about mobile video being the next hot category, “it is not the mirror image of the challenge Instagram had.”
And yet Socialcam has generated over 14 million app downloads, and some of its leading posters have well over 1 million followers each. But that pales against the amount of activity they see coming to the main Web site. Both site and app were launched simultaneously, and the site proved to be an especially effective driver of app downloads, Seibel says. While he is campaigning to make video-taking as much of a reflex among consumers as mobile still photography, no hard sell appears to be necessary with brand marketers. “The brands are coming to us -- not the other way around,” Seibel says.
In fact, he counts about ten brands on the Socialcam leaderboard that have over half a million followers already. Lipton Iced Tea, Sierra Mist, Oprah’s OWN network, and even General Electric have in excess of 500,000 followers. Musicians and sports teams have proven to be especially powerful here. One of the advantages of Socialcam as a marketing vehicle over the standard social nets like Facebook is the alerting system. When you follow anyone on SocialCam, it sends a mobile app alert whenever a new item is posted. This, of course, forces providers to be reserved. This can’t be treated like Twitter. “I think those followers are a lot more valuable,” he says.
Unlike sponsor posts in social network feeds that can scroll by unnoticed, this is a more one-to-one relationship. “The brand can get a direct connection.” He says that despite the alerting mechanism, he is not seeing users becoming overwhelmed. While he wants video to become more of a reflex for people and advertisers, the natural hurdle comes in handy here. “It is pretty cool. The bar for creating video is pretty high. The brands will create maybe two videos a week.”
Sixty- to ninety-second clips are the norm among individual users, and that is the length Seibel recommends to brands. Some brands like the Brooklyn Nets are already creating spots that are exclusively for Socialcam, and others are repurposing video assets they have elsewhere on the Web. OWN, for instance is pushing out celebrity clips from its on-air programming. The Nets will throw into their mix a spot interview with GM Billy King from the sidelines after a game.
My impression is that years of experience with Justin.tv have given Seibel and co. a head start on some other startups when it comes to imagining both a monetization path and future uses for advertisers. They already have a VIP program for brands that advises on best practices and the new ideas spin off of this. They are already working with film studios on promotions involving custom video filters that help the consumer replicate the look and feel of the entertainment company’s film.
But in my mind the killer potential here is when the alerting system is married to geo-fencing. Farther out, Seibel is imagining the ability to leverage location as a trigger for a video alert. “One of the future use cases we are thinking of is letting brands send videos to followers when they are in a location.” If a Brooklyn Nets follower walks into the team’s new arena, they will get pinged with a new introductory video welcoming them to the venue with instructions and directions for optimizing their experience. The same idea can be applied to a mall or any retail venue. What if Walmart or Target pinged you at the entrance with a video clip on the week’s specials?
While obviously it has its limitations -- not the least of which is its reliance on opt-in -- there is a natural logic to finding ways of pushing video to users over devices and in sync with location. As Seibel says, “traditionally what a brand does is pound you as hard as it can when you are at home. But we think we can help brands message people in the real world when they are in a position to buy something.”
Whatever the hurdles, the geo-fenced video push model is a remarkable idea that literally untethers the power of video promotion from the TV or the desktop. There is no arguing that video remains the most compelling storyteller for advertisers. Finding reasonable and user-friendly ways to release that medium from its usual anchors in the home is one of the great tasks of outdoor advertising. But mobile is the natural, more personalized venue for this project.
Better that video come to us in a personalized way when and where we need it than make every mall and retail location look and feel like Times Square.