Commentary

If Your Online Video Looks Bad

  • by , Columnist, February 27, 2006
Everybody is talking about when and why to use video, and I certainly have opinions about that, but nobody is talking about HOW to use video. The "how" part is not just a technical discussion, it's all about creating the best user experience, because if your video, whatever it is, cannot be viewed easily or looks bad, you and your brand suffer too.

For years, the conventional way to present video has been with a set of choices, where viewers had to decide between Windows Media, QuickTime or RealPlayer, as well as if they wanted high or low bandwidth. That's like your auto mechanic asking you what grade of oil to use and if you want Iridium spark plugs or regular. Most people haven't the foggiest idea. They just want to see the video as quickly as possible, with the biggest and best-quality picture, combined with high-quality sound.

My company has integrated video into Web experiences for a long time. For example, our work with a large cable company includes an e-mail every month that promotes its Video On Demand service. Viewers can click on any of the movies or shows for that month and immediately see a short video clip. It's a perfect use of their video assets--and we make sure nothing hinders this enjoyable video experience for viewers. The e-mail is designed to appear quickly, look great and not be interrupted by factors such as network congestion. That's because a vast majority of viewers are not tech-savvy and simply have an expectation of excellence from your brand, and that includes the delivery of your video on the Web.

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So how do you do it? Well, we think Flash video is the only way to go. The Flash player has the greatest distribution of any video player (approximately 98 percent). It can be integrated into the Web page so it does not have to reside in a pop-up (remember pop-up blockers) and it can be streamed or downloaded. Downloads of video work great, but they actually leave viewers with a file on their hard drive, so if you are concerned about the security of your content, you have to use a streaming Flash solution. Flash also doesn't require viewers to determine the speed of their connection. Any good programmer will set it to detect the connection speed of the viewer and deliver a version of the video file optimized for the appropriate speed.

We have also written custom, pre-loading programs that are designed only to load the minimum amount of video before they begin to play, thus helping the video to start playing sooner--not an insignificant factor in a marketing situation. A few years back, you may have seen custom Java applications designed to deliver video on the Web. But the fact is that Flash from Macromedia/Adobe does it so well, you don't need those custom applications any more.

The only other thing you need to be concerned about is the encoding of your video. Encoding determines quality. There is a delicate balance between visual quality and file size. Clearly, even in this broadband world you want the smallest file size possible, but at the same time, you want the highest-quality sound and picture, and a picture as large as possible. This is all determined by encoding, and the secret sauce is the codec--this is the programming that translates the video into code. Encoding is an art form and one we are constantly tinkering with. Recently, for example, by using a new codec we figured out how to improve visual quality by more than 30 percent over anything we had ever seen, for a negligible increase in file size.

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