I interviewed Jason Arend, PFI Western's VP of Media and Global Marketing, E-Commerce, and Creative Services, who spoke on the panel, "Lessons Learned and Best Practices in Automating Video Production,” at the 2010 Video Commerce Summit in Seattle. Jason shared his experiences with managing multiple companies' multi-channel video properties, what he recommends for anyone who is looking to be successful with video in e-commerce today, and his secret for how PFI is doing it with no budget. (Yes, you're not reading that wrong.)

PFI Western's Multi-Channel Video Strategy

PFI is actually 9 companies, where they have a couple thousand videos across the web and mobile, a weekly half hour television show, and for display in retail stores. You can check out their videos out at pfiwestern.com and shoppingwesternstyle.com. Jason explains that their video strategy encompasses product pages, landing pages, e-mail campaigns, a branded video commerce website, mobile devices, podcast in the iTunes store, RSS feeds, in-store displays, social networks, media sites, and social media sites. "Literally, anywhere we can stick a video and be done on absolutely no budget," says Jason.

How To Create An In House Video Commerce Program, With No Budget!? PFI Websites2

Jason's walked the audience through PFI's streamlined process of pre-production to distribution, and says it can be a model for many other e-commerce businesses to generated a large amount of custom, branded, and personalized video across many channels with, as he attests, literally no budget.

Hiring: Keeping It In-House

Jason says that everything PFI is doing with video is completely done in-house. "We don't outsource anything. We don't use any third party services, and we do all of this with little staff." Now, some people would normally associate having to do an entire video solution yourselves as being more expensive to manage in-house, but read on…

Pre-Production: Scheduling, No Scripting & Lifestyle Approach

"All we do is outline the products we want to highlight in each television show for the week. So if we got promotions coming up for that week, product launches, or a manufacturer that just has more than everybody else, we'll stick them in the show for that week." Says Jason.

Then there's the scripting. Jason says that what cause lots of stagnation with video commerce is that people get hung up on scripts. "We absolutely do not have to script anything." He says. "We need to be able to show that our company is as down-to-earth as possible with our customer base." And so, the people in the video need to also represent their audience in their interests and mannerisms. "We need to show that they live the same lifestyle as you, they act like you, they talk like you. We shoot it completely unscripted using the same product experts that we have within our store. So that way, they're already knowledgeable about the products. If they really need a script, then they probably shouldn't be working in our stores to begin with. And, we can keep this very down-to-earth, lifestyle approach to videos.”

Production: 2-Cameras, 1 Cameraman & Tape-less for Television + Web

"Once we get actually into filming, we film usually 1-2 days a week, depending when we have time." Says Jason. "Our PFI Western business is actually only 1 of 9 companies,”  which explains why they are only allotted 1-2 days to actually do any shooting during the week. Their video crew and equipment includes a two HD camera setup, and with only one cameraman. "We'll have one static camera that shoots wide, so we got in the shot the talent, the products, the set, "which doesn't require a cameraman to operate. The other another camera shoots up close, "so you always get the actual product really good in the shot." He says.

PFI produces both web-only videos and television shows. For their weekly 30-minute television show, Jason says they'll usually shoot 7-8 segments per episode, that come in anywhere form 90 seconds to 3 minutes. Then that same week, they do roughly 30-40 web-only videos. "That's only because we can only shoot on 1-2 days of the week." Says Jason. "If we had time, if we're not working on the other companies, then we'll go back to shoot more product videos.”

Jason says he "absolutely recommends" from his own experience that you do not use tape "for anything as far as video for e-commerce is concerned.”

"When we started the television show, we recorded everything to mini DV tape, but that drove me crazy with how long it was taking to capture." He says. "When you have 8 hours of video, you have to add 8 hours of capturing. So we moved to hard-based recording systems immediately. So now when we have 8 hours of footage, it takes just 15 minutes to transfer it; and it doesn't tie up your labor and resources. While it's capturing, you can work on anything else.”

Post-Production: Eliminating Re-Rendering Time

Jason explain that having to do both a television and web video series required a lot of trial-and-error for streamlining graphic production. "Since our television show is kind of a home-shopping format television show, it's pretty graphic-heavy as far as prices coming on, lower thirds, promotional offers and everything." He says. "This can really eat up your time if you don't handle it properly.

"With our graphics, we switched everything over to Photoshop templates that have pre-built transparencies and editable text layers. So everything was simply copying and pasting it, and then exporting it as a transparent PNG. When you export it as a PNG and bring it into the timeline, that way you have no render time and you already have previews for it.

Jason explains that everything else is modular within the show, so it can be moved around, sent out, put in different shows, without re-rendering or rebuilding stuff; and those segments are marked to automatically render out for network television, the Web, iTunes store, mobile devices, AppleTV – all at the same time. "This saves a ton of time when you're trying to do any sort of web rendering, or any other sort of mobile device compatability.”

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Then as soon as the video has automatically been compressed, it will automatically go to wherever it's supposed to be displayed. If it's for the Web, then it's sent directly to a server. If it's for the television show, it gets sent to a timeline where it's dumped on a tape and then sent off to [the television] network. If it's for in-store displays, then it gets sent to their internal media server – all without anybody every having to touch the video.

Jason explained that when you really take the time to build an streamlined post-production system like they have, then "we really don't need a film school genius to make a couple of cuts and put in a couple transitions." He says. "You can hire somebody for just $25K-$35K. We did have to spend a little more on equipment because of our television show – that was a one-time cost of $20K. So compared to automated video services that can be upwards of $75,000 a year, plus labor costs, monthly OVP costs, possible syndication, consulting and analytics costs, we can do it all in house for less than $40,000 a year."

Ok, now wait… All throughout Jason's presentation, he's been saying on how this was being done for no money. But then he went on to say…

"…and we completely cover all those costs and co-op all of those advertising dollars with the manufacturers. So we literally produce an entire television show that's internationally syndicated, several dozen Web videos a week. So that's how we don't spend a single cent on doing any of it.”

Delivery: APIs & Social Networks

As far as online distribution is concerned, Jason says they have all of their video being sent to WordPress currently (since it's really flexible), through the APIs built in WordPress the videos automatically go out to social media sites. "As soon as it get's posted to WordPress a single time, it then gets sent out to the iTunes store, RSS feeds, all of our media and social media sites – without anyone ever touching it. And we essentially spend zero dollars.”

Video Optimization: Go Manual!

Jason gave a shout-out to Mark Robertson of ReelSEO on how you should optimize enterprise-scale video for search. "As Mark was saying earlier – you don't want to use automated video distribution tools, nor should you only use YouTube, because you miss out on the opportunities you have to optimize the video for yourself.. Metadata is the one thing that we have not yet figured out how to automate; and I haven't yet figured out how to automate it; because we need to keep it as relevant as possible. So that's the one thing that we still do manually.”

How To Create An In House Video Commerce Program, With No Budget!? jason arend 21

Not an automated video production player-hater...

Jason did make a point of clarifying to me that he's not suggesting that automated video systems are always a less effective solution for e-commerce. "Don't get me wrong… automated video systems can still be an adequate solution for certain types of product demonstration videos if you have the budget and, given the opportunity, who doesn't want a robot on their staff!"

E-Commerce Video Tips For Enterprise Businesses

  • Look for ways to keep it in-house. Not just because Jason says it's cheaper and more efficient in the long run, but also because it makes you more apt to show off your own personality when you're producing the video yourself. "I kind of had the issues with the automated video product services because, as smaller companies, one of the most important things you can do is utilize video to show off the personality within the brand." He says. If you can't afford to do that within your company, then it makes it very difficult to be successful within modern e-commerce.”
  • Stay true to your brands. "Stay true to the lifestyle that your customers live. If you're not, you know, really representing that brand, that lifestyle – really connecting with them on that level, then it really doesn't matter what content you're producing." He says.
  • Keep your workflow as efficient and effective as possible. Keep trying to refine the process. Jason explains how they succeeded was by taking "several different approaches, scrapping it and starting over when we found a better way.”

So according to Jason, if you need to start an enterprise-level video commerce program, you literally can do it on nothing if you play it smart and work with your manufacturers to cover costs, and not have to rely on the kind of the structure that's within the automated systems today.

About Jason Arend

How To Create An In House Video Commerce Program, With No Budget!? jason arend 1 300x148 Jason Arend is the VP of Media and Global Marketing, E-Commerce, and Creative Services for PFI and all it's companies – "America's Western Store." His list of credits include being an accomplished film & television director who's directing the internationally syndicated television show "Shopping Western Style" and several other large feature productions. (And to think after all these accomplishments and titles, the guy tells me he has yet to own a pair of cowboy boots.)

In 2010 Jason was nominated as one of the Business Journal's top 40 Businessmen Under 40 (he's 26, just one year older than "cough”… me. ;)

(Editor Mark Robertson's comment: Grant is actually turning 40 on August 18th, and I would like to wish him a happy birthday, and my condolences for him not being eligible the Business Journal's top 40 Businessmen Under 40 contest. That being said - mine - is tomorrow, August tth and I still have some time)

(Grant comment: You just had to let down all the tweens who follow us here, didn't you?)

  • David

    It's important to remember that Mr. Arend's approach illustrates only one company's unique approach to using video as part of their marketing strategy. While there are certainly interesting takeaways, this article should not be viewed as how every company should use video. And yes, there are many hidden/undisclosed costs in producing his videos. Businesses who have yet to dip their toe in the internal video pool would be wise to first hire an employee or consultant who can guide them through the pitfalls of production.

  • VideoLeadsOnline

    The dog likes photoshop for static png graphics. (did you notice how my comment said nothing about the "no budget" discussion -- whoops, I guess I just mentioned it... rats!)

  • danielpatton

    This is a really interesting article. I found a transcript of Jason speaking at the Streaming Media East conference and it gives some additional information that's not in the article. http://www.slideshare.net/jasonarend/jason-arends-streaming-media-east-2010-video-commerce-speech-and-presentaion-transcript They really didn't have a budget for their video commerce program he wanted to develop, even for labor, which he explains in the presentation. The article just doesn't quite make the distinction between the television show and the video commerce program. Either way if you obtained vendor financial support from the start you really wouldn't have to spend a dime on implementing a strategy like this. No matter how you look at it, this is extremely impressive. I've worked in production, marketing and retail for years and I can understand why some of the professionals here that are more experienced in ecommerce and marketing would think that outsourcing could be more cost effective than keeping it in house. They just don't have enough hands-on experience in production and development to streamline workflow at this level or possibly the right staff, there is no doubt that he has some very smart, experienced, and hard-working guys. As far as distribution costs it is pretty clear that this is handled automatically, other than metadata and if your developer knows what he is doing it shouldn't take more than a day to connect wordpress to a social media site such as youtube utilizing the API. Now there is certainly labor involved with inputting metadata but no matter what approach you take you need to be doing this manually. I can't see how a even a weeks worth of development could possibly be more expensive than paying a monthly rate for a distribution service for a year. One thing I found really interesting was using static pngs instead of motion graphics, you can just apply a realtime transition to that clip and still have animation without rendering. Really useful tip!

    • http://www.reelseo.com/author/grantastic/ Grant Crowell

      Yes, I found his tip on static PNGs particularly interesting as well. I would be interested to hear what software program people prefer for creating those? I know Adobe Fireworks saves in native PNG format (which is what I had used in its early versions for creating web files), but then I switched over to Photoshop for all of my graphic design needs since I already was using it for all of my other graphic design work.

  • Charlie Deane

    This is what I got when I clicked on the link to one of the zero budget sites listed in the article.

    FastCGI Error
    The FastCGI Handler was unable to process the request.

    Error Details:

    •The FastCGI process exceeded configured activity timeout
    •Error Number: 258 (0x80070102).
    •Error Description: The wait operation timed out.
    HTTP Error 500 - Server Error.
    Internet Information Services (IIS)

    I'd review the budget if I were you... too much in house might work in house only.

  • http://www.reelseo.com/author/grantastic/ Grant Crowell

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone. And yes, I did realize that when I wrote this piece that some readers would be giving me flack for the "no money" statements, which I was taking from Justin's presentation. I think what Jason was trying to communicate is that some budgets leave out workers' salaries versus a project or program spend. When you're a company that works with a lot of advertisers or other vendors, then sometimes you can leverage your budget to have those guys pick up the cost, which is what Justin explains is what PFI was able to do. If you're a purist and equate "no money" (my original title like Mark said), or "no budget" with having to include actual time and resources of your staff, then yes, that would not be an accurate term. But again, I have found that some companies do make a distinction between workers' salaries and project/program spends.To add, I don't think that saying you've done a video commerce program for "no money" should be equated to saying you've made an initial investment, and then recuperated on that investment. (Because you obviously needed the capital to begin with.) Now, if it's your advertisers' money that fund the program, then you could make it a point of debate that it's with SOMEONE'S money. But again, I think Justin was taking the position that their video commerce program wasn't done with an additional budget beyond what they already had for salaries. (Now if I'm mistaken on that point, then I'm glad to have someone bring it up here.)

  • http://www.reelseo.com/ Mark Robertson

    Another great insightful article from Grant. I didn't love the title but I should chime in and defend Grant in that originally he had a ", for no money !?" at the end of the title vs. "with no budget" which may make more sense. However, I think we all realize that there is clearly a cost and the budget is part of other budgets.

  • Russ_Somers

    Great article and insight. That said, I agree with Cameron that "no budget" makes a catchy headline but is inaccurate. Unless you assume that the internal folks who do the work will be sitting idle otherwise, the cost is the cost of you and your staff's time. Some people find that a wise investment, others not.

    I worked at a software company that did a good deal of video in-house for about 30 products. The videos were simple informational videos for network engineers, uploaded to YouTube and embedded on the site.

    The cost: one dedicated marketing headcount who did all the filming and content management, plus about five hours per week from several other team members including a VP. We considered it a good investment of internal resources. It was not, however, free. Do the math on salaries and it was in fact more expensive per video than outsourcing might have been.

  • HD-Productions.biz

    I also check out Jason's blog as well and his online showreels, really amazing and creative.

  • Cameron Church

    This is a great piece but surely a bit misleading about the "No Budget" needed! Sure they don't outsource which can work for some companies but the opex cost of running the system still exists, it's just transferred to a man management head(s) instead of an outsourcing cost like rental of platforms or agencies.

    So really there is a budget and spend here, it's just relocated out of one expense category to the next. What would be interesting to know is how much resource is spent on, say, the distribution piece? If this is a manual push, how many man hours is occuring per video? And is that less than what an automated platform can do for you?

    Let's get the TCO per video and look at the individual components in the supply chain at how they contribute to that overall cost. Swap out your man management and bring in platforms. Then see where Budget is less.

    This success story is definitely not done without any budget.


  • Christopherpennmedia

    Great article and some really useful tips! I had the pleasure of meeting Jason Arend after a presentation he gave in California, the guy is really interesting and crazy smart! I can't believe the guys isn't working for a fortune 500 company or running one.