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.
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.”
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.”
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
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?)