Viewers respond to video: The power of 'emotional metadata'

Nothing tops video's ability to teach, sell, sway, or convince. Streaming video players can tell you whether your message hits home -- and how viewers react to it

Video is, and likely always will be, the ideal way to package and deliver dense information to smart, busy people. Nothing rivals video's ability to reach, teach, captivate, move, or provoke. By occupying multiple senses simultaneously, video holds the attention of the inattentive and blocks the multitasker's task switch. Of the means available to those who create content for the Web, only video confronts the skeptic's challenge -- "show me!" -- and has the merest shot at snaking through the barriers of closed or distracted minds. HTML, PDF, scripted Flash/Silverlight, PNG, MP3, and even a hand-delivered case of beer can't place your idea on thousands of strangers' agendas as easily, reliably, rapidly, and cheaply as video can.

I've been making the case for video as an ideal medium for a couple of decades, but it's always been a hard sell because of some threshold of practicality it hadn't yet crossed. For years, it took a substantial investment in equipment ($30,000 to $50,000 was the magic number through the 1990s) just to derive results superior to VHS. Once video production became affordable, distribution was the serious hurdle. New encoding technology and the proliferation of broadband Internet have made distribution easy and affordable (or free), and now Web authoring and development tools uniformly treat video as a primary document type. There are still technological and competitive walls that need knocking down, especially with regard to mobile platforms, wireless carriers, and proprietary media players, but generally speaking, video has arrived.

Now that I get to write about it in InfoWorld without tagging the subject off-topic, I hardly know where to begin, but what's on my mind today is what I'll call emotional metadata. I previously used the term "emotional subcarrier" when I described video's unique power to convince. All human communication has the goal of changing a mind, of conveying information that the recipient at least retains as memory. We treat learning as a voluntary process, and we try to be selective about our sources for information. To learn from me, you want to be convinced that I know my subject, that I understand my audience (you), and that I am working for your benefit. This is the formula for credibility, and we open our minds to (trust) messages from people we consider credible.

If you're not a captive audience, such as a paid student in a university lecture hall, you also need to be convinced that you'll enjoy the process before you'll take part in it. The promise of enjoyment can override other prerequisites; an attractive, eloquent, entertaining, or charismatic presenter, presentation, material, or setting can create a shortcut to trust. I use the term "disarming" to describe this style. Or call it charm. Advertising relies almost exclusively on disarming techniques. Getting a message across with a high likelihood of success, especially when success means inciting action in line with the producers' intentions, requires some combination of credibility and charm. Find the magic formula, and your video may be a viewer's final ruling on the subject.

Other document types can accomplish these goals. Nothing can mount a sneak attack on someone's mind the way that video can, but text, audio, and still imagery can certainly teach and sell. What intrigues me about video, now that it's evolved into an Internet document type, is that what I called the emotional subcarrier, the subliminal signal that conveys credibility or disarms the viewer, can be studied and refined using IT techniques. While video is considered to be a passive, one-way medium, privately hosted streaming video always has a valuable feedback channel to the producers of the content. Basic logging can reveal the number of viewers that sit through the entire video, whether they're watching at home or at work, and whether they come back to watch it again. If the video is a message piece, you might infer that closely spaced repeat viewings are to share the material with others. If you put your mind to it, you can determine when a playback is likely for the purpose of ripping the stream to save a local copy. If a viewer bails on the video, where they quit watching offers clues to why they quit watching.

The interesting study begins when you use an embedded or standalone Java, Flash, Silverlight, or native player interface. Even if the player or content aren't specially wired for interaction, a player has the ability to sense user input. Everything the user does while the video is running -- go full screen, switch to HD, pause, rewind, seek, nudge the mouse to wake the screen, adjust the volume, switch another app to the foreground, turn on captions -- says something. If nothing else, it says that a user is actually watching a given portion of the video. A script of an interested viewer's actions during playback can be overlaid with the content to evaluate the user's response to what they saw and heard. That response can provide clues to the viewer's state of mind after a particular point is made. It might be possible to see when a rough concept hits home (the light comes on, as it were), an opinion is changed, or an obstacle to adopting a viewpoint is overcome. By tracking which material viewers skip, it will be easy to see which exercises in disarming have gone too far or where the material starts to wander.

An expert in this field that I've just dreamed up might study viewer behavior transcripts and identify top recruitment (best training video students) or sales prospects, or give you a precise read on the success of an image campaign. A non-expert can still make miraculous calls by correlating video player and browser behavior. If you insert subject-specific "for more info" URLs while certain key points are made in the video, you can see exactly what grabbed viewers. Viewers that pop open a browser and hit those URLs while the video is playing are all yours. It's impossible to read anyone's mind, but the strategic use of video and analysis of viewer behavior can tell us as much as, if not more than, surveys and focus groups.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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