Instagram For Video – Music, Meaning And Moments Succeed Where Others Fail

Editor’s note: Peter Csathy is president and CEO of online video technology company Sorenson Media. He previously served as CEO of video chat company SightSpeed (acquired by Logitech) and as president and COO of online music pioneer Musicmatch (acquired by Yahoo!). Follow him on Twitter @pcsathy.

There is a burgeoning fascination around the topic of which startups will become the “Instagram for video.” Stories abound on the subject. I previously wrote about it for TechCrunch, but focused primarily on execution and getting the U/X “right” rather than identifying potential winners. While most articles do identify mobile video “contenders,” they also miss the mark, because they fail to focus on the fundamental differences between video and still-image content. These differences mean that virtually all current “public share”-focused video Instagram clones are dead on arrival out of the gates.

Several factors make this so – some of which I previously touched upon (too lightly), and others that were later expanded upon by Sandeep Casi and Armando Kirwin in their excellent follow-up posts on TechCrunch. In his piece, Sandeep correctly focuses on content engagement and concludes, “The revolution [i.e. “Instagram for video” massive market opportunity] will begin when video engagement becomes as seamless, fun, and immediately engaging as mobile photos.” [Emphasis mine.] And Armando equates engagement with effective storytelling, which is generally (but not always) the case. None of us, however, specifically identifies potential winners deserving of the big prize.

That’s my goal here – to identify real contenders by identifying three engaging content types. Think of them as the three “M’s” that have a real chance to succeed massively at scale: music (a community of interest), meaning (social causes), and moments (private sharing).

Video Vs. Still Images

To discover what mobile video startups have a chance at greatness, we must focus on the inherent core difference between videos and stills. Fundamentally, typical mobile-captured video is inherently more personal and more revealing than mobile still images. An image is easily digested and can have universal appeal even if it is of a highly personal subject like your kids. Just add filters and, voila! Adorable! But, as that still image expands into more and more images – i.e. a video of your kids – the more distant and less relevant that video becomes to that viewer (unless your kids kick you someplace they shouldn’t, in which case that video ends up on YouTube anyway).

Those mobile personal videos simply matter less unless that viewer is in the videographer’s inner circle, because there is no universality to that video – no story. It is simply noise. That is Armando’s point. All of this means less mass public consumption and sharing of mobile personal videos. And that means a fractional market opportunity, especially with big guns like YouTube already dominating public sharing.

Sandeep also identifies a fundamental threshold U/X roadblock that inhibits simple public sharing and engagement with mobile video from taking off on a massive scale – that is, easily finding videos that do “matter” to you and with which you want to engage. Video and stills are worlds apart here. In his words, “consumers can flip through lots of photos in minutes and visually engage with the content immediately,” but “[t]he thumbnail of the video is the single point of advertising for the video” and “[i]n most cases the thumbnail may not fully communicate the context of the video’s content.” And that means failure to launch – failure to engage.

“Instagram for video” is DOA then, right? Wrong. Its recipe for success is just different, and we (including I) must throw that label out the window even if it is a helpful shorthand (in fact, I promise never to use it again in any guest post). Here are some concrete ideas for effective ongoing engagement with mobile video at scale.

Music-Centric Video

In the public sharing milieu, think focused “communities of interest,” rather than general-purpose sharing a la YouTube. Music-centric and “cause”-centric mobile video are ripe. Let’s take music first. Music solves the fundamental content issues identified above. An underlying music soundtrack – especially one known to a broad audience – becomes a central part of the “story” and adds the critical ingredient of relevance. That means more engagement and virality among already-rabid fans. Music also can help the audience efficiently find the videos that matter to them. Artists and songs – especially those known to a broad audience – can serve as critical navigational guideposts. They certainly convey more universality than a video thumbnail.

With this in mind, check out Video Star, a music-focused video app that I could see take off in a big way for public sharing. Video Star gives anyone the ability to easily create compelling music videos. Music gives the narrative drive, and the app fosters creativity and thought before video capture begins. It also offers instant filters and automates editing (the video is always in synch with the music) to optimize ease-of-use – in other words, the technology gets out of the way so that users can focus on the act of creation. That means better content, and that means enhanced universality, video engagement and sharing.

I have seen it in action with my own Instagram-using kids who made their own shockingly good Skrillex video (note to self: always look to what the kids are using). Video Star certainly ain’t YouTube or Facebook. Nor is it an Instagram clone. In Kirwin’s parlance, it results in videos my kids and I “were proud of.” Some friends immediately wanted to publish it to YouTube (until I thought the better of it for privacy reasons). I could imagine youth/kids-focused content sites by Disney and Viacom, as well as other music-focused services like Vevo, being interested.  

Cause-Centric Video

A “cause”-centric mobile video app also solves these public-sharing content hurdles. Think about it. Pick a cause. How about a current hot-button issue like gun control? Think of personal video messages that are organized around that topic – a video soapbox as it were. And think of the content. Users give real thought before they speak into the camera and press record – and their messages, their passions, their souls, become the “story.” I can imagine a mass audience for something like that across causes of all types.

Case in point: Evergram, a new future-messaging company that I like and that Sarah Perez recently wrote about on TechCrunch. Evergram recently enabled global users to send personal video messages of sympathy to the families of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy. Usage skyrocketed precisely because of the immediacy and intimacy of what is essentially a “cause”-focused YouTube video. Mobile cause-focused video content is frequently immediate, raw (inherently compelling) and universal in its appeal – relevant to both the creator and recipient. (Interestingly, Evergram is primarily a private sharing site, but it struck a nerve with cause-focused public sharing.)

Private Sharing

The most obvious “road less taken” path to success for investors in mobile video, however, is perhaps the least obvious to them — the private sharing opportunity. Mobile-captured personal video does matter and does engage if it is shared with your inner circle for whom you have solved the relevance problem. This means family and friends – sharing both directly and securely and occasionally on your wider inner circle via Facebook (which I consider private in this limited context). They will care about your kids. They will consume. They will share again with other trusted family members and friends. Why? Because those captured life moments – like your baby’s first steps – are themselves the “story” of relevance here. And remember, families and friends scale. That means massive potential.

Mobile video for private sharing also holds our attention longer than publicly shared video precisely because it does “matter.” It is relevant to the person on the receiving end. Those videos don’t need to play only a few seconds in order to hold that person’s attention. In fact, these personal videos for private sharing are frequently best consumed on the big screen while sitting on the couch. Your own personal video Netflix experience. Less ain’t more.

Among the many “usual suspects” most typically discussed in the “Instagram of video” context (including Viddy and Socialcam, which both are primarily “social”), a new and distinguished entrant, FrameBlast (recently profiled by Mike Butcher on TechCrunch ), seems to follow this private pathway most closely, although the founders understandably cringe at the label “Instagram for video.” Yes, FrameBlast enables public sharing and will ultimately enable collaborative story telling. But, take a look at its defining video on its homepage. It is all about private for now (including, you guessed it, a baby’s first steps). And, as Butcher points out, the user experience is compelling, following the “getting it right” U/X that I laid out in my original TechCrunch piece. FrameBlast even enables stitching together your personal videos to optimize the couch experience.

Yes, YouTube and Facebook also offer private sharing, and they work relatively well (YouTube, in fact, recently introduced its own dedicated mobile app called YouTube Capture). But, as I wrote in my original piece, that doesn’t mean that others can’t do it better and should hand this massive opportunity to those behemoths and not take it for themselves. To maximize private sharing, real contenders must pass the “grandma ease-of-use test” which means, among other things, that the experience should be native on the mobile device. YouTube and Facebook don’t do that.  This is one way others can win. And, because the private-share opportunity is massive, those “others” (and their investors) should be in a good position to realize significant value from their investment, most likely in the form of an acquisition by a smart “big fish.”