Reflections on a historic few months for online video

This has been my Summer of Video — several months when it became clear to me that we’ve reached an inflection point in the transition from linear TV to online video.

It started at the beginning of the season with the release of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which discussed the shift and how it’s transforming media and marketing. From studying these trends for the past five years, I understood intellectually that the video revolution was imminent. What I hadn’t anticipated is that real-world events this summer would make a born-again believer out of me.

A few weeks later, I went to my first VidCon, the annual convention devoted to all things video. Of the 25,000 attendees, the majority were teenaged (and tweenaged) girls. They were there to see their favorite YouTubers — video megastars like Nigahiga, Jenna Marbles, PewDiePie and countless other, um, names(?) that made me feel irreparably out of touch with pop culture.

There were panels by creators on VR storytelling, shooting drone footage and running a gaming channel. On the industry floor, large brands like Nestlé and eBay gave presentations on how they were doing video marketing for today’s consumers. It was an amazing experience — like seeing the IRL instantiation of our whitepaper.

Then, for the rest of the summer, it seemed as though every time news broke, there was a video aspect to the story. A military coup in Turkey was thwarted in part because its president was able to rally his supporters via video sent from his iPhone’s native FaceTime app. Shootings and arrests were captured and shared instantly by private citizens on Facebook Live and Periscope. We witnessed the first widespread use case of AR, as millions of people around the world shambled along streets playing Pokémon Go.

On the business side, legacy media invested as never before in creating digital video and in video streaming. CNN launched CNN Air, its drone-video-newsgathering operation. Twitter made eyebrow-raising forays into live programming, inking deals with Bloomberg, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.

Meanwhile, Instagram decided that rather than beat Snapchat at video, it might as well join them. Netflix released its first piece of original VR content. Finally, as a too-perfect coda to this video summer, the last-known manufacturer of VCRs just ceased production.

If you’re an entrepreneur, you should be excited that the online video landscape is inchoate.

There have been a few moments in my life when it felt like the world was in the middle of installing an update; this is one of them.

Not to get too carried away, let me temper my enthusiasm by saying that the future hasn’t arrived whole and in its shiny entirety. The innovations are out there in the real world, but these are still Wild West days for the new era of video, and realizing the transition won’t be without its difficulties. But I believe if you’re an entrepreneur, you should be excited that the online video landscape is inchoate, because that means there are enormous rewards awaiting anyone who can solve the challenges. I’ll elaborate on a couple of areas of great opportunity…

Content creation

One thing I took away from VidCon is that human needs and motivations are consistent across time — the adolescent attendees weren’t so different from my peers when I was a youth. But the expression of those desires takes different forms in different generations. New media platforms are pervasive among the millennial generation and Gen Z. In her keynote presentation at the convention, Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, reported that more millennials watch YouTube during prime time than network broadcast TV. For Gen Zers — who are growing up with Snapchat, Vine and Pokémon Go — I’m not sure it makes sense to say that traditional TV is dying, because I doubt it’s ever been a meaningful part of their lived experience.

Therefore, to start with, there are countless direct-to-consumer opportunities to innovate with content creation tools for these new media. Consider that only just this year have we seen (maybe) breakout tools for live streaming, in the form of Facebook Live and Snapchat Stories. Some early successes, like Vine, appear to be flailing.

Creators and audiences remain agnostic as to platform and application. They simply want frictionless means to create and view — which is why YouTube rolled out new features in its app to make it effortless to go live. In other words, I don’t think any tool has an insurmountable lead yet. And that’s just live streaming — a form of video that has analogs in old-school TV. When we turn to more novel forms of video content, like VR and AR, there are no household names in apps, even in the homes of Silicon Valley.

One marketer colleague thinks there’s a need for a content production hub, one that allows people to make video and distribute it simultaneously across the various channels. Personally, I’m skeptical. Past indicators are that no one-tool-fits-all model will do. You can’t take video made for Snapchat and simply “dub it” for Periscope. Consumers demand authenticity, and that now means being true to the platform.

The most potent content is the kind that says something compelling and is a psychic echo of who its audience is or wants to be.

Even legacy media is abandoning its afterthought approach of either lazily dumping leftover TV scraps into digital, or halfheartedly cranking out B-side video. ABC, for example, recently announced it is producing dozens of digital shows that are viewable only via mobile or TV apps. Audiences won’t sit for second-class content. They want video for Snapchat Stories, or Facebook Live, or VR that was specifically made, and appropriately well-made, for each particular platform.

Speaking of makers, video creators — at least the more serious ones — are a market waiting to be served. At VidCon we met many who made their living producing videos for YouTube and other platforms, and what they wanted was a) easy ways to create and share, b) to be paid for their work and c) to be treated like professionals with real jobs. is trying to address the monetization and professionalization issues with recently launched Amazon Direct. But there’s little other innovation in the payment platform and creator services ecosystem.

Personalization and distribution

We wrote in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” that when CMOs achieve video nirvana, “scalable personalized content will be ever present.” Well, easier said than done. But within each piece of that prediction is a promising marketing tech opportunity.

Scalable. A particular challenge that marketers face is simply how to produce compelling video, and enough of it. Agencies are prohibitively expensive for most businesses, and too slow to respond to the social web. Native advertising looks far less promising than a few years ago, as it’s become clear that even the biggest players in the space, BuzzFeed and Vice being prime examples, are running into trouble trying to scale — and Facebook continues to eat their lunch as content distributors. Taking it all in-house might be an option for the largest brands. But for SMBs, what are reasonable ways to staff up in order to be able to create myriad kinds of video for myriad platforms?

Personalized. Figuring out what kind of video content individual consumers should be served and when/where they should see the content is another opening for startups. Data has transformed the rest of modern marketing, and it will do so with video marketing. By collecting and analyzing data from mobile, payment systems, wearables and the Internet of Things, marketers will be able to build a 360-degree profile of particular consumers in order to educate their content and micro-target potential customers. Individuals will only see videos that are of interest to them, in the channels most appropriate for them. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the industry that’s taken a lead on mining data to deliver (intimately) personalized video content is the online pornography business.

Contemporary audiences won’t be dictated to by faceless institutions anymore.

Ever present. The new mechanisms for distributing video are also still being worked out. I’ve already mentioned the scaling issues with media outlets. Blogs continue to have currency, but are not nearly as influential as a decade ago. So-called “influencers” have grown in importance as channels for content distribution — but does a viable business model exist for harnessing the power of these disparate individuals who hold sway over millions of loyal followers? Perhaps it’s still the medium itself — with a twist — that’s the message: Pokémon Go, case in point, recently launched in Japan with its first major sponsor, McDonald’s. Or maybe there’s a way to work with creator communities to make, test and distribute content via their channels. There’s a danger, however, that a brand working with a creator will erode the trust that their fans place in them, which brings me to my final observation.

A concluding word about authenticity

If I were to boil down to one key point all the developments I’ve witnessed in video over the last few months, it would be that the power has shifted to consumers. Gone are the days when three TV networks dictated what everyone watched; when news anchors were the trusted authorities on what’s happening in the public affairs; when slickly produced commercials were all you needed to sell your wares.

TV viewership is in steady and irreversible decline. The police-shooting videos were captured by ordinary citizens. The celebrity YouTubers who fans were screaming for at VidCon weren’t like the big record label-manufactured boy bands of the recent past. Susan Wojcicki shared a remarkable survey finding that 60 percent of teenagers say YouTube stars understand them better than their friends.

Contemporary audiences won’t be dictated to by faceless institutions anymore. They only trust real people, and they insist that their content be authentic. Or at least that the content and its creator do a credible job of passing for real. Even global celebrities like Taylor Swift have had to manufacture verisimilitude, despite maybe being, in actuality, cold-blooded pop stars.

Nor are the most engaged consumers satisfied with passive entertainment. Amusement will always be welcome, but today’s audiences also value media that allow them to connect and to have a say — be that through chance meetings with other Pokémon catchers, finding a nurturing YouTube subculture of one’s own or tweeting in solidarity with digitally enabled social justice movements. The most potent content is the kind that says something compelling and is a psychic echo of who its audience is or wants to be.

The people rule. The populi demands that the vox be theirs. And what that voice is calling for — on many different levels, from viewing habits to voting preferences, from consumer behavior to civil disobedience — is revolution. Entrepreneurs and marketers would do well to listen — as well as watch.