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Reasons For an Agency to Produce a Video Outlined

"Video is not always appropriate for getting the government’s message across."

by J.J. Smith

Video is not always appropriate for getting the government’s message across, says Roger Holzberg, new media and creative director for the National Cancer Institute’s, who offered recommendations and insights on video production at the 2011 Government Web and New Media Conference held in Washington, D.C. March 17-18.

Does an agency really need to produce a video to tell a story associated with its mission? Holzberg said. “The fact that it’s (video) simple, easy, cheap and fast may not be the best reason to do it,” he added. There is a huge difference between video and a story, “just because it can be posted on screen as a video doesn’t mean you’re telling a story,” he said. “That is a lesson is learning the hard way.”

What video producers need to remember is story is in the mind of the beholder, Holzberg said. There is a theory of “cognitive development” that says a story is pure when someone witnesses—or sees—an event, but as soon as the viewer recalls the event, it is no longer pure because it is filtered through the viewer’s perspective, he said. What government media creators need to remember is that when a viewer goes to a government website, it is usually with a very focused need, he said. “That is the filter, so video producers have to know the filters that they (the audience) are going to be seeing the video through,” he said.

YouTube—through it’s U.S. Government Channel—provides the federal government with an incredible channel to post videos, said Holzberg. However, “there is a plethora of mediocre material there, a significant amount of which was produced by my group,” he said.

In addition, YouTube allows government agencies to post longer videos than the five-minute time limit imposed on the average YouTube poster, Holzberg said. But, while the longer video time might seem like a good idea, it is not good for video viewership. Video metrics show “people are largely dying off north of five minutes regardless of how important, compelling, educational and informative we believe our video is,” he said.

So longer than five minutes for a video is too long, which leads to the question, can video makers really tell a story in five minutes? Holzberg said. If an agency is trying to educate, video is probably not the best tool, but if the agency wants “to grab someone emotionally,” or “immerse them in a world that they’ve never been to in the first person,” then video is important. But, if it is accepted that the average YouTube video is five minutes, or less, the video maker better hook a viewer within the first 15 seconds, or they are gone. “If the viewer isn’t hooked in the first 15 seconds of the video, you’ve failed,” he said.

Producers also need to know that videos come in three sizes, he said. Those sizes are a “teaser,” a “trailer,” or a “story.” A teaser is something that creates awareness about something, while a trailer is something that engages the viewer enough to want to go to the long form and learn more, he said. That leaves a full “story,” which is something NCI does not produce for YouTube.

All the videos produced at NCI for YouTube are trailers, because it is not possible to tell the full story about clinical trial, or the cancer genome project, in five minute, Holzberg said. “I believe we’re creating trailers to emotionally engage viewers, or inspire professionals, and drive the user to where the story is,” he said. It can be compared to a Broadway musical, where the producer of a musical asks what is the song the audience should be singing when they leave the theater? Unless the audience walks out of the theater singing a song from the show, they will not buy the recording, and if the audience does not buy the recording, the show will not be profitable. “If there’s one thing a viewer should carry away from watching the video, it’s a call to action, but if the video producers don’t know what that call to action is, there’s no reason to make the video,” he said.