The age of web TV has finally arrived, according to some commentary. Technological advances for broadband connections have brought an end to hours waiting for 'buffering'. Whether it be a 30-second spoof of an ad on YouTube, a brand-sponsored cookery show or a missed episode of a favourite show on a catch-up service, internet users are becoming ever more used to watching video online.
Many companies have woken up to this fact and are now using online video as a key internal communications tool rather than copying hundreds of videos or DVDs for staff to take home.
For external communications, online TV blurs the boundaries between PR, marketing and advertising and the rules of engagement are not yet totally clear. However, as audiences spend less time in front of the TV screen and more in front of a monitor, making successful web TV is becoming ever-more crucial to the future of many brands.
The statistics back up the theory. December 2007 data from web analytic firm comScore show UK online video viewing reach at 87 per cent, equating to 108 videos a month per viewer in the UK.
This is second only to Canada and eclipses the US, where users watch 77 a month on average. Watching videos is now the third most popular online activity after search and retail and ahead of social networking.
ComScore executive vice-president Jack Flanagan says shorter videos under five minutes are currently the most popular, as most viewing is taking place at work.
Flanagan believes PR campaigns can capitalise on the increased usage of video across key countries throughout Europe: 'Positioned correctly, PR campaigns can effectively convey messages to a mass audience. The key to success for these will be working with very short windows of 30 second to one minute to get maximum value.'
Russell Goldsmith, digital director at markettiers4dc, also believes there is a massive opportunity for brands to get involved with online video, especially as Ofcom does not regulate content on the web: 'When relevant to the viewer, online video creates an apex of attention and high receptiveness that research has shown increases purchase intention by 50 per cent.'
But not all broadcast agencies believe in web TV. Shout Communications director Catherine Bayfield is wary of the longer programmes favoured by some brands. 'It's almost vanity publishing - the client sees itself on a screen, but who else is really watching?
There is a danger that, because there are no rules or restrictions for web TV, production standards are low, and editorially they can be too commercial. That means even if you get an audience for them, that audience is likely to lose interest quickly and click off.'
World Television's director of sales and marketing Amanda Alexander also advises caution. 'There are no barriers to making web TV but brands shouldn't do it for the sake of doing it.'
So what are the necessary factors for success in web TV? Interactivity has become a crucial component to draw the audience in and being editorially balanced is also vital, even when promoting a brand.
'Keep it neutral,' advises Shout's Bayfield. 'Use limited, subtle branding and use the same high editorial standards as if you were making it for the 10 O'Clock News.' In terms of production standards for web TV, Television Consultancy's Mark de Leuw says that as people have so much choice about what to watch online, it is even more important to keep standards high.
'It's crucial to film it and light it well owing to web resolutions,' he adds. De Leuw believes it is definitely worth investing in web TV. His key criteria for success are that the footage is 'short, sweet, easy on the eye and leaves the viewer feeling uplifted and entertained'.
The cost of web TV obviously varies considerably depending on the content of the programme. But about £5,000 for a well-produced, coded and hosted 3-7 minute video is standard. The use of a celebrity presenter can of course have a significant impact on the budget, and while some agencies believe a celebrity is a necessary factor to pull in the viewers, there are others who believe engaging web TV can be made without a famous face.
Once the video is produced it needs to be sold in to third party websites. The aim is to reach an audience that will make it worthwhile as a comms tool. World Television's Alexander says it is important to take a tailored approach when selling in web TV.
'I've listened to the online editors of our traditional press such as The Sun and The Telegraph talking about how they are using video. Essentially, you have to give the online editor something different from the print editor, and a broadcast editor wants something different again.'
Alexander says in her experience, online editors want 90 seconds of high quality, finished and narrated 'ready to use' footage delivered electronically. She feels there has been a re-emergence of A-roll as 'a nice tool for the online world'.
She also believes in providing loose B-roll footage for the online editors to work with as well as the short finished piece. Shout's Bayfield believes 2-3 minute programmes, sometimes called vodcasts, are the way forward, and says the market has changed recently.
'About 18 months ago online editors were grateful for any content you could provide, but now they are becoming much more choosy. You have to be more cunning to get your message across,' she says. Providing something that the media owner could not easily produce has also emerged as a key factor to success.
It is clear that while web TV is still an emerging medium, it has grown so quickly that it is now becoming mainstream. Most websites do now have some video content and with large amounts of money moving away from spot advertising, brands are seeing online video as an exciting new way to get a good return on investment.
However, White Boat TV's Chris Godwin says it is important that web TV is not considered in isolation: 'It must be created as part of a broader publicity campaign. Interactivity is key to creating a deeper experience.'
More and more brand owners are realising that, if produced to a high standard and fitted into a broader communications strategy, the future of web TV looks brighter than ever.
CASE STUDY - ENJOY ENGLAND STRIKES GOLD
Campaign: Enjoy England TV 'Hidden Gems'
Client: Visit Britain
Broadcast company: White Boat TV
When it happened: Episode one launched April 08
Approximate costs: £3-7,000 per film
Enjoy England, the domestic tourism arm of Visit Britain, wanted to create more interactive relationships with its 450,000 newsletter subscribers and website users. The comms team invited White Boat TV to come up with some ideas for a web TV series, based around Enjoy England's 'Hidden Gems' campaign.
White Boat produced a pilot episode in Brighton and was then commissioned to make a series of videos. Episodes featuring East Yorkshire and the Peak District have followed, all solely featuring 'off the beaten track' ideas sent in by the users of the website.
Laurence Bresh, general manager of Enjoy England, says the fact that Simon Calder, travel editor of The Independent, presents the films brings them another level of credibility.
Bresh says the films were made to fit within a wider campaign around 'sharing secrets' and word of mouth: 'We wanted to combine video with user-generated content and in 2008 we've finally seen the tipping point of the penetration of broadband and increased download speeds - people are getting much more comfy with video online.'
Each film takes about ten days to make. This includes planning, scripting, editing and filming.
The films were sent to Enjoy England's 450,000 email subscribers in their newsletter and have appeared on a variety of websites including Myspace and Metacafe. They are also running on the YouTube channel set up by Enjoy England and the Brighton film is featured on The Independent website.
White Boat's Chris Godwin says the results speak for themselves: 'The first two films attracted more than 100,000 views each and the Brighton film has had an extra 20,000 views on The Independent website so far. The numbers will continue to grow and the films have become the most viewed part of the Enjoy England website.'
Enjoy England's Bresh is now considering increasing the planned frequency from one a month to two and extending the campaign beyond 12 episodes.
CASE STUDY - WHISKY BRAND HITS GLOBAL AUDIENCE
Campaign: Laphroaig Live - Interactive Whisky Tasting
Client: VPH Limited for Laphroaig
Broadcast company: Markettiers4dc
When it happened: 21 November 2007
Approximate Costs: Undisclosed but PRWeek estimates £10-15,000
Laphroaig single malt whisky commissioned markettiers4dc to produce what it believes to be the first live interactive web TV programme delivered via satellite to a global audience.
Laphroaig Live was an event designed to promote the launch of a new premium 27-year-old 'expression' of the brand and engage with the 280,000 registered 'Friends of Laphroaig' on Facebook.
The Question Time-style programme featured a tasting of five Laphroaig expressions and involved three expert panellists as well as 20 competition winners who were invited to the studio. The show, filmed at the Vinopolis attraction in London, was technically demanding as there was no hardwire connection at the venue.
Markettiers4dc used the latest satellite technology to film, encode and stream the show live and make it interactive for the viewers from 63 different countries. Russell Goldsmith, digital director at Markettiers4dc, says that the high production standards were vital.
'Web TV needs to be of professional broadcast quality if it is on behalf of a brand - the audience and media partners will want that - but that doesn't mean it has to be really expensive.'
The campaign generated global coverage before and after the live event. It was shown on the Laphroaig site and on 10 third party websites including Harpers, myvillage.com and Tiscali.
More than 1,000 questions were posted in advance of the show, which was watched live by 7,300 people and has since been viewed by thousands more. A further 1,100 questions from around the world were received during the show, which was intended to run for 40 minutes but in fact continued for an hour due to the volume of questions and interest it generated.
'This highlights another of the great advantages of web TV - you're not tied to a schedule and you don't have to break for the news,' believes Goldsmith.