YouTooCanTube: How Businesses Can Put Web Video To Use

New products from Cisco and others will help them make informal video like YouTube's relevant to their companies.
VBrick says a U.S. aircraft maker it declines to identify uses its system to troubleshoot in its factories. The company mounts cameras on manufacturing equipment, encodes the feed into IP, and sends it to on- and off-site engineers. If a machine malfunctions, they can check the feed for when it broke down, then figure out what went wrong, and suggest a quick fix remotely.

Cisco's grip on business networking doesn't give it a lock on video. The city of Jacksonville, N.C., runs Cisco networking and gear for voice over IP, but in the past year, it spent about $70,000 on VBrick's EtherneTV video appliances and 12 digital set-top boxes. Since the beginning of the year, the city's been delivering Web content over IP to municipal TVs throughout the area. It also records training sessions that people can watch live or on demand. This hurricane season, the city used its video infrastructure to send reports from county emergency operations centers to the city's community-access TV station.

"We're sending briefings about damage, storm locations, closures, and shelters to any person who has cable TV," says Earl Bunting, Jacksonville's IT services director. "It's even more immediate than local news because people are getting the information live directly from people making the decisions."

The big change is that users accept--even expect--that Web video comes with a lower, "good enough" quality. "It used to be that 'Oh my God, I'm going to have a Webcast. That means I need to spend $50,000 on a production room,'" says VBrick's Mavrogeanes. Now it's the message that's important. People "don't care as much about the production value anymore," he says.

No Free-For-All
But the messenger does matter, and most companies still want to exercise some control over who produces and publishes video distributed over their networks and through their Web sites. VBrick and Cisco both build in access-control mechanisms to manage who can upload, post, and view videos. Companies aren't coming to Cisco saying they want to give everyone the right to publish content, Wyatt says.

It's when companies break through that barrier and tap the creativity of user-generated content that Web video gets really interesting. Frito-Lay's create-your-own-commercial campaign will give the company an abundance of information about how customers see its marquee product. "Consumers like to personalize what's important to them. Just look at the popularity of the iPod and MySpace," a Doritos spokesman says.

The University of California at Berkeley is working with Google to broaden its video presence. The school has been Webcasting videos of some classes for 10 years, but last week it started posting content on its own Google Video site, hoping to get greater exposure through cross-platform access, higher resolution, downloads, and content sharing. It also recently started putting its video on Apple Computer's iTunes site.

Berkeley's Webcasts had 4.5 million views during the last school year. "Not everyone is getting into Cal, but you can still audit a course for free," says Obadiah Greenberg, product manager for webcast.berkeley. "We have alumni who are continuing to attend Cal virtually."

The university is interested in slowly opening its Webcasts to student and other university groups that want to share content--say, of campus tours, athletics, student plays, group meetings. "We still don't know, now that we're engaging the students, what's going to show up," Greenberg says. The university isn't giving up control: Greenberg's team approves videos submitted and usually gets involved in the production process.

Decentralized content creation is where video gets scary for most businesses--but also where it gets most interesting. What happens when a company gives, say, all its franchisees the ability to post video, so they can share ideas that are working in their stores? When engineers around the world can post videos of prototypes? Cruise line travelers, model railroad designers, Harley riders--there's no end to the customers who could create authentic video content that businesses would do well to capture.

For now, most businesses will play it safe. Last week, carmaker Saturn said it would join Google in a pilot Web ad campaign for its new Aura sedan. The Web ads, Saturn's first using Web video, let a shopper use Google Earth to click on a nearby dealership, then show a clip of a salesperson from that dealer urging the customer to visit. Says Scott Horn, Saturn's Internet marketing manager, "You have to go where the consumers are taking you, and video's where consumers are on the Web."

Now companies must figure out how to give customers and employees video--and learn to get it back from them, as well.