Making movies

Adding video to your agency's Web site is easier and more useful than you think

With one click on "Video Tributes" on the America Supports You Web site, you can view a message from President Bush, with actors, singers and athletes expressing their support for members of the U.S. military.

The site (www.americasupportsyou.mil) is an example of the outreach possibilities offered by video. It enables communication among troops, their families and supporters.

The clean, professional-quality videos are fresh and upbeat. But what's more important is that the videos on this site are designed to work in environments where even getting on the Internet can be a problem — never mind the speedy access we're used to in the United States.

What the military has found is that video presentations, when done well, are highly effective. For example, the Pentagon Channel site (pentagonchannel.mil) delivers military news and information to 2.6 million members of the U.S. Armed Forces. In addition, state and local governments and other organizations have launched video portals as a way to save money.

"We wanted a site that was vibrant and energetic — that's what video brings," said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs and internal communications, who oversees the Pentagon Channel. "We wanted people to experience the moment, which photos can't do."

Barber said that the America Supports You site is popular: It has registered more than 90 million hits since its launch in November 2004. Of course, President Bush's announcement of the site during a press conference didn't hurt.

"The White House and the president decided to include it because he decided it was helpful to the military," Barber said. "Now people know how to send messages to the troops, and military members find it inspiring."

Of course, not every organization needs a site with the reach of the Pentagon's. Wisconsin needs to get health and family service information to employees, and other types of health information to the public.

Moira Lafayette, the public health education and distance learning coordinator for Wisconsin's Department of Health and Family Services, said the department's video portal (dhfs.wisconsin.gov/webcast) exists primarily to allow workers to participate in meetings and other events without having to travel. In addition, the department maintains a series of health videos for citizens on topics such as prenatal care for at-risk mothers.

"The portal is a Webcast library," Lafayette said.

Sometimes the goal is to improve communications while staying within tight budget constraints.

"Members of Congress are leery about spending large parts of their budgets on technologies that are unproven," said Nels Randolph Benson, IT/IS director for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

"These people are married to direct mailings and newspaper ads," Benson said, adding that the Democratic party's leaders are providing video services at democrats.house.gov/news.

Benson added that although some members of Congress might consider video Webcasts to be unproven technology, Pelosi is not among them.

"She gets it more so than other Democratic leaders in the past with regard to technology," Benson said.

Getting there

As it turns out, adding video to your Web site isn't difficult. On the other hand, getting video that's worth watching isn't necessarily so easy. In reality, the biggest challenge isn't creating the media file, it's getting acceptable material.

The people involved with online videos say it is vital that video of the highest possible quality be used because by the time the original material is digitized and compressed, any flaws will be magnified.

"It's helpful to have source that's already digital," said Deborah Williams, project manager for Dynamics Research, the company that developed and maintains the America Supports You and Pentagon Channel sites.

She also recommends having the video professionally produced if possible. At the very least, make sure that you minimize on-screen motion and scene transitions because it's easier on viewers' eyes.

Video material can come from a variety of sources, including videotape and DVDs. However, it is important to edit and prepare it for the Internet. Popular tools for that include Adobe Premier and Avid Xpress. After being edited and encoded, the resulting file and a link can be placed on the site.

There are a few things to keep in mind. First, unless you know that all of your targeted visitors have access to a broadband connection, make sure you keep file sizes down to 1M or 2M. This means short clips and encoding designed for slow connections. Most video sites provide choices that let visitors choose how large a file they want to view.

The second is that video can suck up a lot of bandwidth, so if you expect significant activity, you might want to arrange with a content-caching company like Akamai to deliver your video, which is what the Pentagon and NASA do.

The format of the video is also important. For example, Windows Media is popular, but it's only useful for visitors running the Microsoft Windows operating system.

A more broadly based solution might be Real Video from Real Networks or Flash Video from Macromedia. Both of these solutions will work with Windows, but they will also work with Macintosh and Linux machines.

Mike Downey, a project manager at Macromedia, said the new version of Macromedia Studio 8, expected to be released soon, will make Flash video substantially easier to create and fit into environments where Flash has been a problem in the past. "It avoids the ugly Active X warnings and has a seamless install," he said.

If you don't want to hire a video expert or buy an in-house editing suite, you have the option of buying an appliance. Sonic Foundry makes the Mediasite device that lets users essentially plug and play their video portals.

The $40,000 device lets you attach a video and/or a data source and an audio source, and produce content that you can then deliver to visitors.

Wisconsin uses Mediasite for its portal. Pelosi's staff also uses a Mediasite appliance in addition to producing its own videos in a more traditional manner.

"The solution is automated," said Joe Plasterer, director of government solutions for Sonic Foundry, adding that ease of use is important to government users. "You don't need special training to make it work."

Making it work

Although the learning curve of the Mediasite product is steeper than Plasterer suggested, Benson said, "You have to use it over and over again and learn to use the equipment and push the boundaries."

"The big thing to keep in mind is baby steps," Benson said. "Once it gets easy, it turns into one of these instances when you just show up, set up your equipment and, bam, you're done."

Just making the production process easier isn't the only consideration. You also have to think about what you're showing. Ask yourself whether visitors to your site will really want to see all of what you're recording or perhaps just brief clips. Is the content interesting or littered with rambling words, jerky video and bad lighting?

If you have any doubts at all, ask someone else for an opinion.

In short, think of Barber's advice on choosing what content to place on your site. "Keep it short, keep it refreshed, and keep your target audience in mind," she said, adding that not everything belongs on the Web. "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

Rash is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who has been covering technology since the late 1970s. He can be reached at wayne@rash.org.

Your video portal toolkit

If your organization already has a Web site, you won't need many items to add video. Here are some examples of what you'll need:

Video sources

  • Digital video camera. Choose one that has IEEE 1394 (FireWire) output so you can get full-rate, high-quality digital video. Prices start at $500.
  • DVD reader. If you receive material on DVD, you'll need a reader. They cost less than $100.
  • IEEE 1394 adapter. Unless your computer came with one of these, you'll need to add one. Macintosh computers and some high-end PCs have them built in. The price is less than $30.

Editing software

  • Two examples are Adobe Premier Pro and Avid Xpress, but there are many others. Prices can be as high as $900, but some contracts make them available for much less.

Encoding software

  • Macromedia Studio 8 will provide everything you need to produce content from your edited video. The price for the newly released software was not set at press time.
  • Microsoft's Media Encoder 9 is available for free from the Downloads section of www.microsoft.com.

Making video work for you

Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs and internal communications, offered some suggestions for making sure your video portal works as it's supposed to.

  • Know your target audience. It's critical to know who will be using your portal, what their interests are and how they connect to the Internet. Unless you know everyone has a broadband connection, make sure you accommodate users with slower connections.
  • Have a smart team. Even when you think your ideas are good, ask for other opinions. Barber said she calls companies such as Coca Cola, MTV and Lowe's, and other offices in the Defense Department for ideas.
  • Constantly reevaluate. Yesterday's great idea might not be great today.
  • Keep it fresh. A Web site isn't like an annual report or a weekly newsletter. Your visitors will expect updated, fresh content.
  • Change does not necessarily mean improvement. Avoid confusing your user, and be sure changes make sense from the visitor's viewpoint.
  • Keep the quality high. Nobody likes crummy video, and your audience will go elsewhere if that's what you're providing.
  • Keep it short. Most people aren't willing to watch a video on their computer screens for more than a few minutes.

— Wayne Rash

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