GV Library Design

Does your startup need a product overview video?

Photo by Alex Healing

Video is seductive. When done well, it is emotional, evocative, and revealing. It is one of the best ways to show the human side of a story. But it is almost never the right way for early-stage startups to communicate what their product does. Despite their strengths, product overview videos are expensive to produce, difficult to change, and present a large mode-switching barrier to the user.

Why do so many startups choose to explain their products with video?

Startups often emulate established, successful companies. For example, Apple has mastered communicating with video — they create both moving human stories about how to use their products and clear how-to videos that accompany new-product launches. And well-produced videos can make a tiny startup look larger than life. When you’re trying to build trust in a new service, looking big can be a big help — especially in sectors like finance or cloud storage.

When I worked at YouTube, I saw the power of great video every day — whether it was groggy kids, extreme sports in HD, or a dying professor’s last lecture.

But when I started working with startups, I saw small teams work hard on videos that didn’t meet their goals. They invested a lot of time and money in the video, so they felt obligated to use it. It took me a while to realize that video is rarely the right way for early-stage startups to communicate what their product does. These days, I advise startups to consider their communication goals and decide whether a video is worth the cost — monetary and otherwise.

Why you don’t need a product overview video

Videos are expensive to produce
Producing high-quality video is hard. You can produce a video yourself, but it will be incredibly time-consuming. Or you can hire an agency to do it, which is expensive and still requires a lot of your time. One challenge working with an agency is that they don’t know as much about your business and your users as you do, so they have a hard time making good editing decisions.

It’s hard to iterate with video
The high cost (both in money and time) of video production means iteration is expensive and time-consuming. Every change you make takes longer and costs more than making an equivalent change to text and images.

It’s particularly painful when you find a small error that needs correcting — you have to open a huge file, make the change, wait for it to re-render, upload, etc. (Plus, YouTube won’t let you replace an existing video. You have to upload a new one.)

Video presents a mode-switching barrier to your users
With video, the biggest obstacle to communication is getting people to click “play.” Images and text on a page present no such barrier — people can jump right in.

When I was a designer at YouTube, I watched dozens of people encounter videos in research studies. Even then (on a video website!) I often saw a barrier to clicking “play” — users need to adjust the volume, make sure they won’t disturb anyone (perhaps putting on headphones), consider the bandwidth, and decide whether this video might be worth the wait.

When is video a good idea?

When you know the best way to explain your product
The best early-stage startups do everything they can to learn and improve their product quickly. This process applies to messaging too — we all have assumptions about the best way to explain our products, and we learn quickly whether these assumptions are correct.

Video is expensive and hard to change, so it’s best to wait until you’re confident about your message before committing to a video. For example, this video explaining Gmail Priority Inbox was created after the team tested a series of cheap screencasts and learned what was working.

When you want to show, not tell
Video is more effective than text and images at showing how a product works — people can actually see it in action! Particularly with new or novel types of products (e.g. Dropbox), showing — not telling — people can make a big difference.

These types of videos are often cheaper to make and easier to change, too. You can use the techniques described by Jake in his post about making screencasts.

However, these videos quickly get out of date when the UI changes. When I worked at FeedBurner, I was constantly realizing (too late) that the new design I launched required me to go back and update a bunch of videos in our help content. If you decide to use video tutorials or demos, remember they can create extra work every time you update your product.

When your content is video
Some products are all about video: YouTube, Udemy, Funny or Die, and many more. These websites either pass along the cost and ease-of-iteration challenges to their users (YouTube) or build an internal competency at dealing with those issues (Udemy, Funny or Die).

Getting people to click “play” is an even more important challenge for these products — their growth and success depends on it. YouTube addresses this by automatically playing the video when the page loads and nudging people into watching playlists and other strings of videos.

What are your experiences using video to communicate important messages? Do you have examples of great videos created by early-stage startups? Have you found techniques or tips for avoiding the challenges I described?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!