Getting Started with Online Multimedia

Multimedia Defined

According to Wikipedia, multimedia can be described as “media that uses multiple forms of information content and information processing (e.g. text, audio, graphics, animation, video, interactivity) to inform or entertain the (user) audience.”

The Rising Influence of Multimedia Online

Over the past few years, several trends have contributed to the increasing prominence of online multimedia. First, broadband usage continues to increase. According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, over 47% of all adult Americans have a broadband connection at home. Second, tools for the production and consumption of multimedia, such as iPods, camera-enabled phones, and handycams, continue to become more easily accessible to a broad population. Finally, online services like YouTube, MySpace and iTunes are pushing multimedia to millions of users each day. The results are staggering:

  1. 75% of Internet users watched streaming video online in May 2007, accounting for more than 8.3 billion video streams online.
  2. 12% of Internet users have downloaded or listened to a podcast, and that is expected to reach over 12 million households by 2010.
  3. The worldwide online gaming population has surpassed 215 million people.
  4. YouTube attracted 9 million visitors who viewed 176 million pages in February 2006, with Google Video (76 million pages viewed) and MSN Video (38 million pages viewed) following in second and third place (Liedtke, 2006).

With the meteoric rise in multimedia usage, it is imperative for PR practitioners to familiarize themselves with the various forms of multimedia online. In doing so, they can understand both the potential and limitations of what they can accomplish so they can better implement multimedia tactics that are in-line with their overall strategy.

While there are many forms of multimedia online, this white paper will focus on audio, video, and online gaming. It will provide an overview of these mediums while offering insight into how PR professionals can take advantage of them as part of their overall outreach efforts.

The Power and Peril of Podcasting: A Cautionary Tale

In June 2006, an AOL customer called the company’s service hotline to cancel his account. Instead of closing his account as requested, the customer service representative instead employed multiple sales tactics to try to convince the customer to keep his account open. The conversation became heated and ended with the rep saying: “Someday, when you calm down, you’re going to realize that all I was trying to do was help you, and it was actually in your best interest to listen to me.”

While the experience itself is not uncommon, this situation was unique in that the AOL customer, Vincent Ferrari, recorded the call. Ferrari then posted an audio clip of the conversation to his blog and notified a few Websites. Within an hour, his server crashed due to the sheer volume of online requests the audio file received. Within a week, Ferrari received countless inquiries from mainstream media outlets (he later appeared on the Today show and Nightline) and his audio clip was distributed to millions online, resulting in a PR crisis for AOL.

Although the growing influence of social media and the blogosphere helped facilitate the viral impact of Ferrari’s story, it was hearing the voices of the customer service representative and Ferrari himself that made the story so compelling. This anecdote illustrates the power of audio in amplifying the impact of a story.

Online Audio

Although there are various forms of online audio, the practice of podcasting has emerged over the past several years to take center stage. Podcasting refers to audio files that are distributed and syndicated over the Web using RSS (really simple syndication). Anyone can subscribe to a podcast and be immediately notified when a new audio file (episode) is published so they can then listen to it on their Web browser or download it to their portable audio device.

Podcasts can be thought of simply as online radio shows that are globally accessible, except with far less barriers to entry for producers. In fact, more and more traditional radio outlets have begun to transfer their audio content online and distribute it through podcast technologies. Simultaneously, because the barriers to entry are so low for content producers, podcasting has spawned all sorts of niche programming.

More than other forms of multimedia, the growth in podcasting is linked to the growth in ownership of portable media devices. In 2005, Pew reported that more than 22 million Americans owned iPods or MP3 players and 29% of them had downloaded podcasts from the Web . That number has risen in the past years, and with the continued evolution of handheld multimedia device such as the recent introduction of Apple’s iPhone, it is expected that the number of portable media owners will continue to grow.

Podcasting offers the following benefits:

  1. Target niche audiences – Unlike traditional radio, podcasting is highly targeted and it allows PR pros to narrowcast their message to their intended audience.
  2. Demographic - There is considerable evidence that the podcast audience is a young, affluent demographic that is enticing to many marketers and PR professionals.
  3. Detachable – According to noted podcasting expert Shel Holtz, “podcasting time-shifts radio-like content so you can listen at your leisure. It also allows you to detach content once imprisoned on your computer so you can take it with you wherever you go.”
  4. Convenient - Like radio, podcasting offers the opportunity to target audiences when they are engaged in other activities, such as commuting to work.

Communications professionals interested in incorporating podcasting into their PR efforts need to consider whether they have the time and resources to launch their own podcast. Although the tools are highly accessible, podcasting can require substantial time commitments. You might find that it makes better sense to pitch podcasts already in existence.

Alternatively, if you choose to develop your own podcasts, you might consider hosting a regular podcast series. When treated like a show or series, a podcast can offer organizations an enhanced opportunity to connect and build relationships with their audience, as well as attract the attention of other key stakeholders such as journalists, bloggers, and potential customers.

Regardless of how you do it, by taking advantage of the multimedia nature of the podcasting medium and the additional distribution channels it affords, you can dramatically increase the scope and impact of your news.

Online Video

The democratic presidential candidate debate held in July 2007 was a milestone for online video when YouTube was selected as the vehicle through which American voters submitted their questions for the candidates in video format. Although online video had played a notable role in US politics over the past several years, this was the first time an online video Web site was integrated into mainstream media for a federal election campaign.

Online video has clearly reached the tipping point. In May 2007, three out of every four Internet users had downloaded streaming video at some point during the month. There are a number of ways in which online video can be characterized. Like radio, many television stations are beginning to offer their content through the Web. In this scope, the Internet serves as a distribution channel that resembles traditional television. Web sites like YouTube and MySpace Video, often referred to as video sharing sites, are more exemplary of new forms of online video. Not only do these Web sites host various types of mainstream content, but they also host large quantities of independently produced, niche content. It is these video sharing sites that offer PR professionals an opportunity to communicate their message online.

Video sharing sites allow anyone to upload and share video content or to rate and comment on other videos hosted on the site. Placement of content on these sites is normally decided through the rating that a video has received. In addition, many video sharing sites offer functionality that facilitates the creation of social networks, such as the ability to subscribe to other people’s videos and join various types of groups.

Video sharing sites offer PR professionals a great opportunity to optimize the visibility of their video content and connect with their audiences. Using online video offers the following benefits:

  1. Reach niche and mass audiences – Although using video sharing sites can help reach targeted audiences, it also has the potential to reach a mass audience. In February 2006, YouTube attracted 9 million visitors who viewed 176 million pages. Furthermore, a number of corporate-sponsored videos placed on video sharing sites have received millions of views alone. As an example, Smirnoff’s Tea Party video was downloaded over 3 million times on YouTube.
  2. Increased Conversion Rates – There is evidence that indicates that video is more likely than text to compel audiences to take action. According to a 2005 survey conducted by the Online Publishers Association (OPA), 44 percent of respondents reported that they had taken some kind of action as a result of seeing a video advertisement.
  3. Inexpensive distribution – Once a video has been produced, it can be quickly and freely uploaded to distribution channels that receive millions of visits each day. The top video sharing sites – YouTube, Google Video, Yahoo! Video, and MySpace, offer free membership and hosting.
  4. Viral Impact – Designed to facilitate the sharing of video content, video sharing sites contain social media functionality. Most sites offer tools that allow other publishers and bloggers to easily embed and share videos hosted on their servers. The social media nature of these sites can have a viral effect on popular videos.
  5. Mainstream Exposure – Many video sharing sites have become resources for mainstream media outlets, with many broadcast and cable television stations now using clips from online video sharing sites in their regular programming.

Although the material barriers to entry for video sharing sites are low, not every type of video receives traction. According to Forrester, entertainment and news videos receive the most impressions online. The most successful videos tend to be short, irreverent, or highly controversial. Unless they have these characteristics, most corporate videos or public service announcements tend to receive little traction on video sharing sites.

Online Gaming

When MTV created a plan to market their reality show Laguna Beach, they made the decision to go online. In an effort to provide viewers with an enhanced experience of their show, they set up a virtual version of Laguna Beach using VR (virtual reality) technology from There.com. When the virtual version of Laguna Beach launched in September 2006, it drew almost 300,000 registrants in its first 10 weeks.

The online gaming population is now estimated to be over 200 million worldwide . The vast majority of online gaming tends to take place in Internet portals like Yahoo! or MSN, where users play shorter, less immersive games. Although these offer PR and marketing pros opportunities to communicate their message or brand, much of the focus in online gaming has been oriented towards massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), such as the Laguna Beach example cited above.

MMORPGs are virtual worlds where large communities of users interact with one another in game environments. In 2006, global membership in these communities exceeded 15 million. What appeals to PR professionals is not the total number of users, but the nature of their usage. MMORPG players spend on average over 20 hours per week, and they are also financially vested in their game play. There is also evidence that indicates the number of people in MMORPGs continues to grow steadily. Since opening to the public in 2003, Second Life, a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents, has grown explosively and today reports more than 8 million residents from around the globe.

Online gaming offers the following benefits:

  1. Immersive experiences – The potential to provide an immersive experience is unprecedented with MMORPGs. There is no other medium that invites the audience to participate and interact to the same extent. MMORPGs also provide PR professionals with an array of new opportunities to communicate their message in an interactive way.
  2. Greater message retention – The message retention rates associated with online gaming as a whole tend to be several times higher than that of more traditional forms of media. Due to the highly interactive nature of MMORPGs, it can be even higher.
  3. New distribution channel – Because MMORPGs are still relatively new in the communications landscape, they represent an opportunity to embrace an audience that has grown weary of more traditional forms of PR and marketing.

Despite the potential for PR professionals that exists with MMORPGs, they are still very much in their infancy and their reach remains extremely limited. Furthermore, they involve substantial time and financial commitment, and therefore, most organizations to date who have experimented with these virtual worlds are large Fortune-500 companies with substantial marketing and PR budgets.

Conclusion

The Internet is rapidly evolving from a text-based medium into a multimedia platform. Traditional media outlets are beginning to shift their focus online while new media outlets are constantly emerging. For communicators, this means there is an unprecedented opportunity to connect with audiences in new, interactive ways. However, the multimedia landscape is still in its infancy, and as a result, formulating and executing successful communications strategies can be a challenging endeavor.

Before attempting to integrate multimedia into your PR efforts, you must first understand what types of multimedia are best suited to your goals. You should then build a strategy that incorporates multimedia – whether video, audio, and/or online gaming – into your PR activity. They should complement the traditional approaches you already use, rather than replace the tactics that you have perfected over the years.

Remember to look before you leap. There may be opportunities to engage with those already active with multimedia in your focus area. For instance, there are thousands of podcasts currently active throughout the Web, focused on a countless array of topics. If there is a podcast that is focused on your subject, it may be a better use of your resources to reach out to the podcaster before you spend considerable time and effort required to launch your own podcast.

Finally, make sure to temper your expectations. Many who have found success with multimedia online have been experimenting with the medium for years. It is important not to get discouraged if your efforts do not immediately produce desired results. By getting started now, you are setting yourself up to become an expert in leveraging the potential of multimedia by the time it becomes a standard practice.

References

  1. Horrigan, J 2006, ‘Home Broadband Adoption 2006’, Pew Internet and American Life Project, viewed August 28, 2007, http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/184/report_display.asp
  2. comScore 2007, ‘3 Out of 4 U.S. Internet Users Streamed Video Online in May’, comScore, 17 July.
  3. Jobson, N 2005, ‘Podcasting: ‘Significant growth by 2010′, WebProNews.com, 13 April.
  4. comScore 2007, ‘Worldwide Online Gaming Community Reaches 217 Million People’, comScore, 28 August.
  5. Liedtke, M 2006, ‘Now starring on the Internet: YouTube.com’, Associated Press, 9 April.
  6. Madden, M 2006, ‘Podcast Downloading’, Pew Internet and American Life Project, viewed August 28, 2007, http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/193/report_display.asp
  7. Holtz, S 2005, ‘Rationalizing a Business Podcast’, Global PR Blog Week, 20 September.
  8. comScore 2007, ‘3 Out of 4 U.S. Internet Users Streamed Video Online in May’, comScore, 17 July.
  9. Smirnoff 2006, YouTube, viewed 28 August 2007, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTU2He2BIc0>
  10. McGann, R 2005, ‘Study: Video Key Opportunity for Online Advertisers, Publishers’, ClickZ, February 8.
  11. Haven, B 2006, ‘Should your Brand Use Online Video?’, Forrester, October 3.
  12. Wallace, M 2007, ‘A Second Life for MTV’, Wired, Issue 15.02.
  13. comScore 2007, ‘Worldwide Online Gaming Community Reaches 217 Million People’, comScore, 28 August.
  14. MMOGChart 2006, MMOGChart, viewed 28 August 2007, <http://www.mmogchart.com/>
  15. Yee, N 2005, ‘MMORPG Hours vs. TV Hours’, The Daedalus Project, < http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/000891.php>
  16. Second Life 2007, Second Life, viewed 28 October, 2007, <http://secondlife.com/whatis/>
  17. Kretchmer, S 2007, ‘The Emergent Advergames Industry: Developments, Impact, and Direction’, Centre for Research on Innovation and Competition, <http://www.cric.ac.uk/cric/events/dgi/abstracts/kretchmer.htm>

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