The Electronic Catalog: Streaming Video Online

As the availability of Internet broadband increases, streaming video technology — which enables companies to present products and ideas via video on their Websites — will become more common online. But companies needn’t wait for broadband to become more widely available. Using current technology, they can offer streaming video to their customers who have slower dial-up (or telephone) Internet connections, such as 28.8K or 56.6K modems.

Currently about 80% of U.S. Internet users still have such dial-up connections, according to Christopher Kelley, analyst for Forrester Research in Cambridge, MA. But he says that more people are shifting toward non-dial-up, high-speed connections. “In 2000, only 5 million of U.S. Internet users had cable, DSL, or some other type of fast connection,” Kelley says. By 2005, that number is expected to increase to 46.7 million, or about 32% of U.S. Web users. About half of U.S. homes today — or about 144 million people — have Internet access.

Even though U.S. broadband availability might increase in the next five years, it can’t always protect against site overload, as was the case with intimate apparel cataloger Victoria’s Secret’s January 2000 online video fashion show. The high volume of visitors ogling — er, logging on to — the site to enjoy the show caused significant site slowdown for anyone who logged on, regardless of their means of access. Generally speaking, though, sites viewed with a broadband connection not only download faster, but the quality of the video presented is often clearer as well.

Forrester: Broadband’s Boom Begins in 2001
Type of Web access 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Cable 3.74 7.76 11.42 15.81 19.43 22.42
DSL 1.25 2.96 6.61 10.07 14.06 17.75
Fixed wireless 0.02 0.25 0.66 1.25 2.22 4.20
Satellite 0.00 0.00 0.19 0.55 1.11 1.87
Fiber 0.00 0.00 0.01 0.06 0.19 0.47
Total (millions) 5.00 10.97 18.89 27.73 37.01 46.72
(Numbers may not total 100% due to rounding) Source: Forrester Research

Tomorrow’s technology today?

Just as the number of households using broadband Internet access is expected to climb during the next few years, so will the number of companies using streaming video. According to a recent study by Jupiter Media Metrix, the percentage of companies using streaming video to promote product launches online will increase from 29% to 35% during the next 18 months. What’s more, while only 13% of companies currently use streaming video to enhance their online customer service, this number is expected to jump to 45% in the next 18 months.

But though the forecasted increases are encouraging, they also indicate that less than half of U.S. businesses plan to adopt the technology at all within the next year and a half.

While streaming video is the exception rather than the rule on catalog Websites, a variety of media companies and businesses use the technology. and feature video news feeds, and many corporations, including Avon Products and Compaq, broadcast their financial earnings via Internet broadcasts, or Webcasts. is a Website that sells products typically sold on television infomercials, such as the George Foreman Grill, via streaming video infomercials, or “Webfomercials.”

And some wholesalers feature video on their Websites to promote their products to vendors, says Kenneth Burke, president/CEO of Multimedia Live, a Petaluma, CA-based Webmedia consultancy. “Designers and manufacturers who promote their products on their sites tend to offer streaming video more often than catalogers because they don’t have a catalog or other channel specific to them via which to market their products,” Burke says. “A cataloger could possibly arrange to use the manufacturer’s video streams for the product on its own Website.”

In addition to using streaming video to show the products in use, catalogers can use the technology to reduce customer service queries by demonstrating how to install or assemble the products. You can also make the video interactive by combining it with personalization technology. For instance, a menu on an apparel cataloger’s Website could ask a customer if she is petite or tall, and what types of pants she prefers — and then the site might offer her a chance to click on a video of a petite model wearing capri pants.

But if you do use streaming video for a more elemental purpose — to demonstrate the product’s safety feature, say, or to show how to assemble it — your Website should also offer a text-based option, accompanied by photos or diagrams, for customers with slower connections or who simply don’t want to sit through a video, says Forrester’s Kelley.

“About one-third of people using the Internet are what we call technology pessimists, meaning that they are hostile or ambivalent toward new technology,” Kelley says. These are people who, as the Web has become mainstream, have essentially been forced out of necessity to use it, though they don’t embrace its every innovation. “These pessimists [regardless of whether they have high-speed access or dial-up connections] have far less patience with various online features. If they click on a video that is grainy or choppy, they’ll become frustrated with it” — and the Website.

But catalogers should not omit streaming video solely because the majority of households do not have broadband access. For one thing, notes Burke, many consumers have high-speed Internet access at work. “And many consumers do their online shopping while at work.” he says. That’s all the more reason to give customers an option to view the video, rather than forcing them to view it. “If they happen to be shopping at work, a pop-up window with an automatic video [and audio] would be inappropriate,” Burke warns.

Who’s Using Streaming Media
% of companies using streaming media % expected to be using 18 mos. from now % change
Product launches
29% 35% +6%
B-to-b collaboration
23% 39% +16%
Customer training
23% 39% +16%
Customer service
13% 45% +22%
Earnings announcements
29% 16% (13%)
Source: Jupiter Media Metrix

What’s more, even customers with low-speed Web access are sometimes eager to see streaming video or other site enhancements. “If the customer thinks it might be valuable, he will sit and wait an extra minute for the video,” Burke says. He does suggest that companies keep their video segments shorter for their slower-connected customers, though.

Burke also advises catalogers to use embedded video, rather than requiring visitors to download a plug-in to see the footage. “What’s good about this technology is that you can embed it on a page where the customer can click to play it,” he says.

What are they waiting for?

Given the apparent benefits of streaming video and its relatively low cost (see “What It Costs,” page 94), “I don’t know why more catalogers aren’t offering streaming video,” Burke says. “There’s no technological reason that would prohibit them from doing so.”

One reason could be that catalogers are waiting for high-speed Internet access to become more common among their buyers. Or it could be that they’re waiting for other companies to make the technological leap — and the mistakes — first.

Forrester’s Kelley expects that companies such as Dodgeville, WI-based apparel catalog Lands’ End, which have pioneered customer care technologies such as live chat and virtual models, would be the most likely to test streaming video.

“We’ve looked into streaming video,” says Lands’ End spokesperson Beverly Holmes, “but we have no plans for it right now. For our customers and our category, it’s not where we need to be right now.”

What It Costs

Posting streaming video on a Website isn’t as expensive as you might think. If you shoot your own video — whether it’s to demonstrate how a product works or to show how to assemble an item — the cost of putting the video and sound together could run as little as $300. “It costs $200 an hour to hire someone to do voiceovers, and studio time runs about $100,” explains Kenneth Burke, president/CEO of consultancy Multimedia Live.

And if you’re tech-savvy enough to digitize the video, you can perform the entire streaming process on a laptop. “Or companies can buy a software package, such as Adobe, for about $300 that would digitize the entire video,” Burke says. More good news: Streaming video doesn’t use much server space.

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