Video e-mail goes corporate

If Joe Bianco has his way, movie star Russell Crowe will soon be firing off video e-mails to his fans thanking them for their support. Perhaps the actor/singer will embed clips of his latest recording session along with a personal note of appreciation. It's possible.

Bianco, CEO of Sheridan Square Entertainment, is so convinced that video e-mail technology is the wave of the future, he has inked a contract with provider First Stream, to outfit his 100 employees with the service. And Sheridan Square, which owns Crowe's label, Artemis Records, will be offering its musicians the opportunity to send video e-mails to admirers.

"There are two reasons why we are very excited about video e-mail," says Bianco. "First, we will be using this for corporate interoffice communications." With offices in four U.S. cities, using video e-mail will cut down flying time substantially, he says. "Second, our artists can maintain connections with their fans. I anticipate that a heavy metal artist will send a message that will look very different than a folk singer's."

Once dismissed as a gimmick, video e-mail is beginning to make inroads into business communication. As the technology has been refined and costs have been reduced, name-brand corporations have begun to give video e-mail a try.

Early days

In the mid-1990s -- the early days of video e-mail -- the technology was interesting but rough around the edges. PCs had to be beefed up with high-end graphics cards, megabytes of memory and special camera gear. High-speed transmission lines were scarce. Not only was it expensive, but it also was kludgy.

"Back then, video over Internet looked more like a series of fast photographs," says Paul Braun, president of VIDISolutions. "Compression was not so good. Big, bulky files came very, very slowly."

Faces looked pasty; voices failed to sync with moving lips. Full-motion video via the Web reminded users of a bad Japanese movie with poor dubbing. But video streaming arrived in the late 1990s, permitting users to view footage without hogging disk space. In video streaming, full-motion images flow through the recipient's computer, but the video data resides on the provider's server, not the user's.

Finding a home

Video e-mail is no longer an orphan technology. Organizations such as the Miami Dolphins football team, DaimlerChrysler and Eli Lilly and Co. are relying on video e-mails for ad campaigns, internal announcements and market surveys. These businesses are also using the technology for sales training, public relations, customer updates and product releases.

Ease of use is key to the growing market for video e-mail. First Stream recently announced First Stream Mail 4.0, which can deliver messages via any player platform, be it Java, QuickTime, Flash or Microsoft Media Player. The viewing window in the new release has been enlarged to 3-by-2 in. and can be expanded to a full screen with a single click.

With First Stream, video message senders attach a camera such as Logitech's QuickCam for Notebooks Pro or link an off-the-shelf camcorder to the PC. Next, they activate the video e-mail service and hit the Record button on the screen. After recording, they can embellish the message with text and graphics. Most services operate in a similar fashion, each with variations in multimedia platform, maximum video length and window size. Users generally pay an installation fee and are charged a monthly or annual subscription fee.

Some companies are cutting costs with video e-mail. Focus group firm BIGresearch uses video e-mail and PC-to-PC videoconferencing technology to gather consumer data. Instead of renting rooms to host focus groups, for the past two years the firm has been airing live videoconferences to targeted individuals, who share their opinions remotely via PC. For test panels of 2,000 or more, BIGresearch uses technology from SOS Video Communications. Panel participants log onto their video e-mail, view the clip of the product and key in responses.

Phil Rist, vice president of strategic initiatives at BIGresearch, notes that savings are vast for his clients, which include Victoria's Secret, S.C. Johnson & Son and Wal-Mart.

The technology has also proved powerful in business-to-business applications, says Rist. After it conducts a survey, BIGresearch tapes an actor reading a summary of the results. The footage is then condensed into a video e-mail that's sent to the client.

"Some people are not into reading charts and numbers," says Rist. "A video presentation makes it so much easier." A soap manufacturer, for example, can forward that same video e-mail to a department store buyer so he also can understand consumer preferences, he says.

Meanwhile, acceptance is growing on the receiving end of the technology. According to a new study conducted by Osterman Research, more than 50 percent of corporate users surveyed said they would view a video e-mail if it was sent by someone they knew. Over 38 percent said they would view video e-mails from people they do business with.

"Firms using video mail as a pull versus a push technology will gain user confidence," says Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research. For instance, he says, if a customer has a question about a product and e-mails the vendor, that vendor can provide an enhanced service by responding with a personalized video greeting.

That is exactly what Chrysler Group sales representative Chris Hanson did when he responded to a woman interested in a Chrysler 300 vehicle. Hanson replied to her questions via video e-mail and told her that the car she wanted was in the showroom. That same day, she drove three hours to purchase the car.

"Adding a face to the e-mail adds a new dimension to your selling," said Hanson. After the transaction, he zipped off a follow-up video message thanking her for her business. "Customers can get the same information from other dealerships, but if you have a decent personality and can portray that in your e-mail, the customer will connect with you," he says.

Early adopters

Some executives deem video e-mail a timesaver compared with hunting and pecking at the keyboard. "I'm the slowest typist in the world," says Sheridan Square's Bianco. "My secretary used to type out my long e-mails, but now I create a video e-mail and communicating is so much faster."

But many of today's adopters say the technology proves its worth in attracting business while maintaining core relationships. Last fall, Authoria, a human resources software company, issued video e-mail created by Productorials to investors, analysts and reporters to announce that it was acquiring a key competitor.

Todd Chambers, Authoria's vice president of marketing, said the feedback was overwhelming. "It not only delivered the message in a unique way, it set a tone for our company," he says. "We wanted to show how forward-thinking we are in both what we do and how we communicate to the outside world."

Chambers notes that after the release, bankers who were forwarded the video e-mail called to find out how they could invest in the company. "There is no question we will be doing more campaigns like this," he says.

Since video e-mail is a relatively new phenomenon, it is a strategic public-relations weapon that can generate buzz. When VIDISolutions partnered with the American Red Cross, America Online and Hewlett-Packard to launch Project Video Connect in 2003, a free program that allows military families to send video e-mails to armed services personnel in the Middle East, more than 70 media outlets covered the news.

Sometime this year, video e-mail will be viewable on cell phones. According to VIDISolutions' Braun, a user of the company's VIDITalk technology will soon be able to transmit video e-mail to cell phones bundled with Windows Media Player. Likewise, companies transmitting messages with Destiny Media Technologies' Clipstream technology will be able to send video e-mail to Java-supported cell phones.

Soon users will be able to talk back to the sender of their video e-mails, according to Jarrod Erwin, vice president of strategic development at VoiceTech Communications. His company's voiceNow video e-mail service will be equipped with a new CRM feature: Recipients with a microphone-equipped PC will be able to automatically dial and talk back to the sender with a single mouse click.

What will it take for the video e-mail market to take off? There are still obstacles to overcome. No vendor's service is perfect. Video-streamed images don't always work over dial-up lines, and even businesses using DSL may find that video clips sputter.

But Braun asserts that the acceptance of broadband and the proliferation of Web cameras is setting the stage. "Companies will soon see that video mail will become just as important as text e-mail and voice mail," he says. "There will be room for all three."

A moving plea for help

A mother who has just lost her son in the recent tsunami in Sri Lanka wails into the lenses of rolling cameras. In another scene, in hushed tones, a little girl explains, "Mother went to the shore and didn't come back."

These images from relief organization World Vision International, were part of a minimovie shot in Southeast Asia within days of the December tsunami disaster there and sent as a video e-mail to a half-million subscribers and donors thanking them for their support.

Called the Asia Tsunami Video Update, the three-minute roundup of the organization's rescue and support operations in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand showed original footage of the waves, the victims and the aftermath of the disaster.

The day the tsunami hit, many of the 3,700 relief workers already in the affected regions mobilized into teams to offer shelter, food and clothing. Some were already armed with video cameras and filmed for hours. One cameraman was sent from the organization's headquarters to help with the shooting.

According to Brad Cooper, World Vision's division director of Internet development, once the footage was transmitted electronically, video editors and producers on the creative content team worked around the clock to select precisely the right clips that would communicate what the workers were doing. Working with New York-based e-mail vendor Bigfoot Interactive and VitalStream for streaming video technology, the organization transmitted a series of messages to donors within three days of the disaster.

The clips were uploaded into servers, digitized and then transmitted, says Cooper. Using Macromedia Flash and Microsoft Windows Media formats, home users saw what relief workers had encountered.

Designed as a thank-you letter, the video was so effective that recipients continued to give donations online, says Cooper. To date, contributions to World Vision have topped $250 million worldwide.

"The feedback we got from this was great," Cooper says. "Video reinforced what our people were doing in the field." According to Cooper, five times as many people viewed the video e-mail than the messages that had only text content.

"There was just no better way to understand the impact of the devastation than with video," says Cooper.

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