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Tips for Producing More Effective YouTube Videos

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Veteran technical author Michael Miller shows how to make better-looking, better-performing YouTube videos — and drive customers to your accompanying website.

So, you've decided to make YouTube part of your company's marketing mix and you've even decided what type of video to produce. How do you go about making a must-see video, one that draws viewers and generates sales for your business?

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to producing effective YouTube videos, but I can impart lots of tips that can guide you in the right direction. Read on to learn how to make better-looking, better-performing YouTube videos—and drive customers to your accompanying website.

Tips for Creating Better-Looking Videos

When shooting a video for YouTube, it's important to get the file format and technical details right. It's also important to get the visual details right—to create a video that is visually and stylistically interesting to YouTube viewers.

What works well on a big movie screen works less well on a smaller home television screen. Similarly, what looks good on a TV-sized screen doesn't look nearly as good when viewed in a small window in a web browser. If you want to create an effective YouTube video, you have to produce for the medium, exploiting those elements that make YouTube unique.

Get the Size Right

YouTube's default video size is 320 pixels wide by 240 pixels tall; some videos are available in the slightly larger 480-pixel×360-pixel size. In both cases, that's a small window—but one you have to produce for.

Given the growing prevalence of 480×360 videos, you want to convert your videos to no smaller than this size; a 360×240 video looks blocky and grainy when blown up to 480×360. In fact, I recommend you shoot and upload your videos at 640×480 resolution. This is the same resolution as standard definition television and provides extra bandwidth in the event YouTube increases the size of its viewing window in the future.

So, shoot at 640×480 with a standard 4:3 aspect ratio. Don't shoot in widescreen because that merely leaves letterbox bars above and below your video—which is wasted space on the YouTube page. Also, don't bother shooting in high definition (1280×720 or 1920×1080) because, again, the extra resolution is lost to YouTube viewers.

Shoot for the Smaller Screen

Given that viewers will view your video in a small window in their web browser, you must create a video that looks good at this small size, viewed on a typical computer screen. What does this mean in terms of visual style?

Big and bright is the order of the day. You can shoot an epic with a cast of thousands, but those thousands will look like little dots in a small browser window. The best YouTube videos are visually simple, with a single main subject filling up most of the small video window. Get up close and frame the subject so that he or it fills most of the screen.

When using a webcam, filling the screen means getting up close to the lens. When using a camcorder, you should zoom into the main subject and remove any unnecessary people or objects from the frame. Close-ups are good; crowd shots aren't.

You also want to make sure the scene you shoot has adequate lighting. Too many YouTube videos come out way too dark, which makes them hard to view. This is especially important when you shoot with a webcam; even though a webcam might claim to work under normal room light, you're better off investing in a set of affordable photo floodlights or a separate speed light.

Finally, know that streaming video doesn't always reproduce rapid movement well. Move the camera too fast, or have your subject move too fast in the frame, and viewers are likely to see motion smears, pixilation, and other unacceptable video effects. Keep things slow and simple for best results.

Accentuate the Contrast

As noted previously, visual contrast is highly desirable with small-footprint videos. Put a pale or white-clad subject in front of a black background, or a black-clad subject in front of a white one. And consider using brightly colored backgrounds, which pop in YouTube thumbnails. Believe it or not, hot pink really grabs the attention of casual viewers!

Invest in Quality Equipment

To make a quality video, you need a quality video camera. That doesn't necessarily mean a professional camera; a high-quality, consumer-grade camcorder will do a good job. Make sure you have a digital camcorder, rather than an older analog one so that your video is completely digital from start to finish. Look for a camcorder that works good under low-light conditions, that has an attachment for external light, and that lets you connect an external microphone. Personally, I prefer hard disk camcorders because they make it easy to transfer video from the camcorder to your computer for editing; it's a simple matter of transferring files from one hard disk to another, without having to play back a tape in real time. And the bigger the camera's charge-coupled device (CCD), the better the picture quality.

Shoot Professionally

When you shoot your video, embrace professional production techniques—even if you just use a consumer-grade camcorder. Here are the things you need to keep in mind:

  • Make sure the subject is well lit; use an external lighting kit.
  • Make sure the speaker can be heard; use an external microphone, if your camera has an auxiliary mic input.
  • Monitor the audio with a set of headphones while rehearsing and recording; don't assume the camcorder is recording good sound just because the level meters are bouncing.
  • Minimize background and crowd noise; keep it quiet on the set.
  • Keep the camera steady; use a tripod.
  • Don't move the camera around too much.
  • Don't zoom in and out too much.

In other words, do everything you can to keep the focus on the main subject. Don't let the camerawork distract the viewer!

Use Two Cameras

Here's another way to add a professional sheen to your videos. Instead of shooting with a single camera directly in front of the subject, shoot with two cameras, shooting the subject from two different angles. This allows you to cut between shots in the editing process, adding visual variety to the video.

In addition, having two different angles to choose from makes it easier to edit the speaker, if you need to. Editing in different shots from different angles makes the fact that you're editing less apparent; the cut isn't as jarring or noticeable when you switch from one angle to another.

Be Professional—Or Not

If you're representing a professional business, your videos need to look professional. The standard look of personal YouTube videos—an unshaven twenty-something in a t-shirt, staring intently at a web camera—just doesn't give off the professional vibe that most businesses want. Whether your video's cast is one or thousands, make sure that anyone on camera is well dressed and well groomed, that everyone is well lit and well mic'd, and that the whole production has a professional sheen.

Unless, that is, you want to give out a hip young vibe. In that instance, take off the suits and ties and emulate the personal look that's become ubiquitous on YouTube. In other words, make sure your video has a look and feel that matches your company's message.

Don't Just Recycle Old Videos—Re-Edit Them, Too

Many businesses get started on YouTube by uploading existing company videos. This isn't a horrible idea, especially as a first effort. It's a low-cost, low-effort way to get your feet wet in the YouTube pond. However, your results will suffer if you just upload old videos without changes. You'll do better if you bring an older video up-to-date in its content and appearance, even if that means re-editing the video or shooting new scenes.

Consider Creating a Slideshow

If you don't need full-motion video or don't have access to a video camera, consider putting together a slideshow of still photographs. Just compile the photos into a slideshow, add background music or a voiceover, and upload the whole thing to YouTube. Likewise, some topics benefit from PowerPoint presentations, which you can also convert to video for uploading to YouTube.

Hire a Pro

Don't have the skills or equipment to create a video in-house? Hire an outside firm to produce the video for you. Every town has one or more video production companies that do this sort of thing. There's no need to reinvent the wheel; let the pros teach you the right way to do things.

Break the Rules

Don't confuse these tips for creating better-looking videos with hard and fast rules. It's okay to think outside the box and do things a little different. For example, if you want to create a hip-looking video for a younger audience, it's permissible to take the camera off the tripod and go for a "shaky-cam" effect. Do whatever it takes to achieve the effect you want.

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