Meet VidCaster: The Mr. Potato Head of video platforms
Is VidCaster a platform, a publishing medium, or a type of glue? It can be hard to wrap your head around just what it is, and more importantly, what it means for news.
The company, headquartered in San Francisco, makes it easy to create a video site. Under its hood, Vidcaster handles most of the technical widgets and pipes of modern online video, from encoding to distribution to ad sales.
Currently, a handful of news organizations -- none of which were ready to be identified -- are cautiously exploring VidCaster. Online video journalism is a notoriously risky business, with numerous high-profile failures in recent years.
But as journalists continue to probe this new frontier, other communications companies are finding success. And as nonprofits, seminars, students, and entertainers map out the future of online video, they may blaze a trail that journalists could follow.
So, what is it?
VidCaster is to YouTube as self-hosted WordPress is to Blogger.com.
Or in other words, VidCaster lets you roll your own video site without having to rely on amateur-grade YouTube technology. YouTube’s great for citizen journalists and, as always, cats; but VidCaster promises more.
"Video sharing sites are good for discovery,” says VidCaster CEO Kieran Farr. “But discovery has good and bad aspects -- as easy as it is for people to discover your content, they can always discover someone else's content."
YouTube gives publishers limited control over ads, offers little in the way of traffic reporting, and won’t talk to other video sites. And then there’s the commenting culture.
In addition, Farr pointed out, YouTube doesn’t permit self-promotional videos. And although plenty of unauthorized content slips under the radar, one of VidCaster’s clients was threatened with exile from YouTube for using videos to advertise their services.
That client may be better off without YouTube’s rudimentary tools.
“VidCaster’s not just a platform,” says Farr. Instead, he says, it’s like a very sticky glue that holds together different technologies. When combined, those technologies comprise something far more comprehensive than just a single platform.
Farr points to The New York Times video site, built from scratch with Brightcove. VidCaster aims to put similar tools in publishers’ hands, and to add robust customization. "Now,” he says, “anyone can have their own New York Times video site."
Rather than providing its own proprietary tools, VidCaster hooks into a dizzying array of pre-existing services, making it a sort of chimera. When a client uploads a video to VidCaster, they’re automatically connected with ad networks, interactive layers, and traffic-analyzers, all in one place.
There’s also plenty of SEO-friendliness: an autogenerated video sitemap to facilitate searches, HTML5 compatibility, and CNAME mapping to properly direct visitors to the VidCaster-hosted site.
Improving search strength is crucial for news organizations, which continue to struggle to attract views. Last month, Poynter reported that the Miami Herald’s top-viewed video -- instructions for handling frozen iguanas -- garnered a paltry 26,000 views. That video has since disappeared from the site.
But for many clients, the greatest advantage is that the finished product looks like it’s a part of their existing site. For example, travel site AirBNB used VidCaster to create TV.AirBNB.com, which looks just like the main site. Viewers don’t see embedded YouTube videos; they see videos that appear to reside directly on AirBNB.com.
AirBNB once got nearly all of its video views from YouTube, Farr reported. Now, the traffic to their VidCaster-managed video site dwarfs what they got on YouTube.
Crucially, the video site includes a “Go to AirBNB” button in the top right corner, directing users to the main site. “This is the three million dollar button,” Farr says.
Who uses VidCaster (and how)
Indiana University Student Television uses VidCaster to streamline the workflow for 200 crewmembers working on 30 different shows, including news and talk shows. Students are assigned roles within the Web interface; some are content creators, while others are publishers.
The tools to draft, publish, distribute, and analyze are all available in the VidCaster interface.
And then there are the advertising tools. Users have employed VidCaster to advertise their own brand, as with entrepreneurship seminar Startup Cause, or to sell ads within their content.
Startup Cause used VidCaster to create a dedicated video site with interviews and presentations. On YouTube, that content would drown in a competitive sea, and would offer few engagement opportunities such as buying tickets or subscribing to RSS.
"If you're a company producing a narrow type of content, creating an experience to deliver on your brand promise is a big deal," says VidCaster COO Ray Pawulich.
That’s an important point for news organizations. As video early-adopters have discovered, sports and breaking news are important drivers of traffic. A customizable platform like VidCaster could allow an organization to develop a strong reputation within those categories.
Women 2.0 pursued a strategy similar to Startup Cause’s, creating a video site with the same look and feel as their main site. The nonprofit produces interviews that raise awareness of their work on behalf of female entrepreneurs.
VidCaster also has hooks into LiveRail and SpotXchange, allowing clients to engage in direct sales rather than depending on the whims of YouTube’s ad service. Ads can appear as pre-rolls, overlays, and banners, with rules created in LiveRail to serve the most effective content.
Some VidCaster users are more subtle with their advertising. Pop singer Ashlyne Huff’s music videos are ad-free, except for an interactive link embedded at the end of the video that allows users to directly buy the song they just heard via iTunes.
The website won’t do all your work for you, Farr admits. Even with the pre-configured pipes into ad networks, sales and targeted advertising is an advanced science, requiring seasoned pros. "This is still complicated,” he says. “But you don't have to write the code. This is tech that would have cost $50,000 to develop. Our goal is to make it more accessible."
In other words, they’ve built the highway for you; now you just need to learn how to drive.
VidCaster also hooks into Branient to provide further interactive options. Clients have used Branient to place images on top of their videos, to embed polls and questionnaires, and to insert click-to-purchase incentives throughout the content.
Like all of VidCaster’s connections to third-party technology, the Branient interface can be accessed from within VidCaster, bringing the experience to as close to seamless as possible.
"It looks so easy because it just works,” says Pawulich. “The reality is, it takes a lot of hard work to get all these pieces to work together."
As VidCaster maps out the future of providing professional-grade online video, they’re hardly alone. Their competitors are numerous, and offer similar services.
Kyte, for example, is also adept at distributing video to other platforms. Like VidCaster, a single click is all it takes to re-distribute content to Vimeo, YouTube, Blip.tv, and others. The “Kyte Console” features a CMS like VidCaster’s, offers interactive features like chat alongside videos, and integrates with ad networks like DoubleClick and EyeWonder. But it has fewer hooks into external services than VidCaster.
Kaltura boasts a CMS with robust editing capabilities, and connects with SubPLY to manage captions. Rather than providing pre-configured connections to ad networks, Kaltura provides its own advertising tech with optional do-it-yourself integration with Video Ad Serving standards -- something that’s not for the faint of heart.
Yet another competitor, Vmix, comes packaged with similar tools. But although Vmix has an API, most of its features are built-in, rather than existing as connections into other companies’ services. And ultimately, that may be VidCaster’s greatest strength. Rather than reinventing tools that already exist, they’ve simply built a series of blanks that users fill in with their favorite services.
It’s the Mr. Potato Head of video platforms.
Will it work for news?
VidCaster clients are already producing news -- and content that’s news-adjacent. So far, it’s proven that it can support interviews, documentaries, educational content, and even a cooking show.
But news organizations are understandably skittish, since so many have tried and failed to launch their own video initiatives. And although several are in talks with VidCaster, the company declined to identify them as they experiment with the technology’s potential.
Farr is hopeful that within the next few months, they’ll add more journalists to their roster of clients. Founded two years ago with incubator funds provided by faberNovel, VidCaster originally produced its own news content before pivoting to focus exclusively on software development. Now, they’re ready to provide their services to former competitors.
"We're at a really awesome -- but early -- stage," Farr says.