When you produce a piece of online video content, you probably pay a lot of attention to the quality of the sound and picture. You want the best possible presentation of your work. But sometimes, if you're like me, you can get ahead of yourself, and fret over the quality details to the point of neglecting your actual video content.
New research out of The Department of Psychology at Rice University finds that people who are enjoying what they're watching are less likely to notice the difference in quality of the video. The study titled, "The Effect of Content Desirability on Subjective Video Quality Ratings" focused on television, Internet video, and mobile video, and was authored by professor-in-the-practice at Rice, Philip Kortum.
The aim was to determine how the quality of a video impacts the viewer's overall opinion of it. And it turns out that if a viewer likes what they're watching, they are more likely to rate its video quality as higher, even if it isn't. Says Kortum:
"At first we were really surprised by the data. We were seeing that low-quality movies were being rated higher in quality than some of the high-quality videos. But after we started analyzing the data, we determined what was driving this was the actual desirability of the content. If you're at home watching and enjoying a movie, we found that you're probably not going to notice or even concern yourself with how many pixels the video is or if the data is being compressed.”
"Not going to notice or even concern yourself with how many pixels..." That's a pretty powerful statement. I'm excited to hear more about the study, because my guess is that the numbers must be fairly strong for him to phrase it that way.
There is a bit of a theory that American viewers are quite demanding in the desire for high-quality, but Kortum's study shows that theory may not hold much water. The Science Blog article I linked to above even suggests that these findings could dramatically alter the way providers deliver video content. Might your cable company want to provide fewer costly high-definition options if the public is willing to watch the same thing in lesser quality (provided the content was likable)? I think it's possible, that's for sure, at least in this economy.
What Does This Mean?
Well, if you boil these findings down into the most basic lesson to be learned, it means that content trumps quality. The audience has a list of things they're looking for when watching your video, and entertainment is at the top of the list. High-definition video may well be on the list, but it's not number one. All of the most successful online video campaigns began with great content. Don't spend a ton of money on top-of-the-line cameras and post-production if your actual video content is bland or flat-out bad.
What Does This NOT Mean?
It doesn't mean you can abandon your pursuit of good quality in your videos. Not for a second. If the audio is poor enough that the audience can't understand your actors, then the content doesn't matter in the least. You've got to pay attention to both the creative and technical side of video production if you want to succeed. But the only one of the two you simply cannot live without is good content.
What Are The Practical Applications?
I can't help but think about The Blair Witch Project. In another life, I managed a movie theater when that film was released. And it was a huge hit, for an indie film. But the camerawork was some of the hardest to watch in history. We gave out plenty of refunds to people who got sick or couldn't handle the shaking of the picture.
And yet the film was a hit. It found a large audience. And it did so because it was entertaining to that audience. It was suspenseful, it was something new, and it was scary. It doesn't hurt that the shaky camerawork was written into the concept of the film as a "documentary.” But ultimately, an awful lot of people overlooked some incredibly awkward footage because they enjoyed it.
So I think a practical takeaway is that some content producers won't be so afraid to post a video they believe has great entertainment value, even if the picture quality isn't as good as they'd hoped. We very nearly posted a far inferior version of our interview with Merton—with the audio sounding like it was recorded through a tin can—because we thought it was the best we could do. We thought we had a pretty good piece of unique content, and we'd struggled with improving the audio. Fortunately, we were able to get a final version with much better audio. But I wish I'd known about these findings by Rice at the time, because it would have made me feel a little bit better about possibly having to release a less-than-optimal version.
I also think it will have other producers embracing video concepts where the footage is naturally amateur-looking, as a stylistic choice—documentaries, interviews, amateur singers, reality programming, etc. Turning to that format is cheaper, sometimes by a large margin. If the creators know that the audience will embrace quality content regardless of video quality, we may see a whole new surge of the kinds of videos where lower-quality footage is expected.
We've put in a request to see the full report, and if we're able to do that, I'll be back to give you an update on some more of the details it contains. Until then, don't stop caring about your video quality… just start caring a little more about its content.