May 12, 2011

Customer Story Time

For the past couple years MailChimp has been using video in many ways. Short tutorials within the app; educational series in the MailChimp Academy; promotional spots for our new features; and a few utterly ridiculous bits of nonsense that serve a darker, more dubious purpose which I won’t be going into here.

But this year, we’ve initiated a new effort for the VideoLab™, and that is the Customer Story

We’ve always shied away from the style of video that carries the label of "corporate" for the same reasons that we don’t have a team of salesmen that wear those blue button down shirts. "Selling" MailChimp in traditional ways just doesn’t sit well with us as a general rule. So when we decided it was time to make our own corporate videos, you know, the kind that tell a story of who customer X is, and how happy they are using our product, we decided a more natural approach would be to simply show customer X doing what it is they do. Period.

But wait, no mention of MailChimp? Nope.
Or how they use it to become more successful or efficient? Uh-uh.
No glowing on camera testimonials of how it changed the face of their business and how enthusiastically they refer it to all their businessy friends? Umm… <Cringe> Sorry, no.

We just thought it would be cool to pick some really interesting customers, who are doing some really interesting things, and make these little documentaries. "But why?" you ask. Well, surprisingly it is NOT so we can deploy Ben’s private MailChimp submarine that he paid big money for back during the first dot com bubble. The real answer is a bit less baroque. Essentially, we look at each Customer Story as a depiction of a particular craft-in-practice. I like to think that every business represents a collection of different crafts, with sometimes an especially interesting one at its core. So if we combed through our customer base and found some interesting businesses that were composed of interesting people practicing some neat craft, well, that would make for some pretty cool video.

In the past few months we’ve produced four of these Customer Stories. The first two we kept local, just to feel out the process and cut our teeth a little bit in terms of what resources, time and gear we would need to make them. Batdorf & Bronson coffee roasters was kind enough to let us make our first. Then our friends over at Hop City followed shortly thereafter with a treatise on all things beer.

Then it was off to broader horizons. Having the chance to travel to London to visit the office of [REALLY COOL BRAND WE CANT LEGALLY ANNOUNCE YET] was a thrill. I was nervous that they wouldn’t think I was hip or edgy enough to step foot inside, but I was pleasantly suprised to be ushered in by a kind group of hard working, extremely friendly people who were most accommodating.

Next came a visit with the Mighty Eagle itself, Angry Birds. During a chance encounter in a hotel lobby at SXSW, I pretty much invited myself to their offices in Helsinki, Finland for a shoot a couple weeks later. I had learned by this point that the best way to approach an invite to do a Customer Story is to ask if they would like to do it, then just show up at their doorstep with a camera and a few release forms! It hasn’t gotten me in trouble yet, but it certainly has eliminated a few delays and "scheduling conflicts."

There are other things I’ve learned along the way. This is, after all, modern film making in the digital age. What you see here is largely the result of one guy with a bag of camera gear and a computer, which as the old saying goes, would have been impossible not too long ago. Which brings me to a short discussion on gear, for those of you who are so inclined to read on and geek out with me…

The Gear
Producing short films on foot requires minimal gear be brought along, but one must not sacrifice quality. So I have boiled down my kit to a few crucial gadgets that fill my bag juuust to the top, and still allows me to produce something that looks and sounds pretty pro:

Camera: Canon 7D
Shoulder stabilizer: Cavision RS series
Various Canon and Ziess prime lenses (rent the really expensive ones!)
Audio: Zoom H4n external audio recorder, with Sennheiser wireless units to either Tram lavaliers or shotgun mic
Davis & Sanford fluid head tripod (trying to find a small one for travel but so far no luck)

Extras include lots of CF and SD cards, a small clapper for manual sync, and a weather protector for the camera in case you find yourself in a small blizzard during a Helsinki winter. Of course spare batteries, chargers, and card readers are mandatory.

It’s basically as much as can fit into one rolling carry on. Like any other trip, its best to bring as little as you can, and I’ve whittled down my kit to the bare essentials of what i need, what i can keep track of, and what i can operate myself.

And let me say, the recurring MVP for each of these excursions has been the Lowepro Pro Roller x gear bag. It would take me several paragraphs to list and describe its invaluable features, and every single one of them has come in handy at some point. Amazing design and quality construction. It’s been a great travel partner.

Anyway, once we arrive on location the real fun begins. Normally a shoot of this type would include a director, producer, grip, audio engineer, and camera operator, and a person doing the interviewing. But in true do-it-yourself MailChimp style, our production team is either just myself, as in the case of Angry Birds and [Cool Brand], or me plus my lab partner Courtney helping out with gear, and Kate or Mark from DesignLab™ handling the subjects and asking questions. Barebone minimums here, people. But regardless of the size of the team, the key to getting good footage is knowing how to get a nice shot with available light, locking in clean audio, and coaxing out a good story by asking the right questions of the subjects on camera.

And all that has to be done on the fly – maybe there’s a little advance preparation in the submarine – but not always do we get to see where we’re going ahead of time or talk to the people we’re going to be interviewing. Its a real adventure, every single time, and a great challenge, and loads of fun.

Then there’s the edit. Cobbling a good story arc from lots of little clips and some longer interview footage is certainly the toughest and most brain intensive part of the process. Like football is a game of inches, editing is a game of frames. 24 of them per second, and each one counts. Especially when cutting for the web, where attention spans are short and 10 minutes is considered long form entertainment. Oddly enough, every one of these has landed just at about 10 minutes in length. I started each thinking "ah this will be about 5-6 minutes tops" but for some reason I’ve found that a story arc naturally falls into place between book ends that are about 10 minutes apart. But as much as I struggle to keep things as short as possible, there still are some fundamental aspects of a story that cannot be left out. Otherwise you get a choppy music video type of thing, which isn’t really what we’re going for. Character and story development development, however brief, and a thread that moves the content naturally from point to point is necessary to come out on the other end with something that maintains an audience’s attention. Rhythm, good sound, and some dynamic to the piece are crucial elements that must be sought in the edit. The final result should grab people’s attention in the beginning, move like a song through the middle, and end on a high note.

I look forward to climbing back into the submarine and visiting more customers who are doing interesting things. Sharing these stories through video is something we do to be human, not corporate. As MailChimp represents a vast community of all types of people in all kinds of places doing all sorts of things, I figure one thing we all have in common is the love of a good story. I hope you enjoy them.