Here’s what needs to be done.
UPDATE — This article diagnoses the challenges tour operators face with video platforms. Part 2, published here, details the solution I created.
It’s March of this year and lockdown is upon us. I’m panicking.
I call a smattering of other business owners as isolation restrictions are rolling out and laugh out loud when one of them answers without a “Hello” but with a melodramatic “THERE’S BLOOD IN THE FUCKIN’ STREETS, MAN!” It just about captured the fear I felt for the future of my business.
Like a lot of business owners, my fear turned to focus as I started working on keeping my walking tour business relevant at a time when I wasn’t allowed to give walking tours.
Today I want to share the fruits of my labour, and argue an unfortunate conclusion I’ve reached: Today’s video platforms are inadequate for the tours & activities space.
It was a conclusion I couldn’t set aside, and I wasn’t alone. That’s why today, I’m debuting a solution, Speakeasy. Read on…
Part 1 — Our Trials & Tribulations with Vid-Tech
I knew I wanted us to stay relevant, so I knew that using video would factor into our corona-time strategy. I started the video journey with a few guiding principles:
- Walking tours are a lived experience and cannot be translated to other media. Recording our tours as-is will not convey the customer experience for which we strive.
- On our walking tours, the star of the show is not the inclusions. It’s not the tour routes. It’s not the landmarks we visit. It’s the relationship between guest and guide. The goal of our videos must be to convey that relationship — knowledge and landmarks are a secondary consequence.
- Monetising didn’t need to happen immediately, but it needed to be possible within six months (when our government-backed would expire).
Anyone who has worked with me knows that (for better or worse) I’m a fan of the “throw it at the wall/see if it sticks” school of business, so here are the ways we tried to manifest those guiding principles. Note that the headlines are clickable links to the videos, so you can view the actual results of what my team created over the last 3 months.
Method 1: Live-streaming on Facebook
Before I got the rest of our team on board, I wanted a way to quickly produce content without cumbersome pre- or post-production work.
- Facebook’s robust live-streaming platform was incredibly smooth and Creator Studio is a powerful analytics platform
- Walled garden — Facebook doesn’t increase reach, so we were preaching to the choir as we addressed existing fans, not prospective ones
- Lack of monetisation — While Facebook has announced a “fan subscription” option, it appears to be mostly lip-service — we were not able to gain manual approval for this program and I’ve yet to find a tour operator who has
Method 2: Live-to-tape, two-way YouTube video
Method 1 was gaining enough traction for me to bring in some colleagues, so I recruited some of our guides to work with me. I threw out the window my ambitions for a low-production time schedule after developing a way to talk live-to-tape between tour guide colleagues.
I was interested in the performative aspect of two guides trying to “one-up” one another, and I was inspired by morning television. Here in Australia, morning show “Sunrise” has a daily segment where they put their weatherman in unusual field locations. The anchors in the studio throw to the in-the-field weatherman and have a conversation. The off-script, loose nature of these interactions always makes my ears perk up. I wanted to create that feeling in our videos.
My quick-and-dirty method was archaic, but it worked. Guide 1 & Guide 2 would start a phone call with one another, and their earpieces would sync with their phones so they could speak live with an audio-only connection. Meanwhile, each guide carried an additional device and hit “record” on that seperate device. By capturing the audio/video locally we avoided that low-quality “streaming” look.
In post-production, I would sync the two videos and cut between the two.
- Of all the examples, I’m most proud of these videos, which I think best reflect the feeling of being on one of our tours
- The time-suck. In addition to a cumbersome filming process that required two humans to film at the same time and get all their tech right, the editing process would take 2-3 hours per video.
- Nobody watched them. Publishing straight to YouTube gave a greater degree of control, but losing the “live” element meant we were producing 20-minute pieces of content that nobody asked for. Publishing direct to Facebook had slightly better results — but not by much. Since we weren’t using social media’s “live” products, the video wasn’t pushed to as wide an audience
- No monetisation path
After a couple weeks of Method 2, we realised Instagram let us cross to one another live — no post production needed.
The method had some challenges – video quality was lower and only 2 people could be on screen at any given time, but it worked. We had one “host” cross to multiple “guests” during the livestream, and the result was pretty good.
- This represented the best cross-section of functionality of all the platforms.
- Same issues as Method 1 — we were only accessing our existing audience, and Instagram as a primarily mobile distribution stream didn’t let us get the desktop users we wanted
Method 4: Reddit Live-Streaming
Late last year, Reddit introduced the Reddit Public Access Network, or /r/pan for short. This tool removes many of the customisation options offered on follower-based social media like Facebook or Instagram. The trade-off is they give access to their audience, to put our video in front of an eye-watering 330,000,000 people.
- We found an audience! It’s not unusual to get views between 50-100K for one video
- Big engagement on the Reddit platform
- Lack of control — Reddit streaming is ephemeral, there’s very little I can do to get our videos to reach fans of our previous broadcasts
- Still no path to monetisation — we tried directing users to a special “tip” page on our website, but revenues were <$100 after having nearly a quarter-million views.
Conclusion: It’s the age of the live-stream, and there’s no lack of free-to-use options that are incredibly simple. Precisely none of them help us build a foundation to a successful business.
Part 2 — Running Paid Video Events
Fun as the above methods are to experiment with — they presented no long-term opportunities for revenue, so we started simultaneously offering paid events. We started with a “Digital Speakeasy” — where we ship our guests locally-curated booze and lead a tasting session online.
Later, we expanded to a “Digital Tour,” where we privately live-stream our walking tour for $20. As we moved into the digital space, we surveyed the possibilities, and didn’t like what we saw.
On one end of the spectrum was Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts. I use these everyday, but explaining how to use them to non-tech savvy guests takes more than a few paragraphs in my booking confirmation email. They were out.
Next, I looked at more powerful B2B software like Big Marker, ShinDig and others. We gave Big Marker a spin for a month after seeing the folks at Arrival use it. They came closest to addressing our needs, but like all B2B offerings they had two main problems:
- Too damn expensive — small businesses can’t afford a fixed price tag in the hundreds or thousands of $$ a month
- Not enough power in the hands of the organiser — see my explanation below
Power to the Operators
All existing vid-tech has one big problem: it is impossible to recreate the social hierarchy of a walking tour, pub quiz, university tour, or ticketed event with a primary speaker.
In real life — non-verbal cues tell an audience when it’s time to listen, and when they can interact.
In real life — no one needs to fumble to hit the “unmute” button.
In real life — no one forgets the camera is on them and begins picking their nose.
In losing the non-verbal cues of real-life, we need our vid-tech to put the power back in the hands of the event organisers. Rather than *hope* that our guests figure out how to process payments, download software, find the access password, and then understand the video platform, what if we took all that power away and let the MC lead the group, just like in real life?
What if we recreated the feeling of the registration desk, where a human manually verified that a user was in the correct place, rather than working on tech which can be easily broken or misunderstood?
We need a piece of software that puts power in the hands of the operator to create a seamless process from registration to delivery. With that in mind, I joined a founding team of some very talented people and created Speakeasy.