Have you noticed anything about video production quality lately? From Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday bash in April to the Inauguration Day concert a few weeks ago, people have given up on high-quality video.
This version of Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” went viral. Nearly 34 million people tuned into the inauguration concert. A-listers are singing in their living rooms on video calls from their iPads with earbuds—and not even wireless ones! And, despite the flaws, people are eating it up.
What is driving this change in production values, besides the obvious shelter-in-place limitations? And is high-quality video a thing of the past, or is this just a COVID fad?
Charting the Course of Low-Production Quality Video
In years past, marketers warned against the perils of low-quality video. Grainy visuals with so-so sound may have signaled to consumers that you weren’t that serious or established. It was a rookie mistake, one to avoid at all costs.
In the early days of the pandemic, even the pros were forced onto Zoom to connect with others. Talk show hosts all moved out of the studio and into their homes. Major live events, like Sonheim’s birthday bash—typically held at Carnegie Hall—went virtual.
But now, even with film and television production up and running again, we still see a more relaxed attitude. Although the talk show hosts are back behind their regular desks, they’re wearing sweaters and casual button-downs instead of suits. And interviews with their celebrity guests are still happening remotely, with the likes of Amy Schumer, Stanley Tucci, and Zendaya dialing in from home.
Why We’re Okay With It
Yes, it was a necessity at first, but audiences remain happy viewing this lower-quality video. There is no one “why” behind the change; it’s likely a combination of practical and sociological factors.
We as a society have always wanted to feel connected to celebrities and brands. That’s one reason why social media has been such a successful and popular vehicle for marketing. It levels the playing field; when a regular person can tweet at their favorite star and receive a response? People live for that kind of personal connection.
These low-production quality videos show that brands and celebrities are experiencing the same realities of quarantine as the rest of us: grainy webcam videos, bad Wi-Fi connections, kids or pets running around in the background. It creates a shared sense of humanity—one that is particularly powerful during a time when our face-to-face interactions with others are severely reduced.
It’s also possible that the pandemic has helped us reframe what matters. There’s been a lot of pop-psych talk about gratitude since COVID began, but there’s something to it. We’ve collectively realized that what counts is substance, not style.
Plus, we can’t discount the mere exposure effect. That’s the psychological principle that says we start to like things simply because we’re exposed to them more often. After hundreds of work-related video calls, maybe we’ve inadvertently come to like, and perhaps prefer, low-quality video.
We Still Have Standards, You Know!
Even with a much more laid-back attitude about the level of video quality we’re willing to accept, some transgressions remain a bridge too far.
Sure, we’ll accept a cheesy green-screen background or a cat strolling in front of a camera. Less acceptable is terrible audio quality that makes it difficult to hear content or very grainy, shaky video.
Fortunately, those technical no-nos are easily avoidable. The camera quality on most smartphones or laptops is so high today that a fancy camera is hardly a requirement. And online retailers boast dozens of reasonably-priced lavalier microphone and ring light options—two items that can take your overall video quality from mediocre to great.
Will Low-Quality Video Stick Around?
This may be the most pressing question of all. Should we begin hoarding high-quality cameras and sound equipment for post-vaccine life? Will everyone forget about their newfound love for lo-fi videos and go back to demanding high-budget productions?
It seems unlikely. Honestly, if you knew where to look, low-quality, high-concept videos were already succeeding pre-pandemic. Dollar Shave Club’s founder created the brand’s first ad for $4,500. It’s racked up over 27 million views on YouTube and helped launch a cheap razor empire that the founder sold to Unilever for $1 billion in 2016.
In 2018, Wistia undertook a case study to see how much video production value really matters. It created three ads for its new product, one that cost $1,000, another for $10,000, and a spendy version for $100,000. It found that the $10,000 video was the clear winner in terms of cost per install metrics.
Sure, consumers will still want to see fancy production values on certain commercials. Big-budget Super Bowl advertising and image-building tv spots, for example, likely aren’t going anywhere. But the shift to lower-quality video has demonstrated that substance matters. A great idea will get you further than a top-of-the-line camera, 15-person crew, and fancy craft services table every time.