The Myth of the Small Business ‘Pivot to Video’

If you read almost any mid-to-large size publication, you’ve likely heard the term “Pivot to video” before. This has become the go-to mantra for publishers, and it’s easy to see why. As ad platforms become less lucrative, social media accounts tweak their algorithms to reduce brand reach and competition blossoms everywhere, it’s an easy way to soothe investors and provide a clear direction. Pivot to video!

This trend has been eerily mirrored when it comes to small businesses these days, even among the Main Street merchants that I tend to work with. It’s not uncommon to find entire marketing agencies devoted wholly to video marketing for small businesses. Every agency and their pet tortoise has multiple blog posts and white papers extolling the virtues of video marketing, and how you can get billions of video views on your YouTube channel! Large media companies in particular absolutely love pushing their video marketing services, and own customers regularly get E-mail or phone pitches about how the wonders of video marketing can take them to the next level.

Here’s the problem, though: The fabled pivot to video has been a disaster for publishers and it’s not going to be any better for small businesses.

The immediate issue here is that small businesses and agencies partaking in the “pivot to video” are missing the trees for the forest again. It sounds incredible to say 500 million people are watching video on Facebook every day, or that Internet video traffic will be 80% of web traffic within four years (this is sketchy at best, but more on that later). The simple response is that most if not all of those 500 million people aren’t interested in your videos.

The main issue is that there’s no evidence consumers actually want more video. Both publishers and small businesses aren’t reacting to any kind of specific market need or identifying success results when it comes to what consumers respond to, especially when you consider that most users go out of their way to block commercials.

When it comes to small businesses, the “pivot to video” has been co-opted by agencies and media publishers looking to sell you something based on an existing trend. It’s a popular marketing agency tactic where they build themselves and their own marketing around based on what’s popular without thought to context. Except in previous cases of this there was some rhyme or reason involved, and there were some cherry-picked, heavily contextual case studies to go off of. Let’s look back in history:

-Remember back in 2010 and 2011 when everybody needed a Facebook page and it was going to reinvent business marketing forever? Small businesses spent thousands of dollars on social media consultants and poured effort into getting people to “like” their Facebook pages. What happened instead was that the market got saturated, Facebook modified its algorithm change, and business owners realized liking a page didn’t correlate with sales. Facebook marketing itself settled into a routine where it became just another part of the marketing toolkit rather than what you needed to bank everything on.

-Then came the app craze in 2013 and 2014. Every small business needed an app because they were going to replace websites and reinvent the Internet forever. This time small businesses spent obscene amounts of money on development or subscribed to those threadbare “free” app programs. Then they watched as they received 10 or 20 app downloads before their apps all sank into the graveyard of the bottom of the app stores, permanently eclipsed by Candy Crush and farting noise apps.

-I’ve beat up on Pokémon Go already, but let’s have a go at it again. When this app (calling it a game is a stretch) was first released there was a tidal wave of Pokemon Go marketing guides and strategies about how the app was going to send hundreds of customers to you for pennies’ worth of advertising. In a matter of months people realized that hanging “Catch A Charizard Here” signs didn’t make any difference when it came to foot traffic and that the impact on businesses was barely a blip.

In all three trends that I’ve just listed there were usually some success stories that kicked off a gold rush that left most small businesses with less money in their bank accounts and more money in the pockets of some marketing and media companies that successfully sold those trends. Except this “pivot to video” hasn’t produced any real success stories. The popularity of small business video marketing now seems based entirely on the popularity of the pivot to video insofar as publishers are concerned.

You can probably see the issue: You’re basing a marketing strategy on the presumption of another industry’s success, when in fact the opposite has been happening.

Except as Heidi N. Moore notes in a great piece, the original pivot to video was grounded in a lot of desperation and faulty metrics.

The pivot to video was allegedly borne of the lure of video advertising dollars. Traditional digital advertising, mostly banner ads and programmatic advertising, is cheap and doesn’t bring in enough money to support the cost of many newsrooms. That’s especially true because Facebook and Google collect 99 percent of all digital-advertising revenue growth in the US, leaving only crumbs for media companies.

But Facebook based its video push on a quicksand of faulty metrics. Facebook popularized the “3-second video view,” or the idea of counting a video viewed if a user kept it open for 3 seconds. Facebook flogged the 3-second view for two years, inflating its video views by 60 percent to 80 percent, according to Publicis. The company apologized for misleading metricsas late as September 2016. Two months later, Facebook admitted to overcounting yet more metrics tied to advertising. There’s evidence Facebook’s advertising metrics are still out of whack: An analyst report found that Facebook is claiming to reach millions more young Americans than actually exist in the US.

In other words, Facebook and Google sold a (at best) misleading bill of goods to publishers increasingly desperate about their declining revenue from traditional digital advertising, and before even seeing any success, those same media companies started picking up the baton and selling the concept to small businesses to make some dosh. Smaller marketing firms in turn were happy to go along.

Facebook’s admittance to overcounting metrics tied to advertising really shouldn’t be something you stake your small business’s livelihood on.

The tl;dr is that the mythical success of “video marketing” is a misnomer based on a rocky relationship between Internet giants and media companies, and it can be seen even in what marketing firms tout as successes. In my research for this article I’ve not seen anything that can really be touted as a “success story” for small business video marketing.

This blog post links to five examples of “awesome” small business B2B video marketing. Each of the videos has at most a few thousand views. In marketing numbers that’s pittance relative to production and time costs, even if you generously assume that 25% of those video viewers became customers. Here’s another article on how RevZilla made 1,800 videos and clocked in 9 million views…with exactly zero consideration for the financial impact on the business.

This segues into another problem: Video production is massively expensive and doesn’t scale well. A $2,500 upfront video cost (the low end of the ballpark estimate of that website I just linked to) is a small fortune for a lot of small businesses. Even $1,000 is going to put a big dent in a lot of Main Street bank accounts. This also doesn’t factor into the advertising you’ll inevitably need to do to promote the video to would-be new customers, so tack another $500 or so onto the bill for Google Adwords or Facebook advertising. You also may wind up needing to pay for video marketing consulting, which can rack up bills well in excess of $1,000.

With that in mind, how much of your product are you going to need to sell to even break even on production and time costs like this, let alone make a noticeable profit? Is making $200 or $500 for a video of this time and effort worth the time and investment? At what point does it become viable, let alone worth “pivoting” to video?

I’m not suggesting video isn’t or can’t be a valuable part of a small business’ marketing and success. A few of my own customers have had success with selling products that we can tie to videos themselves. Video is nonetheless a skill developed over years, not to mention a massive investment of time and money. It’s not a quick cash cow that you can replicate based on watching BuzzFeed rack up views of their cooking videos. It’s as silly as ever to assume that because it (may have) worked for other small businesses it will work for you.

Just as publishers shouldn’t do this, small businesses shouldn’t be putting all of their eggs in one insanely fragile, expensive and easily breakable basket. Especially when small businesses have a disturbingly publisher-esque habit to use video marketing as a distraction from ignore deeper underlying problems. Both video and small businesses deserve better than this, so pivot to what works for you instead.