Working from Home: Want to livestream your CX content? Start here.

These COVID times have forced many of us to consider not just how we are going to communicate, but how we are going to create and distribute content. Turns out, equipment and production values really do matter. Paul Greenberg provides an amateur's guide to everything required for delivering high definition values to your audience.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

I read this post on ZDNet a few days ago by David Gewirtz recommending some tech and furniture that would be good for WFH if it was going to be long term and it got me thinking.  For the last several months, Brent Leary and I have been upgrading, even overhauling, our broadcasting studio equipment for the CRM Playaz which I am sure that EVERYONE of you is just watching all the time. Can't get enough of the Playaz, baby. In fact, aside from our riffing on the industry and bringing major guests onto the show to riff with us (see these two amazing episodes: One with SAP President of CX, Bob Stutz and the other in the first segment of our first crossover event with DisrupTV – with enterprise influencer supreme, Ray Wang and Salesforce's extraordinary Chief Evangelist Vala Afshar, also a ZDNet columnist), we have been working to make sure that not only the content but the broadcast quality was up to at least prosumer standards, if not professional.

Since I am an utter rookie at the technologies of photography, video, and broadcasting, I had to do a ton of research and learn to do the DIY thing. I'm proud to say, I actually pieced together a pretty damned good studio in an 8-foot square spare room with 9-foot ceilings (my awesome wife's idea).So, for the next few weeks, I  want to share with you the results of my research and practical experience with some recommendations both for equipment and best practices – with the caveat these are coming from a novice who learned how to do them – not a pro who might trash everything I say.  I won't be talking CX, CE, or CRM directly -- but indirectly I am talking engagement, retention, and experience.  You'll see.

Keep in mind, the needs you have may not be the needs I had nor will the budgets be the same nor will the intent be the same, but, hey, I'm just trying to help.

Given this, here's the game plan for this series of posts. This post will be devoted to the business case to do this, and some of the general stuff you need to know in order to figure out how to build a studio   Each subsequent post will focus on an area that, if you are treating this seriously, you will want to be thinking about. Each post will include recommendations for equipment that has proven valuable to me and -- given my research and extant other research -- has proven valuable to  others in our situation. Interwoven throughout will be a few tricks I learned along the way to make this all work.

Again, this isn't a book.  I'm going to give you recommendations for how to approach building a capable system and what equipment you might want to consider.  I am an amateur. I do not play a professional in the movie.  There are people who on the photographic and streaming side in our industry who are at closer to professional than I am. I'll call them out even though I can't say they'll give you advice if you ask – since I didn't ask them.  But they are who I would have if I wanted to. They are CXO Talk host and creator Michael Krigsman and G2 Chief Research Officer Mike Fauscette. Michael is a brilliant photographer and has a professionally produced show with CXO Talk (the content is great too, but of course not the point here). Mike is a fantastic photographer with a deep knowledge of the cameras and equipment and would be helpful in the selection process. Again, I don't know if they are willing to give advice. I only call them out here as two people far better qualified than me.

There were phases in how I approached this (the examples you see are just representative. There were many more pieces to them in each case):

  1. Decision on what I wanted to do (Broadcast level live streaming – NOT e-sports or gaming live streaming; voice but not musical instruments but also third party sound which may be music, etc)
  2. Categorical decisions on what outcomes I wanted from that. (CRM Playaz; video podcast called the Commonwealth which was originally going to be an audio podcast; client advisory calls, and also webinars/speeches both pre-taped and live;  on a different level, the ability to edit videos which meant learning video editing as well as the software to do it, etc.)
  3. What elements/features were necessary to do that? (I need to be able to show things like videos or screens or PowerPoints – third party content on screen with me commenting on that, etc.)
  4. What equipment was necessary to make that happen – This means sound including mics, headphones, studio monitors, lights, cameras for streaming, dedicated PC (Windows 10 in this case, after an initial flirtation with a Mac)  streaming platform, monitors (note the plural)  software and hardware control systems of varying kinds, desks, connectors, etc.
  5. Then once I decided the type of equipment, I designed, more or less, the schema aka setup I wanted to use.  This was not as well thought out a part as I'm making it seem. There was a HUGE amount of "this works, this doesn't…" involved in this. And constant changes and iterations. 
  6. Room assessment (Can I make all the equipment I'm planning on using work in this room? (You'll see the answer to that later.)
  7. Then there was equipment selection.  This was the most fun – who doesn't like to buy stuff? But there were a lot of factors that went into it – the room size, the room environment (e.g. I had a heavy echo that I would ultimately have to deal with), the look and feel of the room, product compatibility, the product's ability to do what I need it to do – and I made a LOT of mistakes here, to the prices I was willing to pay – and what I was willing to sacrifice given the cost of the ideal equipment. 
  8. Once the equipment started to come in there was the physical setup of that equipment  as the pieces were delivered (setting up the desk, the PC, loading the PC with the software I needed as well as the drivers, setting up the mic, cameras, tripods for the cameras, lights, varying controllers, green screen, doing cable management, etc.)
  9. The next phase (which I'm still working on) once all the equipment was set up (and cable management is still something I'm working on – not my forte) the programming and connecting via software and controlling began.  More on that later.
  10. The final phase will be a complete run through of the system on the streaming platform and dealing with whatever issues (out of focus view, poor lighting, bad sound, video switch not working right etc) are there and then launch. That will be have been done, I hope by the time you read this I presume and honestly, prior to the completion of the programming I have to/want to do. (UPDATE: The launch was a keynote speech I gave sponsored by ServiceNow on Empathy at Contact Center World (CCW) Online.  It went flawlessly. Plus, I did my first episode of both CRM Playaz and CRM Playaz: Excuse the Intrusion this past week. Flawless. But I have one lingering problem I can't solve – getting audio from my laptop to the livestream. Long story.)

As complicated as this sounds, it's also a lot of fun if you're someone who likes to tinker with tech a.k.a. a bit of a geek. I am that person. It's taken me more than a month but I have had a blast figuring out what I want and ordering it and then setting it up – finding out – oops wrong choice – sending it back, getting something else and voilà! It worked!! 

First, here is a pic of the Studio (prelaunch) with the lights on.  So cool. BTW, the baseball player set as my Windows 10 wallpaper – Mickey Mantle.


The 56G/Playaz Studio right before launch

Source: Paul Greenberg

Learn from the…kids?

Before we get into the business reasons, here are a couple of maybe obvious beginning research tips that I learned via experience.  (It's probably time to stop calling millennials "kids" since the youngest of them is about 24 and the oldest is 39.  But…)

  1. There is enormous value in literally watching YouTube shows done by the millennial gamers who are streaming on Twitch.   Despite what might drive you crazy about this generation they are MONEY when it comes to telling you what equipment works best. The requirements for gaming and broadcasting the games you are playing simultaneously are beastly – the games themselves being streamed are eating up CPU and GPU cycles and the broadcasting eats up additional power. They are expert in equipment choice and setup, use of the video encoding, production and editing tools and in optimizing the streaming to prevent glitching.
  2. That said, remember, you would be unwise to follow exactly what they say because you are NOT gaming and that is a big part of the processing power that you would need if you were. You are broadcasting live over the web – not gaming and broadcasting. That will change the requirements to some extent.  
  3. THAT said, there are also a great number of photography/video/sound/streaming/YouTube professionals who will help you figure out not just what equipment to choose but how to do things.  A couple of these I recommend: Curtis Judd (for sound and lighting); ThinkMedia/Sean Cannell (how to do all the setup at multiple levels);
  4. Finally, you will find your answers at times in odd places so don't be discouraged if you can't find what you want in a strict sense. For example, the best discussions on creating overhead shots – one of the camera feeds I have – are found in discussions of food photography.  Yup. Here are links to an example of an article that helped me figure out how to get this right:  MY OVERHEAD SETUP FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY.

The Reasoning

I think one of the likely immutable changes that we are going to be seeing is a LOT more virtual events – the costs savings alone justify this transformation. The other absolutely certain part of the "next normal" as the latest catch phrase iteration calls it – is that there will be a lot more people working from home either permanently, or at least a much larger percentage of the time than in the past. In fact, recently, Salesforce extended the right of employees to work from home from the original December 31, 2020 to July 31, 2021.  The economy, with all its difficulties, is still running without all of us being in offices.  

I'm not here to debate the merits of either or what you or I think the "next normal is". What I'm alluding to is simply the case at the moment. I'm stating it because those two changes also militate toward why it is likely to be very important for companies with audiences and target markets, to have high production values when it comes to the visuals and audio of their communications efforts – be they at a virtual event or even on a 1:1 Zoom call.

Don Schuerman, the CTO of Pegasystems, on a CRM Playaz show a couple of months ago that we did as a leadup to Pegaworld this year said it most succinctly.  Given the world we are in right now, when it comes to presenting ourselves out there "we have to move from theatrical to cinematic."   That is a brilliant encapsulation of the truth in a single sentence.

Think of it this way. When YouTube first began, it was amazing!!  Why? Not because of the vast storehouse of well-produced shows and videos – that didn't exist yet – but because of the democracy of it all. Anyone, and I mean, anyone, could put up a video of themselves doing whatever-the-hell that other people, even thousands of other people would watch – and that was just…WOW! I can DO that, and someone will watch it! The quality of the video during those early days was actually irrelevant to the novelty, the newness and feeling of outright coolness, and even empowerment to some degree,  that the platform provided. Now, unless it's a bizarre, "can't take my eyes off the train wreck" kind of video, you have to make sure that it sounds great and is well produced and in high resolution if you want to get the audiences you are looking for. There is literally no excuse why it couldn't be given that the equipment to at least handle it at a basic level is well within the budgets of most people.

But why does production value matter? There's at least one right-brained reason and a myriad of left-brained ones.

The right brained one is simple. We all --no matter where we are in the world and what age we are -- more than likely grew up watching television and maybe going to movies. The one thing that was universal about them, no matter what the quality of the content, was that they were produced with high definition audio and high fidelity sound. And that is what we expect of our video and audio. Plus the cheapest equipment you have available to you for communication video is a lower-end of high definition 720p and the bandwidth exists to handle at least up to 1080p somewhat comfortably.  There is no longer ANY excuse for producing any stream or video asset or even audio asset at less than high definition and with a high quality. Not only is there no excuse, but it is the expectation of the viewer that it will be watchable that way.   How often have you been watching a piece of business content and said "ugh, the quality of this suuuuuucks!" with maybe a few less u's at best. Again, production values matter.  For example, look at this cinematic screen on the landing page for Adobe Max 2020 (a virtual conference on the creative side of Adobe).  Wow.  That's cinematic – eye catching and makes the conference and the idea of the conference instantly intriguing. What's the tagline underneath? Expect the Unexpected.  Exactly what you see.

The left-brained reason? Video consumption has become the preferred way to consume information about anything – and there are measurable, verifiable benefits to doing so. Here are a few random stats in defense of the concept.

I'll stop here. 

To be fair, not only are there literally hundreds of other stats supporting the argument, I'm sure that I can find other stats that oppose the argument. But the overwhelming nature of the beneficial value of video -- especially when the in-person world is so challenged at the moment -- is indisputable.

What does that mean for the business case?

What is evident is that video is the current preferred means of consuming information.  That it is being done at a remarkable volume with blinding speed – and done more on mobile devices than any other way. With 5G starting to move to the mainstream, the bandwidth for more, higher resolution video and audio is going to be there and encouraging others to take the plunge into high definition videos.  So we are probably dealing with even greater numbers than we can imagine.  A couple of years back (2018) Cisco predicted that by the end of this year (and there was no pandemic-driven working from home on the horizon at the time), there would be more than 1 million minutes of video per second "crossing the internet." (Their ambiguous phrasing). What those numbers are now with the massive increase in the use of digital tools, I can't even imagine.

But what all this means is that there is a lot of signal being produced – and that it is not signal but noise to your customers or prospects.  Again, this isn't useless video or even just poorly produced video.  It may well be valuable and look great. But there is SO much of it, that your efforts need to stand out all that much more. Plus, the eyes of those customers, current and potential are discerning and their tongues will socially wag if you don't meet the standard they expect – a standard that they measure against that was developed from their years of watching TV and movies in high definition with quality sound.   Don't underestimate this. We all grew up with TV unless we were in a backwater that had no electricity. It's not food or shelter but a TV has been historically the next tier down from that as a necessity for people. Don't make that face at me! Did you go without one?

There is one other factor.  I was speaking to the owner of Pro Audio LA (a great place to order your equipment. Their service level is off the charts) and he told me, in the middle of a discussion about CRM, that "we know we need to do something about CRM even though in the midst of this our business is up 60 percent."  Couple that with the fact that it has been impossible to get a lot of the equipment at all, and you realize that everyone is buying this stuff because they realize the value of broadcasting for communications – business and personal. Which also means that they will be more acutely aware than ever of what you are doing with your business video and audio.  So you have the added -- lets call it "critical facility" -- when it comes to people seeing and speaking to you. Meaning if your video and audio is bad, they will notice it where they may not  have in the past – because they are doing it now.

That's why when your executives are doing briefings to analysts, you are running a virtual event, you are putting out some "video collateral", broadcasting a show, or  you are communicating one on one with either customers or others even within your own company – you need at least 720pm resolution, bandwidth that can handle the effort, and high quality and clear sound. Nothing less will do.  If you don't have those, the content you are presenting in whatever format gets lost due to the distractions of poor production and output.  For a good discussion on video quality's impact on retention, read this Akamai case study, though you can safely ignore the "this is why you need Akamai" stuff, even if you do. But the case study is very well done and the data makes it clear – video quality affects retention – and that goes for live streaming too (not the subject of the case study though).

That's enough of the business case. I think it is very clear that in the midst of this crisis the need for high quality streaming and video production – and creativity is paramount. I hope that the next few posts can help you figure out how to do it best you can and on your budget.  I'll have a million caveats – number one being that I'm an amateur building something that is close to prosumer but at the same time, I think I did most of it right and while maybe not as elegantly as a pro, it all works.  Plus, it will serve me well during the quasi-lockdowns that are defining the new-next-ab-normal. Hopefully, it can help you too. If not, not.

See ya around.  In 1080p.

ANNOUNCEMENT: The CRM Playaz will be adding a segment to our regular Thursday show (3pm ET on LinkedIn Live, Periscope/Twitter, Facebook Live, and YouTube simulcast) on the A/V that you will need and will be bringing on some of the best and the brightest in this world when we can.  Stay tuned here and on LinkedIn and on a soon to be launched website.

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