Making a longer video? Find a character, tell a story

Hospitals and other organizations are breaking the rule about keeping videos short, but to hold on to your audience, you have to weave an engaging tale.

In ancient times—way back in 2012 or so—the video sages laid down an eternal law for those seeking to communicate on YouTube.

Videos had to be super-short. Two minutes was long. Better: under 60 seconds. Quick enough that people could sneakily watch it at their desks while the boss was in the loo.

So what’s with these heretics in hospitals and elsewhere who are shooting longer, journalism-inspired videos, and racking up viewers?

Consider Arnold Palmer Hospital’s “The Tin Man,” 4½ minutes long and racking up 81,000 views. Or the same hospital’s “We Love Isaiah,” more than 11 minutes long. Then there’s “The Truth About Down Syndrome,” about a family’s love for a girl struggling with the complications of that disorder. Length: 12 minutes.

It’s not just hospitals. Filson, a Seattle outfitter and clothing manufacturer, has made a high-country-on-horseback video, “Open Door to Solitude,” that runs more than six minutes. Red Bull’s been going nuts, with longer videos about subjects such as a BMX cyclist pulling stunts in weird locations.

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Tell a story

How-to and medical videos have led the way, with other organizations following with their own longer videos, says Drew Keller, a television producer, editor and Web developer. It would be a mistake, though, for blabbermouth chief executives to conclude they now have permission to produce lengthy talking-head videos.

The new, longer videos succeed because they focus on a compelling character and tell a story.

The medical videos, in particular, are “all about the choices we make as people. It is the difficult choices with real consequences,” Keller says. “And often they touch on the core fears that we have as parents or as patients. How would I feel … if I had to make life-or-death choices about my child?”

(Keller will be leading a pre-conference workshop Oct. 21 at a Ragan’s Health Care Social Media Summit at Mayo Clinic.)

After opening a new center to treat Down syndrome, Children’s Hospital Colorado produced a video this spring called “The Truth About Down Syndrome.” Rather than plug the center or the procedures its doctors perform, the 12-minute video tells about a family whose child was born with complications relating to the condition, and about a doctor who was treating them.

The doctor has a son with the syndrome, making him a sympathetic figure for families worried about a child who has been diagnosed with the condition.

Lizzie Costello, and writer and video producer, says part of the goal was to feature this devoted doctor. People who watch the video tend to think, “Oh, my gosh, if I had a kid with Down syndrome, I would absolutely want this person taking care of my kid,'” she says.

Why risk such a long video? Costello says she was inspired by the 11-minute “Caine’s Arcade,” about a boy who builds a cardboard videogame arcade at his father’s workplace. It has had over 4.4 million views on YouTube.

‘Everybody in the room was crying’

The Down syndrome video proved its value immediately. Children’s makes a video every year to show at its annual meeting; this year, instead of a round-up of highlights, communications staff played the new video. Attendees, including board members, were moved.

“Everybody in the room was crying,” Costello recalls.

Return on investment is hard to calculate, and Costello prefers not to divulge the cost of hiring external videographer Scott Dressel-Martin. Anecdotally, there is evidence the video is making a difference.

Costello tells of a mom who was so impressed with “The Truth” that she decided to bring her child to Children’s. Down syndrome is medically complex, so every patient involved in that decision potentially represents 18 years of care.

Though “The Truth” has had a robust 8,000 views on YouTube, “We weren’t looking for a video to go viral. We wanted our video to have legs,” Costello says.

Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children has produced several powerful videos that followed patients through their treatment and brought cameras into the operating room. “The Tin Man,” filmed in 2012, follows the open-heart surgery of a baby born with a life-threatening defect. “We Love Isaiah,” which followed last year, is about a toddler with a brain tumor that surgeons must operate on.

“The Tin Man,” which has had 81,000 views on YouTube, began as an experiment in telling the hospital’s story better, says Michael Schmidt, vice president of Arnold Palmer Medical Center Foundation.

He asked, “What would happen if we captured a story in real time as it happened? Because most of the stories that you’ll find in health care and a lot of other industries are kind of a recap. We didn’t like some of the ones we had seen where you’ll have to reenact some of the scenes with the doctors. We wanted it to be genuine.”

He needed the right family, people who would be sympathetic in telling their story and willing to be trailed by a camera crew when the ultimate outcome was unknown. Another challenge was talking medical staff into allowing a camera crew into the operating room when a baby’s chest was cut open.

Schmidt recalls telling a surgeon who was uneasy about the idea, “There’s nothing that we’re going to put out right away; there’s nothing live about this. You have veto authority on the final cut.”

In the end, the video not only communicated beautifully, it changed the culture inside the hospital, Schmidt says.

‘Blown away’

“They were just so blown away by how different this was, and how honest it was,” Schmidt says. “It was refreshing, and it’s reinvigorated people, and it’s reminded them why they got into pediatric health care.”

Schmidt credits “The Tin Man” with raising $100,000 for the foundation. All this made it easy to make the case for “We Love Isaiah,” about a family who learned their child had a brain tumor. For this film, the hospital cut 40-50 hours of video down to about 10 minutes.

The videos help the patients who follow, Schmidt says. Many families ask doctors, “Show me what light at the other end of the tunnel looks like for this particular disease.”

In getting permission to make the videos, Arnold Palmer Hospital promises families it won’t air anything they are uncomfortable with. Schmidt also tells them they will be encouraging future families who go through the same treatment.

Hospital videos can be incredibly powerful, but they have to tell their stories in a straightforward way, Keller says. “The challenge with a lot of those stories is to not be saccharine,” he says.

Other types of organizations can also tell captivating stories. Keller cites Filson’s story about the man who goes on horseback up into the mountains every year. The piece had almost no product placement. At the end it mentioned Filson almost incidentally.

“It wasn’t branded everywhere. It was just a beautiful story,” Keller says. “It’s easy for us to project ourselves into these stories.”

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