Shocking viral videos: Could this be your company on YouTube?

Editor’s note: I have some exciting news this morning! I’ve started a blog for CBS Interactive called @Your Service, which explores the relationship between companies and their customers. I’m going to start excerpting from the posts on my site. Please drop by and visit, comment and vote in the poll.

Don’t look now, but your company’s customer service problems may be about to go viral.

There are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of videos about customer service missteps that can be found online. But a few are so infectiously bad that they go “viral” on sites like YouTube and are seen by a mass audience.

Customers connect with these clips, take comfort in them and are often inspired by them. The videos can also inflict untold damage on your company’s reputation and bottom line.

Read the rest of the post. (Please note — this is a brand-new blog, and your involvement is very important. I hope you’ll consider leaving a comment and getting involved in the discussion, which I promise, will be lively and interesting!)

The agony and ecstasy of online travel videos

videoAllow me to vent for a minute.

Online video may be the future of travel, but it is most certainly not the present.

I’ve just spent the weekend battling a Samsung video camera, Apple’s Final Cut Pro and YouTube, and I can say that with absolute certainty. Yes, video — specifically high-definition video — will revolutionize the way we travel. And soon.

But not just yet.
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Where do you post all those soon-to-be viral vacation videos? Click here to upload

Good thing YouTube isn’t losing as much money as everyone thought, because when it comes to posting your vacation videos online, you probably don’t want to waste your time anywhere else. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Of course there are other sites where you could upload your travel clips. There’s Flickr, run by Yahoo. And Vimeo, which specializes in smooth, high-definition video. And scores of smaller sites that I won’t even bother mentioning, not so much because I don’t want to confuse you, but because I don’t want to confuse myself.

I love YouTube. I also hate it. I’ll get to the reasons in second. First, though, let’s have a look at the other two contenders.

Flickr is primarily a photo-sharing site. I post all of my pictures to my Flickr account, which allows me to share snapshots with friends, groups and even do some limited editing. About a year ago, Flickr allowed you to upload videos — much to the horror of some resident professional photographers, who were dead-set against the idea of video soiling their corner of social media AstroTurf. Since these probably were the same people who swore they would never shoot anything but film back in the mid-90s, you can’t take their protest too seriously.

Flickr is extremely forgiving, when it comes to the type of video it accepts. It allowed me to upload virtually any format and displayed it correctly without any letterboxing or otherwise screwing with anamorphic ratios. For someone who has spent many hours resubmitting my clips to Final Cut’s Compressor application, in a futile effort to make it look right online, I can safely say this is Flickr’s best quality.

Its worst? You’re limited to just 90 seconds. So you have to be brief.

On the other hand, no site handles video in a more sophisticated way than Vimeo. Loading your clips is a cinch. Vimeo plays high-definition videos with astounding clarity, and without the dropped frames you see on other services. (Dropped frames are basically when your video stutters and jumps around, and it makes all your hard work look like something shot on a disposable camera.) There are a number of really innovative networking features, but unless you have $59 to spend on Vimeo Plus, you probably don’t want to bother. You’re bound to run up against space limits on the free version, may upload only one HD video a week, and aren’t allowed to embed your own videos on your site — unless you’re willing to pay.

And why pay for something that you can get for free?

All of which brings me to YouTube.

I wish this Google-owned site were as easy and fun to use as Vimeo, but it gets my recommendation only because its free, and it works. Not always, but most of the time. In a previous column, I described my frustration with how YouTube handled aspect ratios on the Canon Vixia HFS10. Well, I finally figured out how to get rid of that annoying black border I was griping about. Load everything into YouTube as a 1920-by-1080 video, and suddenly, it’s gone.

While researching this problem, I discovered this hurdle had been encountered, and overcome, by a couple of people who weren’t content to live with the letterboxing, but that they kept the answer to themselves because they apparently didn’t want to share. Something about YouTube’s secret sauce. Not good.

Despite all of its faults, YouTube has become the de-facto standard for video online — a kind of MS-DOS of the moving image. This is both comforting and distressing. It’s comforting, because you know everyone else is trying to work with this imperfect technology. And it’s distressing because, well — it’s imperfect.

Want better customer service? Look to your inner journalist

The ticket agent just threw the book in your face. The hotel clerk gave you a firm “no.” The rental agent shook his head when you asked for a car.

Do you:

1. Call your travel agent.
2. Phone the toll-free reservation number and tattle on the employee.
3. Whip out your cell phone camera.

If you answered “3” then meet Pat Siefe, who has looked to his inner journalist a time or two for better customer service.

For example, let’s say you were sent to a fleabag motel after your hotel ran out of rooms, a problem I described in yesterday’s MSNBC column.

Photograph everything and everyone. This assures the hotel that you can ID the people you dealt with, can show the hotel that you were suppose to be in, and the quality of it, and the flea trap you were put in and the quality of that.

You need say nothing.

No employee wants to be associated with the pictures, and they will do anything to keep from being, including assuring that you have a better room. If cheap tickets wants to compare the quality of the hotels, and know who did it, you have the pics. If later you want to contest the charge with Visa, or sue the hotel in small claims, you can prove your case.

It helps to get a few specifics. Trying to secure that information often encourages an employee to do the right thing.

Most cameras, and phones now days will also record. Set it between the two of you, announce the person’s name that you are talking to, than ask them if they mind your recording the conversation (this also works for airlines and other groups).

Saying “I do not want to be recorded” looks horrible, and most people know that if the tape of them refusing to be recorded is played for a supervisor or the courts, they will lose. Further, if they get mean, or obnoxious the recording will get them fired.

Usually this means that you are treated politely and with respect and the problem is solved. They know that if this is than played to their boss, it will show the boss that they are doing a good job. Trust me, it works.

It’s a shame that such tactics are necessary. But at a time when customer service scores are circling the drain in the travel industry, what else can we do?

The reservations numbers are staffed by script-reading drones, so no luck there. If you booked through an online travel agency, their 800-numbers are also staffed by employees who sometimes don’t even have the authority to make a phone call or send an e-mail.

Citizen journalism is your last, best hope of getting what you deserve when you travel.

Ready for your close-up? How to be a YouTube star on your next vacation

Marilyn Parver never wanted to become a YouTube star. Neither did Iesha Walker.

Their path to social media celebrity didn’t involve uploading an overproduced music video, clips of dancing comedians or laughing babies. They just took their video cameras on vacation.

Parver whipped out her handycam after two passengers began arguing on a recent JetBlue flight and taped the fracas. When flight attendants asked her to erase the footage because they were afraid it might “end up on YouTube,” she refused — and was later escorted from the plane in handcuffs. The clip ended up on YouTube, where more than 30,000 people watched it.

When Walker checked into her cabin on Carnival’s Destiny, she found wires hanging from the lamps above the beds, a soiled toilet seat and toilet bowl, a grimy shower stall, broken tiles and a broken wall panel above the bed. And there were bugs. Lots of bugs. So she pointed her camera lens at the infestation. When Carnival refused to reimburse her for the cruise, she uploaded the video.

This is only the beginning.

Online video is big. Americans watched a record 13.5 billion online videos in October, the last month for which figures are available, according to Comscore. That’s a 45 percent increase from a year ago. Nearly 8 out of 10 Internet users watched an online video, and among younger users, the Internet has already become a TV substitute.

Some of the most effective Internet videos are ones that allow travelers to “voice and record their own perspective, opinion and experience,” says Fionn Downhill, the chief executive of Elixir Interactive, an interactive marketing agency in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Videos documenting authentic, user-generated experiences spread like quick fire because they speak to the concerns and sentiment of the market.”

How do you become part of the video revolution on your next vacation? Here are a few tips.

Pack the right camera.
Today’s video cameras are small, affordable and shoot in high definition. I just field-tested the Flip Mino HD, a $229 camera that’s so inconspicuous, I could — and did — film anyone, anywhere. I gave it to my sons (ages 6 and 4) and they took some good pictures. The footage downloaded directly to my PC and could be posted to the Internet within minutes. I’m especially excited about the convergence of the SLR camera and video camera, such as the Canon 5D Mark II, which allows you to take broadcast-quality video and sharp photos. Once these technologies get a toehold among travelers, the video revolution will really catch fire.

Get to know the competition.
In an age of citizen journalism, your competition could be your seatmate. What sets your video apart from the tens of millions of clips on the Web is a basic understanding of what makes a compelling video. It’s part science (good lighting and composition) and part art (understanding why a billion people want to watch a guy named Matt dancing). The first part is easy. The second part — not so easy. In online-speak, a popular video is called “viral” because it spreads quickly. “Over the years I’ve had more misses than hits with viral videos,” says videoblogger Brandon Mendelson. “The ones that became hits were the ones that I had low expectations for — and the ones I had high expectations for, never reached the success I envisioned.”

Post helpful information.
For years, only production companies with expensive cameras had access to video cameras and the means to broadcast what they shot. Not any more. And guess what? People are interested in the other side of a travel product — the side the airline and hotel don’t necessarily want you to see. Travel blogger Darren Cronian recently uploaded a tour of his hotel room at London’s Shaftesbury Kensington Hotel and was surprised when prospective guests began contacting him. “People are searching for hotel reviews on sites like YouTube,” he told me.

Be yourself.
It’s easy to distinguish the corporate video from the homegrown travel production — even if you shoot both on the same camera. The commercial video usually has one purpose, says Tom Flanagan, the chief executive of the Denver-based marketing company Red Robot: to drive sales. “It is obvious that consumers increasingly demand more,” he says. They don’t just want to be pitched. They want to see videos that are interesting, authentic — and brief. Enough said.

Tell a story.
Even though you’re dealing with a new medium, a lot of the old rules apply. A popular online video has to tell some kind of story, even if it’s a simple tour of your hotel room or an argument on a plane. That’s the assessment of writer and producer Tim Street, who specializes in creating and distributing online video. “I’ve had over 30 million views of my videos online and what I’ve learned is that you can’t just make a video and expect it to go viral,” he says. “You need your video to be emotionally engaging moving two or more emotions. You also need spectacle and story.” Incidentally, there’s plenty of that in the travel industry. It’s just waiting to be discovered by you.

Be responsible.
Camera-toting tourists have a lot more power than they think. Use yours responsibly. Alexia Nestora, a consultant for a tour operator in Littleton, Colo., remembers how one unhappy customer posted a video that alleged her client was operating a fraudulent business. In the clip, he burned a T-shirt with the company’s logo and scrolled text with falsified information. More than 500 people downloaded his tirade. “We know that we lost a few sales as a result of the video, people would call after they had booked — sometimes even forfeiting their deposit because this video scared them off,” she remembers. Lesson learned? Online videos “can no longer be ignored by marketers and must be monitored,” she says. But the takeaway for us, the folks who are creating these videos, is that the world is watching. Think before you post.

I’m not sure anyone fully understands what video means to travel — let alone the Internet. As Wilson Cleveland, a vice president at CJP, points out, “Video is the best medium for bringing an experience or storyline to life.” It can provoke a visceral response from you. But is that all?

I believe it’s possible that we’re are entering an age in which a single online video has the power to transform an obscure destination into a must-visit Mecca — or to turn throngs of travelers away from an airline, car rental company, cruise line or resort.

Will this make the travel industry offer better customer service? Or will they just try to confiscate our video cameras when we’re on the road?

Better hold on to your cameras.