Testimonial Videos - DIY

By Tom Saffell
August 19, 2015

Your prospective customers want to see that other flesh-and-blood people use your product, and are happy about it – just like they will be. Testimonial videos are the perfect way to show that, and making them in-house is a straightforward and affordable option. If you’d prefer to have a professional do the whole thing instead, plan on spending around $1500 per shoot.

A testimonial video is not merely a statement of fact. If it were, you’d just add some text to your website: "Joe uses WidgetMagic and couldn't live without it", and we wouldn't be talking about making a video. A testimonial video builds on that essential fact by creating visceral connections. For example, your subject is smiling and jovial as they talk about your product – maybe this product will make me happy too!   Your subject’s product is inspiring – my product can be inspiring too!   Your subject tells their story with passion – I can be that good too!   Nail that connection, and everything else is details.

The Outline

Lets start by considering the end-product – here’s the vanilla recipe for a testimonial video. We’ll dig into the how and the why in subsequent sections.

  • 60 to 90 seconds long
  • Mainly featuring your customer talking about how they use your product
  • Not featuring you, or your voice
  • Including cutaways to ‘b-roll’ of your customer’s product (or yours)
  • Including your logo briefly in the intro/outro
  • Including ‘lower thirds’ to set the context
  • A production quality that is high enough not to detract from the subject and story

Setting up kit

As mentioned above, the production quality needs to be “high enough not to detract from the subject and their message”. This is the acid-test you should use when assembling your kit and setting up your ‘studio’. For example, if you rely on your camera’s microphone there’s a good chance you’ll have bad audio, and then it doesn't matter how inspiring your subject’s story is because no one will be able to hear it (or more likely, it will be audible, but the noise will be too off-putting). Same goes for the visuals...

Camera

Most modern consumer-grade cameras can produce great quality video, in the right lighting conditions. The further you deviate from ‘ideal lighting’ the better camera you need. A better camera also gives you more control, and makes it easier to monitor the quality in realtime (e.g. to see ‘peaking’ in the exposure). When we do in-house production at Videopixie (for our side projects) we use a Canon EOS 60D, which is a ~$1000 mid-range DSLR. We can get high quality footage out of it when shooting indoors, so long as we are careful with the lighting and choose the right settings. A compact camera (with its smaller sensor) would likely struggle in those light conditions, which is why that $1000 might be worth the money. If you’re shooting outdoors then you’ll likely have enough light for either camera.

If you like to geek-out, and you own a Canon DSLR, then you really should install Magic Lantern – it’s an open-source upgrade to your camera that allows you much greater control of your camera’s settings; to listen to the audio-in in realtime, to see light-peaking in realtime, and to monitor your camera’s sensor’s temperature (most DSLRs overheat if they shoot video for more than ten or so minutes).

The stock lens on most DSLRs will likely be sufficient for your needs. You won't be zooming or focusing while filming, but you might benefit from having a couple of different focal lengths for a couple of different angles. If you do spend money on a better lens, and you plan on shooting indoors, then get one with a wide aperture (a low ‘f number’) so you can get as much light as possible into the camera.

Audio

Sound quality is easily overlooked, and can ruin a video. Don’t use your camera’s built-in microphone - it’s going to sound terrible. There are two approaches: 1) capture sound entirely independently of the camera with a dedicated recording device and microphones; 2) capture the sound using an external microphone plugged into your camera. The pros do the former - it’s more flexible, higher quality, and simpler for them -- but it also costs more, and is more to learn. At least initially, we’d recommend you do the latter for your in-house productions, as we do. We use either our Rode on-camera mic, or our lavalier mic. The former is great if the subject is nearby, and we’re moving around a lot, or if we’re outdoors, because it helps block wind noise, etc. The latter is ideal if we’re filming a stationary person, as you likely will for your testimonials. It’s also cheaper, so if you only buy one, get the lavalier mic.

Lighting

There are a great many tomes written on lighting - it’s an artform in itself, and the ‘right’ lighting very much depends on the scene. All that said, there are a few simple rules: 1) have lots of light, so your camera can shoot at a low ISO, and capture non-grainy footage; 2) Avoid strongly directional light, so that your subject’s facial features don’t cast shadows on their face. 3) Avoid mis-directed spot lights - no-one likes a shiny forehead. When shooting indoors, consider what times of day the sun comes in through your windows, and at what angle. If you have cellular shades (not the blackout ones) they can be an excellent diffuser of direct sunlight, so plan on shooting near them, with them down and the sun on their back. For a mere $50 you can buy a pretty basic three-piece lighting setup that will nicely supplement (or even replace) natural light. At Videopixie we use the LimoStudio one for our in-house production, often to provide a little fill on the side that we don’t have the sun.

The ‘Story’

Often video production starts with outlining the story, then drafting a script. That’s not going to work for you - you can't and shouldn't tell your customer what to say about you, and you don't have time for people learning ‘lines’. (You shouldn't because your video will immediate lose all sense of being genuine). So your best plan of attack is to create a list of questions, which you will ask your subject when they are on camera. You could email them in advance too - there’s no harm in them thinking about their answers. Here’s a few to get you started, but be sure to add one or two that are unique to your situation:

  • Who are you, and what does your company do?
  • How do you use [WidgetMagic]?
  • Why did you choose [WidgetMagic]?
  • What’s your favorite thing about [WidgetMagic]?
  • What would you say to someone considering [WidgetMagic]?

Your objective at this stage is to collect an assortment of clips. Dont worry too much about the order, or whether they segway - those things will be handled in post production, and if you worry about them too much you’ll destroy the authenticity that comes from a naturally flowing conversation.

The Shoot

Now you need to pick a location for the shoot. It needs good light, low noise, and a good backdrop. Some people go for a solid color (black / white / blue) backdrop, which is safe, fairly inexpensive to set up, but perhaps a little sterile or even ‘staged’ for a testimonial. The simplest option is to choose a good looking part of your office, and tidy it up to remove extraneous items from the background - you don't want plants popping out of people’s heads! Low noise is also key - no matter how good your microphones are, if you setup next to the AC unit it’ll sound terrible. In an ideal world, you’ll be able to leave your ‘studio’ in place so it’s ready to use the next time a customer stops by. If you can’t do that, then mark the location of cameras and lights on the floor with painter’s blue tape, so it’s quick to recreate next time.

Once you have your camera, lights and mics set up, and before your customer arrives, shoot some test footage. Have a colleague sit where the customer will sit, and record them talking at a normal level. Now take that footage, and watch it on a full size screen (e.g. laptop) listening through headphones. There are lots of quality issues that you wouldn't pick up by watching it on the camera’s display. Rinse and repeat until your AV is set.

You customer probably hasn't spent much time on camera, so you’re going to have to work to keep them relaxed, and the situation chill. Unless you’re lucky, they won't be a one-take-wonder. They’ll fumble their words, and ask to retake, then again, and on the 3rd take they’ll start to get nervous. That’s when it’s your job to keep things relaxed, and bring levity - maybe even have them shake it out, or have a drink. And if you’re within eye-shot of them, try not to frown when they bumble!

Even though your voice is not going to make the final cut, you’ll want to have the cameras rolling when you ask your questions. Otherwise you’ll ask the question, then they’ll start to answer, and you’ll say, “wait one sec while we turn on the camera”, and then the start of their response won't be natural, because of the time that passed since you asked the question. You’ll still want to start and stop recording occasionally, to prevent the camera from overheating, and so your files don’t get too too big.

Post Production (editing)

Post production is where it all comes together. It’s where the piles of mp4s from that chaotic shoot gets transformed into a nugget of gold. If you have someone on your team that knows their way around Premier, Final Cut, or even iMovie then you can probably do this in-house too.

If you don't have that person, or they can’t spare the time, then outsource the post-production - it’s very affordable. We recommend you spend around $200 for the post production on a simple testimonial video. When we do in-house videos at Videopixie we never do our own post-production - we just post the job on videopixie.com! Whereas shooting is a fun group activity, no-one in the office enjoys doing post-production, and there are so many talented freelancers out there that it just isnt a good use of our time. Bear in mind too that it’s not just about knowing which buttons to click in FCP - an experienced post-production professional will be better at taking a pile of clips and figuring how to sequence them together in a way that makes sense.

Whether you do the post-production in house, or outsource, here’s a few things to ask for:

Put your company name and logo in the intro and outro, even if only for a second or two. That might seem unnecessary when the video is hosted on your site, but what about when it’s watched on youtube.com? If you really don’t like the idea, then make two versions, one with and one without.

Keep it short. Most people know that in general videos should be kept short, and yet somehow a lot of those people think that their video is the exception - it probably isn't, sorry. Ninety seconds should be long enough to cover the key points, and inspire your prospective customer to give you product a try. An exception to this might be if you want to convey specific ‘how to’ information. For example, you believe that your prospective customer would benefit from learning the specifics of how your existing customer implemented your product, and those details take time to explain. But that would be the exception, and as a rule, you shouldn't be looking for exceptions, so keep it short!

Use b-roll. If you have a single camera angle on a talking head for a whole minute it’ll be a bit boring. The simplest solution is to use ‘b-roll’ to break it up. B-roll is footage (without sound), or stills, of things that relate to the discussion. This could be footage of their product, or your product, or best of all, their product using your product. Choose something that is visually interesting.

Lower-thirds are graphics that go across the bottom of the screen with the person’s name and company. In a pinch, you could drop them, but consider these two points: 1) the subject will only speak their name and company once, and then it’s gone. So if you have Apple as a customer, that could easily be missed - but if you have it in the lower thirds, it can sit there for twenty seconds! 2) Lower-thirds look ‘professional’, so if you’re trying to use your video to project professionalism onto your company then we’d suggest you include them.

Now it’s time to get started! Email your favorite customer to set up a time, pick a location, play with some gear, and get cracking. And remember, if this all sounds too much then you can always hire a professional for around $1500.