Chris Savage, co-founder and CEO of Wistia, tells us how winning the Emmy awards propelled the development of Wistia, illustrates the role of videos as part of a content marketing strategy, and advises businesses to think like media companies.

Chris Savage is the co-founder and CEO of Wistia, a web-based video platform for businesses. Chris founded Wistia in 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, together with Brendan Schwartz.

Wistia provides video hosting services for businesses, including adding videos to the web, tracking performance and building audiences, for more than 300,000 businesses across 50 countries. Among its clients: HubSpot, MailChimp, Sephora, Starbucks, and Tiffany & Co.


Identifying the Need, Seeing the Opportunity

Chris founded Wistia in 2006 together with Brendan Schwartz. The two were both students at Brown University. Whereas Brendan was a computer engineering major, Chris was a film student, and their original concept was to create a site for artists to post video portfolios. The shift happened soon on, when Chris found himself working for a production company and winning an Emmy award for its feature-length film, Buddy:

“So working on that film, I was very lucky that I got that job and very lucky that that film did well. And so I had a good reel what it’s called like the reel is all the video examples of your work. It’s like your video resume. So really good reel, because I did that, and I worked in some commercials and some other stuff when I was 21. So that was awesome. But the way that I would send people my reel was I would make a DVD, and then I would ship it to them. That seemed insane to me.

Back then, I was putting stuff online. I had my own website, and it seems impossible to believe, but if you wanted to put a video on the web back in 2005, that meant you had to decide if you’re going to use time QuickTime. Basically, only Macs could see your video, but a video would look good, compression was good. Or you could use RealPlayer, which basically everyone could watch RealPlayer, but the player was terrible. It was just horrific. It was a horrible experience. You could then get Flash, like Adobe Flash. You could code it into Flash, and most people could see that, but that costs money. So I had to pirate Flash if I wanted to have my video on my website be Flash.

And I had been a trying to get my stuff out there on the web in all these filmmaking communities because there were some, and none of them were that vibrant. There was not that much happening, and so I was very aware of that problem. Then Brendan and I saw the very beginning of YouTube right when it launched. And the funny thing that most people I’m sure do not know or remember is that there was like ten companies that are exactly the same as YouTube, Metacafe, Veo, Vault, all of these things, they were all exactly the same.

It’s a side note, but the way that YouTube got traction back then was like giving away free iPods and allowing pirated content, that is like what helped them scale, which is crazy. But we saw all these companies, and we realized something is happening, something fundamental to how online video works. We dug into it, and it turned out that there was now opensource tools to do video and coding that would allow you to code into Flash. And what that meant is that anyone could write software that could take, basically, any format of video and turn it into Flash. And so this problem that I had experienced, which was why I thought the video communities were not taking off before the filmmaker communities, we thought it was going to be solved. 

And so that is what we saw as an opportunity. It was a huge technology shift happening, and we felt like this is just starting to happen. It is unproven. We were both incredibly naive and young and had no experience, but we thought, “Well, we don’t have any experience. No one else should have that much experience in this market. Probably if there was ever a time to start something, be in control of our destiny, this would be a good opportunity.”


Finding the Right Persona

When did Chris decide about Wistia’s positioning, finding the right persona to fit their niche exactly, differentiating themselves from Vimeo, YouTube and other potential competitors?

“The answer to this question is a funny one because our positioning has evolved so much over the years. I think product market fit, you can get pride market fit, but if you don’t keep investing and you keep focusing, you’re going to lose it. It’s not a binary. You don’t get it and then have it. You have to get it and hold it. You have to get it and evolve it. And so for us, the first thing that worked took us about a year. We stayed focused on video, tried a lot of different things. But the first thing was we ended up creating a website where people could securely and privately share videos, specifically companies, and our first customers were a medical device company, billion dollar company that was doing training, all these different things. And actually, our first competition was DVDs.

So it was like medical device company, sending DVDs of surgeries around the world to help them improve the surgery. We said, ‘You can do it instantly on the web, and you can comment. It’s secure.’ I thought, ‘That sounds really good. That sounds great.’ No one was doing that. We were like very, very, very focused on that. And until we had about 200 customers, we were only focused on that private, competing with DVD thing.

We’d end up building analytics because one of our customers was using video for training. They want to know if their team was watching the videos. So we built that. All our customers got it, and then people started saying, ‘Can we put these analytics on the videos on our website?’ And this is before YouTube had analytics, so it was like pretty damn early. And I’m like, ‘No, you guys are all wrong. That’s crazy. That’s going to screw up our positioning. We’re the only people who were doing the private-sharing thing. And if we put it on your website…’ Well. We eventually listed them and of course our customers were right, and we realized it was incredibly useful for marketing.

And then we also thought it was funny that YouTube didn’t have this, Vimeo didn’t have this, and we started to realize that marketers were actually underserved. And so we focused on marketing for a long time, and then different niches within marketing where we think our product and our approach will help us be the best at what we do. And I think that’s a really important thing to wrap your mind around, as you’re thinking about product market fit or you thinking about competitive advantage, is you have to be honest about what your company can be the best in the world at being and also what you can’t be. And ideally you’re best in the world at the thing that also differentiates you for your core customer.”


The Role of Video in a Sales Funnel

Videos play a huge role these days, and Chris wrote about it in regards to funnels and video engagement metrics. How does this play out, and what does this mean?

“So our society is constantly shifting, and one of the ways we have shifted recently is that consumers have an expectation that they will get to choose how they interact with information. Those might sound all like abstract things, but basically what that means is that as a consumer, some people want to watch stuff, some people want to listen, some people want to read. If you get rid of the ability for people to read, they’re going to be pissed. You get rid of the ability for people to watch, they’re going to be pissed. You get rid of the ability for people to listen, they’re going to be pissed. Didn’t use to be pissed, but now there’s such an abundance of information effort on the web if you go to New York Times and you have those options, you’re going to expect that on someone’s website.

And so because video is often harder to make than recording audio or writing is much harder than text, what ends up happening is that a lot of companies miss an obvious opportunity, which is throughout their funnel there are places where you could be explaining things in video, and there’s a percentage of your audience who just wants to watch it. And if you give them that, you’re going to improve conversions, and you’re probably going to improve the connection with those folks because video also is naturally such an emotional medium.

So that’s what that concept is and why you’d want to pay attention to video engagement, and then I would say video engagement is just simply the idea that people are continuing to watch your content. And if you’re marketing things, people know that you’re marketing, and so they are aware of that, and they are basically, if you’re watching content from a company, you are going to turn it off if it’s not relevant in a way that you’re not if it’s a viral video that you think is going to have a funny ending. That just doesn’t work the same way. And so your goal should be to have people continue to watch, and if they have momentum viewing your content, then you can ask them what else do you want to view? Or do you want to take the next step? Do you want to sign up for my demo or whatever? And so that data, that viewing data is really valuable to a marketer because you can help understand the interests of the people in your audience.”


How Do You Measure Video Success

How can we measure video success? What are the metrics we should follow? And how can we improve user engagement using these metrics?

“Yeah, the way we do it at Wistia is we create a heat map of every viewer. So if you have a video that has a thousand views on it, it has a thousand heat maps. The heat maps shows you what people are watching, what they’re skipping, what they’re rewatching, so that data is interesting because you can take it and you can bring it into your market automation or your CRM, and you can see the interest data in another place, or you could create an automation based on, ‘Show me everyone who watched the product video all the way through and didn’t sign up.’ Then send them an email. You could do that type of thing. Then you also can take the … we aggregate the engagement data so that you have the view for your audience as a whole, and that is helpful because you can see what parts of your video are resonating or which parts are not. A good example of this MasterClass. Do you guys know them?”

Yeah. Yeah.

“Yeah. So MasterClass, when they started, they used Wistia for a very long time, and the way that they would improve their courses is they would look at the Wistia engagement data, and they would look where it drops off, where people are turning it off. They would go look at that moment and try to figure out is that necessity that we explained things in that way or should we actually re-edit that section so that people don’t drop off? Are we giving them a bizarre signal that the video is actually ending or that they’ve gotten all the they’re going to get? And then what they saw and what we see on all our customers, but that is cool that they saw this, is that the parts that people re-watch are usually the most interesting parts. And so if Dustin Hoffman is in one of their videos passionately swearing about how great being an actress, turns out that’s the part that people re-watch, which is also interesting because that can dictate what you make the next time you make content.”


Think Like a Media Company

Chris wrote earlier this year that today, B2B companies will look like media companies in the future. What does this mean?

“So basically what this means is media companies are very good at building audiences. They figure out what kind of content an audience wants. Then they throw out a repeatable way of making that content and a way of evaluating whether or not it’s working, and one of the things that they do very differently is when they figure out they have something, they market it. And I know that seems crazy because it’s a simple idea, but often someone writes a blog post, puts blog posts out. Did it do anything? I don’t know. Are we getting ranked for it now? Did someone else put in their email list? That’s what you got. You don’t normally take out ads for a blog post. You don’t normally do cross-promotion for one specific blog post.

But one of the things that media companies do is when they have an asset like this podcast, for example, and they know this episode played really well with the artists that you have in your crowd, and it played really well with first-time entrepreneurs and these different folks, once they have a great piece of content, they market it like it’s a product. So yes, it goes to all the subscribers in the podcast, but they would take clips from it and put it on all the different social channels. They’d have video versions of it. They would advertise it, and all with the goal of trying to find the most efficient way of using the content to build an audience.

And then once you have an audience, it gets easier to build another one. So if you create a second show, and you can mention that second show on your first show, let me tell you, it’s going to be a hell of a lot easier to build up the audience of the second one. And if you make a third, it’s going to be much easier to build up the audience or the third than it was to build the first two. And suddenly you have this enormous amount of captive attention.

And I think in a world where it’s more expensive to advertise, it’s harder to compete, it’s harder to differentiate, marketing like a media company makes a ton of sense, and the production capabilities are now there, and they’re affordable enough, and they’re high quality enough that I think everyone could do it.”