For Vimeo, the secret to success is the human touch

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The careful review and selection process separates Vimeo from such competitors as iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix.

Vimeo believes the human touch is its secret weapon in the battle to win the hearts, minds, and dollars of online moviegoers.

As Vimeo’s Vice President of Content Strategy and Business Development Sam Toles explains, instead of algorithms and educated guesswork, his online network relies on a group of dedicated staff curators to ensure the company’s pay video on demand service has the same quality as its free side of the house—the difference being, Toles told the Daily Dot, that when curating films for the pay side of the house, “we always think of the commercial possibilities.”

Among the staff picks currently on Vimeo’s VOD side are The Lady in Number 6 ($4.99 rental), the story of a Holocaust survivor and how music saved her life, and Beauty is Embarrassing ($5 rental), a documentary featuring the life and current times of one of America’s most celebrated artists, Wayne White. The Lady in Number 6 is the 2014 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary – Short Subject. While these films are available on other platforms, Vimeo’s secret sauce is its mix of genres, broad selection, and an expectation that content made available for rentals or purchase has received the site’s seal of approval. Toles said Vimeo will shoot for exclusive deals (for fixed amounts of time) for some films, especially those in which it invests money up front for marketing. Many of those are selected from prime film festivals.

After launching in 2004 as an alternative to YouTube, Vimeo became a home for creators in search of a hosting or distribution platform focused on delivering higher quality. The company was the first consumer-facing online video service to offer HD playback in 2007, later adding premium accounts that delivered up to 1080p streams for an optimal viewing experience. As an alternative to the crowded YouTube marketplace, not to mention Google’s less-than-favorable monetization scheme, Vimeo became the clean, well-lit place for filmmakers to showcase their wares. A symbol of that commitment and branding can be seen in Vimeo’s sponsorship of film screenings at South by Southwest, which brought the premieres of such such films as DamNation and The Internet’s Own Boy.

As Vimeo grew to be the go-to network for discerning digital moviegoers, the company saw the opportunity to reward filmmakers with commerce platforms to make money from their projects. Toles said the goal is to create a cycle in which digital creators earn money which allows them to invest that funding into new projects. The first initiative, launched in September 2012, was the Vimeo Tip Jar. That initial foray into crowdfunding allowed anyone to give tips before, during, or after watching a video. Unlike its commercial competitors, which offer one-time licensing fees or 50-50 splits, Vimeo paid 85 percent of the gross revenue to the creator. 

Fitting with its goal of becoming the connection point between creators and consumers, Vimeo launched its full-blown video on demand service at SXSW 2013. Vimeo On Demand offered creators a 90 percent share of revenue with the ability to set pricing as well as country-by-country availability and easy syndication with embed codes and social linking. In the year following its move into the on-demand business, Vimeo said it had 6,000 uploads to its new commercial distribution platform, and it celebrated that achievement by announcing at SXSW 2014 a new, $10 million fund geared to help filmmakers who went the popular crowdsourcing route. It also formulates exclusive distribution deals with films that debut at any of the top global film festivals. 

With all the commercial pieces in place, it is the human touch—the careful review and selection—that separates Vimeo from such competitors as iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix. “The staff picks on our VOD platform have important human touchpoints,” Toles said. “When you see a Staff Picks badge, you can be assured a certain level of quality.”

While each filmmaker is free to select his or her own price, Vimeo does offer some suggestions. Often, what to charge is a function of subject matter and topic demand rather than length of film. Toles says that iTunes, for example, lumps short films films together so that a compelling 40-minute documentary goes for $1.99 even if it is tailored to an audience willing to pay more. 

While it took a while for its competitors to catch on, Vimeo’s market for carefully selected films of varying lengths is on the verge of becoming more crowded. Netflix, for one, is circling around the short film business by experimenting with short clips such as film trailers on its mobile platforms. Amazon announced the addition of a Video Shorts section to its instant video service with a mishmash of trailers, vlogs, and YouTube-like content. With its Amazon Studios in place, however, the company could easily pivot into offering a VOD section featuring movies from emerging auteurs. New Form Digital, backed by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, believes it can turn YouTube stars into serious filmmakers and has created New Form Incubator, a program that will develop and fund 14 short films, three to 10 minutes in length, from such personalities as Joey Graceffa, Joe Penna of MysteryGuitarMan, and Sawyer Hartman. New Form is working with Discovery Networks and AOL for distribution.

With Vimeo’s success, there could be a feeding frenzy to purchase smaller online networks that feature short films. Included in that mix are Film Shortage, Short of the Week, The Smalls, and Focus Forward, which is partially funded by General Electric. Some of these sites include in their features films that are curated from a number of sites, including Vimeo.

Stoles is undaunted about the rise of competitors and feels the current market resembles the early ’80s with the rise of niche cable networks that appealed to targeted audiences. “If there is room for 1,000 cable channels,” he stated, “then there is room for a wide variety of voices. I see us being well-positioned for the future.”

Illustration by Jason Reed

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner has been a market research analyst in the area of new media and technology since 1994. He’s worked as writer, publisher and newspaper executive. He is the co-founder and publisher of Kombucha Network and the former managing vice president of Gartner.