A Treasure Trove of 'How-To' Videos

The how-to video has been on the Internet at least since Mentos met Diet Coke on the Web pages of YouTube a couple of years ago. But most have been, like that amateur science experiment, seat-of-the-pants guides. And while YouTube and Google video have their own "how to" sections of user-generated videos, and About.com has its own section of video made by its own experts, most sites have traditionally not focused on creating trusted advice videos for Web users.

Enter two ambitious, well-funded Web sites offering up video how-to advice: VideoJug.com,  which launched in the United States last month after an eight-month start in the U.K., and ExpertVillage.com, which debuted last year but was purchased three weeks ago by a media company run by the former chairman of MySpace.

VideoJug, whose slogan is "life explained, on film," was founded by U.K. Web pioneer David Tabizel, who came up with the idea for a video advice site after a frustrating online search for visual instructions on changing a tire. The site has received more than $30 million in venture capital, and the 55 staffers at its West Los Angeles office have already produced, in-house, approximately 20,000 high-definition how-to videos covering everything from choosing the right oncologist to fixing a toilet.

"There's a massive market for online how-to video," says VideoJug CEO Peter Schankowitz, who left a high-paying career as a TV producer (NBC, MTV, Bravo, Lifetime) to help run this site (Tabizel still oversees the operation remotely from his home in Spain). "Life is more complex than ever, and video is the way people want to consume information in the 21st century," says Schankowitz. "Seeing an expert, at least to me, is higher impact, more confidence-building and more human that just trusting the printed word."

VideoJug hopes to become the definitive source for credible, factual how-to Web videos. But ExpertVillage, an Austin, Texas-based site founded by Internet entrepreneur Byron Reese that features more than 17,000 instructional videos on a wide variety of topics, has designs as well. On June 12, ExpertVillage was purchased for an undisclosed amount by Demand Media, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based company run by Richard Rosenblatt, who sold MySpace to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. in late 2005 for $649 million.

Rosenblatt, a veteran Web entrepreneur who's developed, operated and sold more than $1.3 billion in Internet media companies in the last decade, had already made the one-year-old Demand Media's corporate presence known, purchasing such sites as eNom, Answerbag, golflink and others. The purchase of ExpertVillage, which Rosenblatt says will continue to be led by Reese, is part of an overall strategy to connect content creators and large audiences with advertisers through a whole network of Web sites.

"ExpertVillage represents the essential video component of what we are doing," says Rosenblatt, who in 1999 sold iMALL, a company he founded in 1994—the same year he graduated from USC Law School—to Excite @ Home for $565 million. "The Internet is about getting information," he says, "and how-to video is a specific type of information that is perfectly set up for the Web."

Josh Bernoff, principal analyst with Forrester, an independent technology and market-research company, says that how-to video Web sites represent a potentially "very profitable" new Internet niche. "There are a variety of ways to make money [with these videos]," says Bernoff. "The fact that Google can offer video searches, and the fact that people are becoming increasingly comfortable with video online, helps this space significantly. But whether these two specific sites are successful as they move forward remains to be seen."

They seem to be on the right path. According to compete.com, which provides Web traffic information, ExpertVillage.com had 229,937 unique visitors in May and VideoJug.com had 105,510. ExpertVillage has grown 198 percent in the last six months, and both sides expect their growth to explode in the coming year.

Both sites will try to make their money from partnerships with private companies and advertisers who want their ads to appear on the site alongside like-minded videos in much the same way Google places ads next to key search words. For example, a video featuring an oncologist describing how chemotherapy works could be complemented by ads from cancer centers and drug companies. Both sites are banking that the credibility factor of having widely recognized experts in these individual fields will help bring in more high-end advertising.

Many informational Web sites have a rather wobbly reputation. Wikipedia, for example, has been criticized for being a repository for oftentimes erroneous information from unidentified and unqualified sources. The folks at VideoJug and ExpertVillage both insist their videos are vetted and checked before they make it to the Web site and that their experts really are experts. VideoJug's experts include dermatologist Dr. Harry Saperstein (his video: "How to Detect Skin Cancer"), an associate professor of medicine at UCLA, while ExpertVillage features people such as Amelia Maciszewski ("How to Play the Sitar"), who has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and has been performing Hindustani music for more than 20 years.

The most obvious difference between these competing new sites is that VideoJug's videos are primarily made by the company, while ExpertVillage's videos are produced by outside filmmakers who are paid as much as $300 a day by the site to make the short how-to films. "Most of [ExpertVillage's] films are user-submitted and not professionally produced," says Schankowitz. "Look at ExpertVillage's site and ours and you will see glaring differences in terms of production value and quality, quality of presentation, and the quality of the information. In short, we produce video, they collect video. Most of these other how-to sites are user-driven. We're different."

Counters Rosenblatt, "All of our videos are screened carefully before they make it to the site. Users can't upload anything, we check everything out first, and the quality of our videos are excellent. The fact that VideoJug's videos are high-definition is really unnecessary. I suspect it's because they are working with television networks, and that's something we aren't interested in. Also, we hope to have hundreds of thousands and eventually even millions of videos available, but under their model, I don't see how VideoJug could possibly produce that many."

Of course, in the fickle world of the Web, where your competitors are always just a click away, none of these sites is a sure thing. Still, says Schankowitz, "We are very confident that we have a unique product that will make money. I wouldn't have left TV without thinking this." Rosenblatt is also confident. "When I first arrived at MySpace in February of 2004, there was only one other social networking site. A year later, we sold it for $649 million, and we all know how big MySpace and other social networking sites are now. The same I believe is true of video how-to sites. We don't see a downside; we know this will work." And, they hope, they can show you in a video.