Make Videos, Get Money: Vimeo's CEO on Why Creators Should Get Paid

The video-sharing platform is launching two tools that allow videomakers to monetize their content. 

As a video producer and curator, I've kept an eye on Vimeo -- not just because I watch web videos all day, but because it's a fascinating case study. The rise of the social web has brought wonderful, mostly free, services to millions of users, allowing them to create and share digital content on an unprecedented scale. But sigh! How to monetize all this engagement? While Facebook, YouTube, and other content-sharing sites built their business models on advertising, Vimeo played its cards a little differently. With its clean interface and cuddly community vibe, Vimeo has carved out a niche as the videomaker's video platform. Can a media platform really survive without flooding its audience with advertising? Could it survive simply by charging its users directly? Spearheaded by Kickstarter and Etsy, a new wave of startups are thriving by connecting creators with audiences, skimming a percentage of the crowd funding or sales generated in the process. Vimeo is joining these ranks today, announcing two new tools that will allow videomakers to generate revenue from their videos.

The first, "Tip Jar," is exactly what it sounds like. Vimeo users can invite viewers to make donations and get 85 percent of the cash (Vimeo takes 15 percent, in part to cover transaction costs. In comparison, Kickstarter takes five percent). The second and more exciting feature is a "pay-to-view" setup which will allow users to charge viewers for access to content, customizing the parameters to suit their needs. Vimeo plans to roll out a few pay-to-view videos this fall, with a full launch in early 2013. It's not the first time amateur and independent video creators have had an opportunity to monetize their work online; YouTube's partners program shares ad revenue with successful YouTube channels, for example.

However, Vimeo's Tip Jar and pay-to-view tools do open up a platform for all the videos that don't fit the mold of other distribution platforms (feature movies on Netflix, web series on YouTube) to make money. Enjoy those stunning time-lapse videos of the aurora borealis over Iceland? Don't forget to tip your filmmaker on the way out! For small independent productions, both shorts and features, though, the pay-to-view could be huge. If the success of Kickstarter (which has helped raise more than $70 million for film and video projects) is any indication, there could be a serious payoff for Vimeo too. 

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Curious about how Vimeo plans to navigate the increasingly competitive space of online video, we spoke with Vimeo's CEO Kerry Trainor, who joined the company this spring from AOL. In the following interview, which has been edited and condensed for space, Trainor weighs in on the new features, Vimeo's plans to collaborate with more brands, and why Vimeo is the Mac to YouTube's PC. 

The Atlantic: Why give creators the tools to monetize their videos, and why now?

Kerry Trainor: It goes back to the core of Vimeo as a platform. Vimeo has been quite successful in terms of distinguishing itself as the quality platform for creative people. Enabling those people to start to build businesses and generate revenue around their work really feels like the next logical step. So the features that we’re announcing this week and overall – the first move forward for Vimeo into empowering creators to earn revenue really is a continuation of Vimeo’s core commitment to providing a quality platform for those creators.

Is this the first example of something like this on a video platform?

We think it’s pretty unique in terms of what is out there, and we’re optimistic about the prospects given the type of growth we’ve seen in crowd funding. We think there’s something really powerful in connecting creators and their audiences very directly like that. We don’t want to be too aggressive and say it’s the first time it’s ever been done because we’ve seen it implemented in other places, but ... this is the first time it’s been implemented on a platform of any appreciable scale, as an original feature, on a site like Vimeo. We’ve developed this in house and baked it right into the platform.

Was Louis CK’s success selling his comedy show directly to fans an inspiration?

The plans for Vimeo to empower creators to monetize have long been in the works but we love examples like that because it shows that desire on the part of both the creator and the audience to connect more directly. Louis CK did very well at a threshold that would not have done well had it been done through traditional television, but by going direct and having it be via the Web, everybody wins. The artist or creator is able to earn a lot more in a much more efficient way, and the audience gets access to content that they may not have otherwise gotten. We’re excited about this not only because it’s the next logical step forward for Vimeo and our commitment to empowering creators but we also view it as an expansion of the paid video marketplace over all.

Because Vimeo is not a heavily ad-supported model for the most part, the experience is very different from other video sites. Is it a priority to differentiate Vimeo from YouTube and other video platforms in this regard?

One of the most exciting things for me about being the part of the team at Vimeo is the product has really been very consistent and I think that that’s what’s allowed it to thrive in a world where you do have such a massive competitor like YouTube. I think YouTube is very successful at what they do but it’s different. When we think about the product and the business alike, we think about three things. First and foremost is quality, so it’s the technical quality of our player, our playback experience, the way we transcode videos. Quality also extends to the user experience, being clean and uncluttered and really putting the video front and center. Keeping the amount of advertising on the site below a certain threshold. And because of the quality tools we feel that we’ve attracted a very different level of quality in terms of the type of content that you’d find on the site.

The next is creativity. We’re always focused on how we foster and support creativity, allowing people to reach audiences that weren’t possible before the advent of the Web. And third is control. In a world where it’s amazing that you can share something with the entire world – for some people that’s also a little bit much. We like to have Vimeo be at the forefront having best in class privacy functions where you can password protect videos and share them easily with just a select group of people. We are always working along those three lines, of how we can continue to have the experience differentiated by quality, by creativity, by control. In very oversimplified terms, Vimeo is kind of like the Mac to YouTube’s PC.

We always are very focused on innovation and staying vigilant, staying frankly just dedicated to being a product-driven company. That’s what makes Vimeo special. I think that’s what makes any growing company on the Web successful. Vimeo has been very successful in mapping out its own identity and having that be very clear in a very competitive space and the onus is on us to continue to build on that identity and make sure that it stays differentiated and distinct, even as more competitors enter the space every day.  

With the success of the Old Spice “Muscle Music” interactive video, a collaboration between Vimeo and Wieden + Kennedy, will brand partnerships become a bigger part of Vimeo’s business?

Vimeo has always had some level of advertising on the site, but [the Old Spice “Muscle Music” collaboration] was certainly one of the deepest and definitely one of the most highly creative. You know in a way, brands are kind of like people too, in that for the same reason that a distinct group of users choose Vimeo, we’re finding that similarly a distinct group of brands, when either their identity maps more closely to ours or they’re looking to do something really innovative and creative, we’re finding more and more that they’re seeking out Vimeo. While we don’t ever want advertising to ever destroy or negatively impact what makes Vimeo special, we do also very much like working with brands and their agencies. So for those right projects we’re more than happy to engage.

Is Vimeo’s community an asset in brand collaborations like this?

Yeah absolutely. A lot of members of the [Vimeo] creative community are parts of the agency community as well. So whether it’s filmmakers or people working in the advertising space or branded content, a lot of times the folks doing work on behalf of brands are very dedicated Vimeo users. We do see ways that that can be brought to the fore even more and we’re going to be figuring that out in the future.

Do you consider Vimeo a content company?

Vimeo ultimately is a video platform, in the sense that we offer tools to empower people to distribute content, so in that way we are a content company. And we also curate selections of content that we think are fantastic, and display that on the site. We produce some of our own videos to remind the world what it’s like to work here and of the personalities involved, which we think are an important part of explaining the distinctive environment that is Vimeo. We haven’t gone incredibly deep into producing original content. So I think it depends where you set the definition, but in terms of being able to empower people to create better content and distribute that content and now to monetize that content, and curating specific selections we want to highlight for people, in those respects, yes. In the production company respect, no, we are not actively funding content production at this stage.

What kinds of videos will we see via the pay-to-view feature?

I think one of the things we’re most excited about is it’s kind of open ended. Whereas the more widely available on-demand platforms – Netflix or Hulu or Amazon – tend to really gravitate around traditional feature film and television. I love feature films and television and probably spend more time than most rabidly consuming them, but we also know that there’s also a lot of high-quality content being produced in all different types of formats, lengths, narrative approaches, and we really do want the platform to be available to people to share and earn revenue from their work, whatever the shape or size. We’re going to see what it looks like ultimately, but our hope is that it’ll be much more flexible and have a much more diverse offering than you might typically find through more cable-based or other distribution platforms.