Stepping Out

Posted on Feb 1, 2010 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Michael Hagen, WebOuts

“I’m not doing this. Seriously.”

That’s what John Halechko said after seeing his colleague Scott Fecteau, a fellow senior vice president at Associated Bank, strut around a set in a head-to-toe turkey suit.

As the bank’s director of sales and service, Halechko put his good sport mentality to the test for the bank’s recent associate appreciation campaign. In the spirit of celebrating their employees’ accomplishments, he climbed into a similar costume. With Fecteau, director of mortgage and consumer finance, and David L. Stein, executive vice president and director of retail banking, Halechko starred in a series of WebOuts that appeared on bank employees’ computers the first time they logged into the company intranet that week.

Halechko played the role of the reluctant manager dressing up at Stein’s request. Fecteau played it over the top, strutting and bobbing his head in character and even giving his best “gobble-gobble” on camera.

If the employees had even half the fun viewing them as management did making them, a lot of laughter likely filled the halls when the WebOuts played on computer screens at Associated Bank locations across the Midwest.

“Each shoot is fun in its own way,” says Michael Hagen, one of the co-owners of WebOuts. “This one is for internal use, so they could really go over the top. Generally, what we have is business people telling folks why they are better than the competition.”

WebOuts is a technology, an up-and-coming company and a marketing tool for businesses, all at the same time. It’s also the brainchild of three local entrepreneurs who prove that good ideas can come from spending too much time on the road in a large recreational vehicle.

As a technology, a WebOut is convergence of video production and Web programming that allows a business owner or manager to “walk” onto their website and talk with viewers and potential customers. The video, usually 60 seconds or less, is shot against a green screen, essentially the same technique that Hollywood special effects wizards use to drop imaginary and computer generated characters into movies.

Then, the video is integrated with the Web page using a proprietary code. When a customer loads the page, a walking and talking character appears. They may just introduce themselves and the company, or they may talk about their business philosophy or they may even point out a few things on the website that customers may be interested in. Each WebOut is filmed in a single take, and minus the editing typically done with a promotional video, the result is a true-to-life introduction to the individual and his or her business. Viewers feel as if they’ve actually met that person, a notion that builds a sense of familiarity and trust that usually comes only after a personal meeting.

It’s not that the technology is new – both Web and video have been around for a while – but it is a new convergence of the technology made possible by the wider availability of high-speed Internet connections to the home that made it practical, says Andy DeNure, one of the three co-owners.

“For a long time, the lack of bandwidth made this impossible,” DeNure says. “Now, we can do things that are so much more creative.”

Indeed, there is no one way to do a WebOut. Not only can the technology be incorporated into Web pages, but it can also be embedded in e-mails or used as a presentation, where the video image can point to different things on the Web page and explain them. Some companies have used that function for meeting and training presentations that require no travel, just an Internet connection.

“It allows you to present your information when the end user is ready to receive it,” DeNure says.

WebOuts is more than just flashy technology. It is also an upstart company that has grabbed major clients from coast to coast since its founding in 2007 by co-owners Hagen, DeNure and Craig Smoll.

Not even three years old, WebOuts boasts clients such as Hewlett Packard and International Speedway Corp., (ISC; NASCAR track owners). Regional clients include Schneider National Trucking, Curwood/Bemis, Affinity Health System and many others. While the company will not discuss its financial information, year-to-date sales are up 57 percent, Hagen says.

“We are not Donald Trump, but we are doing well,” he says. “You have to remember that our first clients were a puppy breeder and a day care. Now we are doing HP and NASCAR.”

The company’s origins are quite humble. Smoll, Hagen and DeNure were working on a project for Digicom Productions, a company that worked with video, Web and other sales tools when they hit upon the WebOuts idea. The three were riding in a 30-foot recreational vehicle across Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota to shoot video for an upcoming project. On the road, they brainstormed what would become WebOuts.

At first, they did not think anyone would want to use it. Great “Wow!” factor, but even they missed its appeal at first.

“We really didn’t market it because we were not convinced anyone would want to use it,” says Smoll. “But we did put it on our own website. As people saw it, they began to ask us if we could do it for them. Then we started getting calls from other marketing firms. They wanted it, but we were the competition.”

Smoll says that was the point they knew they needed to spin WebOuts out into its own company.

Those early days and the RV ride seem like ancient history as Smoll, Hagen and the WebOuts technical crew wrapped up the Associated Bank shoot in their studio at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel. In roughly 90 minutes (a few extra takes were needed to overcome laughter) a series of three WebOuts were produced for the bank’s employee intranet. Halechko and Fecteau changed out of their turkey suits, and together with Stein watched the playback. In a few days, the WebOuts began appearing on computer terminals at bank locations across the Midwest.

In just two years, Hagen, Smoll and DeNure have taken WebOuts from an over-caffeinated, lack-of-sleep brainstorm to a major player when it comes to Web marketing.

It was just six months after they created the company when the call came from NASCAR.

“It’s always interesting when the phone rings,” Hagen says.

NASCAR was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Daytona 500 and ISC approached WebOuts about doing some projects that would help promote the celebration. While Smoll and Hagen could see the possibilities and were ready to go immediately, they noticed ISC was a little slow about taking them up on the possibilities.

WebOuts were the new guys, and the NASCAR group was going to make them prove themselves first, Smoll says. It would be an important lesson in patience.

About a week before Daytona, the call came to film a WebOut of the winning driver. They wound up getting 15 minutes with him in a makeshift studio, sandwiched between other media interviews. But they got it done, and were even able to on-the-fly edit out some items without having to re-shoot the entire video.

The extra effort was worth it, Hagen says, as WebOuts are now regularly used by ISC to promote NASCAR races at its tracks.

But WebOuts are not just for the big guns. They work for many smaller clients such as Karate America, Tammy Muller Photography and Vision 2 Serve, a business owned by John Gillespie that helps churches grow and run more efficiently.

They all have one thing in common, Smoll says: they want to get their message out to potential clients and customers. WebOuts allows them to do that by extending the same thing on the Web that they do when a customer walks in the door or calls on the phone.

“Once you get past the cool factor, its function is pretty simple,” Smoll says. “If someone calls, you answer the phone and greet them. When someone walks into the store or showroom, you greet them and tell them about yourself. Now we can bring that to the Web. It brings the handshake online.”

That’s what Affinity Health System was looking for when it turned to WebOuts to introduce doctors to patients. The hospital had worked with Smoll and Hagen for some video prior to the creation of WebOuts, and were looking to launch their physician introductions at about the same time the new company opened its doors.

“Out intent was to create a way to share information with patients so that they could make some personal choices about care they wanted,” says Jen Wagner Mauk, executive director of brand and marketing communications for Affinity Health System. “This seemed like a really innovative way to do that.”

When patients go to the Affinity website to research a doctor, they not only get qualifications, locations and hours, they also are greeted by the physician in a WebOut where they talk about their approach to medicine. Mauk says the physicians have been reporting that patients are more at ease when they arrive for initial appointments, often because they feel they have met the doctor already. “They feel like there is a connection before they even walk in.”

Wheaton Healthcare had similar results when it launched WebOuts of its doctors earlier this year,” says Brian Farley, director of communication and public relations.

“So much of a person’s decision about a doctor is based on their feelings about them,” Farley says. “This gives them a head-start on that.”

The alternative to the WebOut is for patients to visit and interview doctors, a time-consuming and impractical approach, he says.

The doctors have been pretty good sports about doing the video shoots for the WebOuts, Mauk says, and those that haven’t done it yet continue to schedule their appointments.

Affinity has also used WebOuts for its internal communication, with President and CEO Daniel Neufelder using the e-mail product to communicate about recent initiatives with all employees in the health care system. Mauk says it has been an effective way for him to get his message out quickly.

What Mauk really likes about WebOuts is the ability to connect with the person on the other end, particularly how that fits into Affinity’s emphasis on personalizing care.

“This fits in well with that. They can watch, gather the information and make a choice about a provider on their time, rather than going into a clinic or office and then discovering it’s not what they were looking for,” Mauk says.

Making a connection and building relationships is what WebOuts is all about, Hagen says. It’s what most businesses try to do every day, and this just gives them another tool to do it.

“Businesses are about providing solutions and providing that to customers,” Hagen says. “Knowing that people now do a lot of their research online, this gives them an opportunity to talk with that customer, and for that customer to look them in the eye and say, ‘I trust you.’”

Companies that use WebOuts have clearly come to trust the Fox Valley-based firm. While the WebOuts staff often travels to a client location to shoot the video, some of their larger clients have been sending their personnel to the Fox Cities for sessions. Microsoft and HP recently sent folks to Appleton to shoot the WebOuts for a joint project the two technology companies are working on.

It’s not necessarily the destination some would have in mind for the home base of the WebOuts technology.

“A lot of people see the technology and think we are an East or West Coast company,” Hagen says. “I think a lot of them are surprised that we are right here in Wisconsin.”

They do most of their shoots by going to the client location, he says. It just makes sense to minimize the time top managers will spend on a shoot. Given that technology has made the studio essentially portable, traveling to a client location is not an imposition.

The WebOuts team also has a network of about a dozen independent resellers across the country, which has allowed them to tap clients from Hawaii to New York.

As the Associated Bank shoot wrapped, Hagen and Smoll were already working on a rush job for Mayo Clinic, which wanted some WebOuts ready to roll on its intranet within the next week, even though it had not provided the developers with some of the necessary coding to make that happen.

Hagen and Smoll seemed unfazed. If the past few years has taught them anything, it’s not to place limits on what they can and can’t do. Indeed, the ability to create solutions has forced them to change some of their work habits.

“Early on, we used to stay up way too early into the morning calling each other whenever we discovered something new that worked,” Smoll says.

“What we have decided now is to only call each other when something does not work,” Hagen says. “We get more sleep that way.”