You've probably attended a video meeting with people calling in from the Millennium Falcon, the set of Food Network's Chopped, or the Simpsons' living room. I'm a Star Trek fan and will sometimes join from the bridge of the Enterprise-D. Big brands in the entertainment and tourist industries have published all kinds of custom videoconferencing backgrounds you can use to add flair to your next call.
Of course, you're also providing amazing product placement for those companies, and bringing their products into your everyday business conversations. Case in point: I recently spoke to an online Harvard MBA class where they have rules about staying on topic, but when one student joined from the midst of the Hogwarts' sorting hat ceremony, that rule went out the door. We had to stop and celebrate her clever custom background wizardry.
Custom backgrounds provide a great opportunity to advance your brand, and unlike most brand-placement opportunities, you don't need a Disney-size budget to take advantage of them. Here are four ways small businesses can use custom backgrounds to make an impression.
1. Look like money with a fancy business background.
First impressions and environmental cues have a huge impact on decisions. The same way that people tend to rate job applicants higher when their résumé is printed on fancy paper, clients will see your business as more trustworthy and professional when they see your fancy office. Of course, most solos and small businesses don't have a fancy office-- but your clients don't need to know that.
For a small fee, Zoom Virtual Office will put your company's logo on the walls of a gorgeous, well-lighted, and tastefully branded office, and then give you high-resolution images to use as your background. Another company, Hello Backgrounds, helps you place yourself in a swanky flat or on your private jet.
Most people will realize that these are virtual backgrounds, but that's OK. The part of the brain that makes decisions based on these kinds of impressions doesn't work using logic.
2. Help investors envision your success, literally.
Trying to raise capital? Create a background that puts you on the cover of Inc., Fast Company, or Forbes as you start your pitch. Alternatively, display your industry's top prize on your bookshelf.
Giving everyone a literal picture of what it will look like when you succeed--not if, but when--makes it much easier for them to envision that success with you.
3. Make your team stand out from the crowd.
Facilitators working together in an online workshop will often use the same virtual background. This makes it easy for everyone else to spot them. It also gives them a way to set the mood. Where one person showing a soothing forest scene can be nice, the effect is magnified when you see that image repeated many times.
You can do the same thing for your team by creating backgrounds that work like virtual business cards or team uniforms. When your team joins video calls with clients, suppliers, or investors, you'll all present a consistently professional and easily identifiable front.
If you don't have graphic design skills on your team, you can find free templates to customize backgrounds for your brand on Canva.
4. Show off your design skills.
Finally, if you do have the graphic design skills--and especially if you run a design company--virtual backgrounds are a great way to get your designs in front of a wider audience. For example, here's a background design that recently made the rounds on Instagram and brought more traffic to this freelancer's Redbubble store.
Moderation is key
Custom video backgrounds give you an opportunity to communicate your brand that would be silly to ignore. That said, you don't want to overdo it.
If you choose a complicated background, like the magazine covers or hand-drawn scenes, be prepared to switch those off after you've made your impression and before the novelty turns into a visual headache.
Finally, it's a good reminder that while tricking out your online appearance can add polish and interest to your video calls, it won't make up for a lack of confidence, quality, or kindness. When you want to represent your brand well in meetings, nothing matters more than respecting people's time and delivering value.