Online video creators, advertisers and producers have an unhealthy fascination with viral videos, and that obsession is dragging down the entire industry. Why? Because viral videos are, at their core, no better than a fluffernutter white-bread sandwich, delivering little or no value to anyone.
Online video hasn’t been a hotbed of success so far, and while I used to blame discovery, being relegated to the podcast ghetto and the immaturity of some of our biggest practitioners, those are just symptoms. It’s the incessant focus on viral success, I now believe, that’s really keeping us down.
Let’s start with producers and show creators. Media is all about building habits. Successful producers bind an audience to their creation, building an insatiable hunger for the next installment, next episode, next post. But when you focus on viral success, you throw that focus on repeatability out the window. By its nature, viral videos are designed to surprise, titillate and entertain. They are, by nature, unique; the 27th keyboard cat or the 12th dancing baby is just plain boring. But once video producers taste the heady success of a viral hit, they keep trying to re-create lightning in a bottle. But let’s face it — we all know "David Goes to the Proctologist" isn’t going to be nearly as successful as his trip to the dentist.
Viral videos are also terrible for video sites too. Sure, everyone loves to trumpet a single video with millions of views. But because viral videos are by their nature unpredictable, they can burn through an allocation of premium inventory rather rapidly. At most sites, there are only so many high-CPM advertisements ready to run at any given time. When they’re done, bottom-dwelling ad networks lurch into the void, spewing their cheapo ads for teeth whitening, belly flattening and nicotine-busting dreck. Ten predictable episodic shows that deliver a consistent 100,000 views an episode is far easier to plan for and monetize than a channel that has a one-in-100 chance of catching fire — and a 99-in-100 chance of bombing.
Viral videos may be bad for creators and publishers, but they are actually worse for advertisers. Your typical viral video gets passed around, yes, and drives a lot of views. And yes, those can translate into impressions for an advertiser. But as we’ve seen at Revision3, advertising associated with viral videos has only a small fraction of the impact of an ad that runs inside, or alongside, an episodic video program. We’ve seen tremendous results from putting brands next to our long-running episodic programs — those with real communities, high comment-to-view ratios and predictable views. We’ve seen terrible results by associating the same brands and services with the few viral-focused shows we’ve tried out over the last five years. And if you try creating those viral-focused videos yourself, you are in for a real surprise. It is overwhelmingly likely that you’ll end up with closer to a thousand views than a million.
There’s another thing to be wary of: fake views that make your viral campaign look like a success, when it’s actually a complete failure. There are many ways to juice views, exacerbated by the fact that YouTube and most other video sites tally up a view even if only a second of video plays. Your unscrupulous viral-video partner may be embedding an autoplay of your video below the fold on a variety of unrelated sites, and counting those views as success — when instead they are the worst sort of failure. Why failure? Because when your viewer realizes she’s been duped into viewing something unasked for, an angry STOP, and bad brand association, quickly follows.
But brands keep trying. And every time a new, apparently viral success emerges, even more dollars are wasted chasing chimerical views. Witness the Old Spice Guy phenomenon. Marketers worldwide are even now trying to replicate that success, without realizing viral was furthest from their minds. It started with a Super Bowl ad — hardly the norm for a viral-focused campaign, which hopes to get something for nothing. Each subsequent piece was part of a well thought out development of an engaging character, with the entire story arc and timing scripted in advance. They created a compelling, episodic video show, and spent millions up front to promote it.
Some of the best and most talented video producers focus their enormous talents on creating viral hits, instead of building repeatable episodic series that are built around an authentic host or an extended narrative. Yet in the end, those are the video properties that keep viewers coming back, provide predictable views that publishers covet and repeatable results that drive sales and profits.
There’s one area, though, where viral can be worthwhile: when you use one to build a sustainable audience for a well planned out video series. Dan Brown (aka Pogobat) did just that on YouTube. His videos went quickly viral when they were released three years ago, and have delivered nearly 27 million views so far. But instead of trying to replicate his viral success with an endless stream of Rubik-focused videos, he used that one to build a community around his daily thoughts, updates and experiences. He used viral to drive authenticity, and built up a community of nearly 300,000 friends — and recently he’s used that audience to drive branded success as well.
So what’s an advertiser to do? Stop chasing viral, and start looking closely at online video that delivers repeatable, measurable and sustainable views. When putting dollars behind video projects, make sure you understand exactly how the audience-development component works. You don’t want to pay for views that never actually get watched. And remember, just like with the Tortoise and the Hare, steady and consistent wins out over jackrabbit view spikes every time.
(Jim Louderback is CEO of video network Revision3, and would be happy to help you break the viral video habit – and this post was originally posted on AdAge – Thanks Guys!)
Forrester CEO George Colony just posted up a warning for web-focused companies and strategy – the web is dead, and apps are where it’s at.
I agree with him, as I see an on-rushing shift from dumb cloud-based flat web pages to the exciting, interactive and powerful apps we’re now loading on our phones and tablets.
But this “new world” is, in fact, nothing new. It’s simply the middle tick of a pendulum that’s been madly swinging since the dawn of computing – oscillating between centralized computing and local control. Back in the early nineties we would have called this mid-point client-server computing – the beginning of a decentralized model of building programs that was derailed by HTML and WWW – which were themselves a throwback to mainframe-based timesharing from the dawn of computing.
A little history puts this supposed new trend in perspective, and can offer some guidelines to the power, and pitfalls of the latest pendulum swing.
Back when computing first emerged as ENIAC, the machines were just too expensive for any one person to dominate them. IBM’s mainframe group rose to prominence because they were able to time-share – many, many computing jobs were able to share the same huge machine, each getting a small slice of the system’s resources and processor.
These central systems were controlled by a web of dumb terminals – video screens no smarter than a TV, which sucked, remora-like, off of the tiny time-slices allocated to them. They displayed alphabetic characters, but couldn’t do graphics or indeed any sort of local processing.
Over time those terminals got a bit smarter, and front-end based software began to enable more interactive forms, using software that treated each screen as a panel. In 1974 one of the most popular, ISPF, offered some semblance of local control using locally programmable function keys – which is why we still have them on our PCs today. But all the processing power remained in the central mainframe, or server, or what we might call the cloud today.
Speaking of the personal computer, it exploded onto the scene in the late 70s and early 80s, and represented a complete swing of the pendulum from shared to local control. Early PCs were self-contained units, and used local programs – or applications, to process everything locally. The first age of intelligent local apps dawned, with Multimate, Visicalc, Lotus 1-2-3, and Microsoft Office emerging as big winners. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that PC started routinely connecting to bigger computers and each other via phone-based and local area networking – and the pendulum started swinging backwards.
By the late 80s, networks of PCs were starting to talk to bigger computers, known as servers. A new model of computing developed, where smart front-end programs ran on local PCs, performing much of the processing – but offloading some processing and almost all of their data storage to SQL database servers located either down the hall or across the country.
The client-server model tried to intelligently balance the capabilities of intelligent local machines and the time-sharing model of centralized computing, storage and data manipulation. Ultimately, though, many systems failed due to an inability to scale – transaction queuing and synchronization complexity proved too daunting.
And suddenly the web was upon us. The browser – which was nothing more than early ISPF-style panels front-ending a centralized computer – took off, enabled by a centralized network and a protocol that allowed every computer – and every page (or panel) on the extended network to be linked to every other one.
Thus the last 15 years of computing has been dominated by a very mainframe-like model of relatively unintelligent front-ends (the browser) and smart back ends storing data and containing the complexity. But as the browser has become more complex developers started to take advantage of the power of the client (your Mac or PC), building more complex local apps - aka plug-ins – and the pendulum started swinging back again.
And now we’ve come full-circle. Local, intelligent apps, accessing powerful processes and data storage in the cloud, are the new black. The good news is that we’ve worked through a number of the back-end complexity issues as we built bigger and bigger web servers, and the local vs. cloud process isolation problems are better understood.
I’m a big fan of local applications, because they run faster, allow more creative solutions, and can lead to more intuitive apps. Connect them up to the wide variety of servers on the internet, and you’ve got an even better chance of building something amazing. But it’s nothing new. Screen-scraping, time sharing, client-server, cloud computing, desktop computing, browser-computing and now app-internet are all just ticks on the arc of the pendulum. And that pendulum is finally swinging back to the center.
Remember the other failings of Client-Server? Will the pendulum swing back to completely local control? Let me know what you think in the comments.