Coming Attractions: A Newly Sanitized YouTube

YouTube Cleaning up its ActThe YouTube phenomenon has been one of the biggest success stories of all in cyberspace.

Over the years, YouTube has gone from being a weird corner of the web made up of curious, strange and often forgettable video clips, to a site that attracts millions of viewers every day – some of whom have essentially ditched all other forms of video viewing in favor of mining the vast trove of material YouTube carries on its platform.

In the years since Google acquired YouTube, traffic and usage have exploded, even as the video fare has become more varied (and also more professional).

But there’s one holdover from the early years that continues to bedevil Google: YouTube is a repository of some of the most inflammatory, puerile and downright disgusting commentary that passes for “discourse,” posted by all manner of rabble.

But now, Google is signaling a strategy that has the potential to clean up the crude comments on YouTube – and in a big way.

YouTube is now strongly encouraging users to post their YouTube comments using the name identity associated with their Google+ account.

In fact, if you decline to do so after being prompted, you’ll be asked to state a reason why, underscoring the nudge away from “screen name anonymity” and towards “real-name identity.”

The notion is that people will be less likely to post flaming comments when their “true” web identity is known – that people will exude good behavior in “polite cyber-company,” as it were.

Of course, one needs to possess a Google+ account in order to link his or her identity on YouTube. But that’s for today only; some observers see YouTube’s move as just the first step toward hiding – and eventually eliminating – all comments coming from anonymous accounts.

So the new bargain will be something closer to this: “Open a Google+ account and link your YouTube account to your Google+ account … or else forfeit your ability to post any comments at all on YouTube.”

The likely result will be a much more “sanitized” YouTube – less edgy, but also less red-faced embarrassing. And that’s just what many brands, businesses and advertisers would like to see happen.

Of course, YouTube’s moves may well spur the launch of an alternative site that seeks to preserve the (nearly) anything-goes environment of the YouTube of yore.

Perhaps it could be called “YouCrude,”  But, as it happens, that handle’s already been nabbed — by a fellow WordPress blogger!

Virgin Mobile’s “Sparah” campaign: Art imitates life … or vice versa?

In recent days, American television viewers have begun to see ads about a “faux” celebrity couple — Spencer Falls and Sarah Carroll – dubbed “Sparah.” What’s up with this?

It turns out that Virgin Mobile dreamed up these entirely fictitious characters as a way to raise interest and generate “buzz” about its Android-powered phones that feature monthly “pay as you go” plans that include unlimited web, data, messaging and e-mail.

The idea is to pique the curiosity of viewers who will then interact with other consumers and go online to view a variety of videos about this “celebrity couple.”

Now, before reading this blog post any further, I’d suggest you take a moment and view the intro ad here.

The “celebrity couple” is being “given” a house in Hollywood Hills, a stylist and an agent/publicist. As their “fame” grows, the “couple” is being asked to “participate” in activities “typical” of A-list celebrities, including photo shoots, store openings and appearances at special events.

As part of their “contract” with Virgin Mobile, the “couple” will be chronicling their “activities” across a variety of social media channels, including Facebook. Twitter and FourSquare.

And of course, the consumer public is being urged to “keep up with Sparah” by following all of the “important activities” of this “celebrity couple.”

Judging from the comments being left by viewers of the “Sparah” videos on YouTube, Virgin Mobile’s campaign is having the desired effect so far. Not only is the campaign generating significant buzz, it’s near-universally positive in tone.

There’s little doubt that Virgin Mobile has come up with a clever and successful way to generate awareness and interest in its phone plans as it competes with other service providers in the market. But what’s also interesting is that Virgin Mobile is shining a light on the hyperbole and “blue smoke and mirrors” that inform so much of social media and celebrity marketing today.

The line between what’s genuine versus what’s “manufactured” in pop culture – whether news or biography or gossip – is a very fine one. That’s always been the case, of course: the successes of a Lillie Langtry or Sarah Bernhardt a century ago would not have been so impressive without it.

But in today’s world, the explosion of interactive communications creates a hothouse-like environment in which the buzz can be born and spread faster than ever. (That’s why it’s often called “going viral.”)

It’s not hard to speculate that Virgin Mobile is conducting this campaign with “tongue planted firmly in cheek.” Still, the marketing pros at the company realize that while people may laugh at the irony of the campaign, at the same time Virgin Mobile is benefiting in a major way from the very things they’re spoofing. And that’s a master stroke.

Art imitating life? Life imitating art? It’s a pointed joke for sure … but on whom?

YouTube’s Big Accomplishment

YouTube logoHere’s an interesting milestone that YouTube has just achieved: In May 2010, it surpassed the 100-video mark in the average number of videos shown monthly to its U.S. viewers.

Data released by comScore, a marketing research company that collects data for many of the Internet’s largest businesses, show that ~183 million people watched online videos during May. (By the way, that’s nearly 85% of the entire U.S. Internet audience.)

With YouTube accounting for ~14.6 BILLION videos served, it translates into 101 videos for the average viewer. The duration of the average online video shown was a little over four minutes.

How pervasive is YouTube? The May comScore stats show that it accounted for far more activity than any other video site, charting ~43% of all videos viewed. Hulu ranked second, with the various Microsoft video sites ranking third.

And the contest isn’t even close: Hulu’s second-place ranking was good for only ~4% of viewership!

The average number of videos seen monthly per viewer as recorded by comScore were as follows:

 YouTube: 101 average number of videos per viewer
 Hulu: 27
 Microsoft video sites: 16
Viacom Digital: 10

If there were any continuing questions as to who is the 500-pound gorilla in online video, these statistics appear to be putting that debate to rest.

Novelty Reigns at Allure Bays (er … Microsoft)

Microsoft Office 2010 logoMicrosoft SharePoint 2010 logoIn the drive to “engage” customers, some companies are going to pretty great lengths to try something new and novel.

Take Microsoft and its soon-to-be-released Microsoft Office® 2010 and SharePoint® 2010 versions. Burned by the negative customer reaction to some of its earlier introductions (Vista®, for example), the company is trying some new tactics this time around.

Will they succeed? You be the judge.

You can start by visiting www.allurebays.com. This is a “pretend” site put up by Microsoft’s direct marketing agency-of-record (Wunderman), and attempts to generate awareness for the new Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 versions without ever mentioning the products by name.

“Allure Bays Corporation” is a fictional company whose name is a riff on the Internet meme all your base are belong to us from an erroneous English translation in a Japanese video game that spread throughout the web in the early 2000s. The bogus site offers infomercial-type videos and other content. Special hidden clues are peppered throughout the site, with content that only alludes to the Office and SharePoint products and their feature/benefits.

What’s going on here? Jerry Hayek, a Microsoft marketing group manager, reported that the company wishes to reach an audience of developers that he characterizes as “jaded”: “It’s a fairly jaded audience. There are a lot of companies that want to talk to them,” he said.

In order to spark visitor engagement, a leaderboard on the “Allure Bays” web site allows registered users to compete for the honor of finding all of the 45 hidden clues on the site. So far, the site has attracted ~25,000 registered users.

“When we look at the developer audience, getting an engagement of 150,000 to 200,000 (spread across several videos) … is a win,” Hayek noted.

What’s the reaction of visitors? If the comments left by viewers of the “Allure Bays” video channel on YouTube are any gauge, it’s mixture of criticism and confusion. To wit:

 “This is one big, expensive, utterly failed attempt of Microsoft to go viral. Please thumbs-down this video.”

 “AYBABTU is a cornerstone of Internet culture. Microsoft appropriating it to hawk the newest version of their bloated Office Suite is loathsome. Anyone up-voting any of these videos should have their Internet license revoked.”

 “I don’t get it … is it supposed to be funny?! Or what the h*ll is going on here?”

“It could be the new TV show like Lost or Fringe or Fantasy Island 2?”

 “WTF.”

Sheri McLeish, an analyst with Forrester Research who covers Microsoft, reported that she found the “Allure Bays” site confusing. “I’m not sure what it’s supposed to do. But maybe there’s something I’m missing.”

In the end, whether or not this initiative will be declared a success depends on how the folks at Wunderman and Microsoft view the results in terms of before/after awareness, audience engagement, and positive product perception.

But the early indicators don’t look all that promising.

YouTube channels McDonalds: “Billions and billions served.”

YouTube logoIn case anyone doubts the significance of YouTube as a media platform … the video sharing service just announced that it is now serving in excess of 2 billion video views per day.

For an entity that’s barely five years old, this statistic is pretty incredible. But it becomes easier to believe when the full extent of YouTube’s video inventory is understood.

In fact, these days nearly 24 hours of video footage is being uploaded to YouTube every minute. That’s more than 34,000 hours of video each day.

Plus, there appears to be no end in sight to the growth of YouTube’s video library, as the rate of uploading has increased by nearly 20% over the past year.

The fact that the vast majority of YouTube videos are hardly worth the time it takes to watch them makes little difference. Far more than Yahoo Video or Hulu, this site has become the “go-to” place for finding everything from old TV commercials to short clips from movies or shows. Or to engage in the guilty pleasure of browsing around and viewing everything from news anchor bloopers to boring college commencement speeches and embarrassingly bad student dance recitals.

Actually, the number of people who visit YouTube to “channel surf” is astonishingly large. It’s become the new pastime that TV watching once was.

And the “social” aspect of YouTube is important as well, as people love to pass links to their favorite videos on to their friends. Or to “broadcast yourself,” as the site’s tagline states. YouTube makes that process easy and effortless, contributing to the burgeoning inventory of new video material.

When Google acquired YouTube in 2009, more than a few industry observers wondered about the rationale behind the purchase and questioned the effectiveness of YouTube’s business model. Looking back one year on, it’s hard to understand what the fuss was all about!

And just yesterday, Google announced ambitious new plans for YouTube. It’s begun converting the entire library of videos to its new WebM video format that incorporates VP8, special codec compression software that facilitates the delivery of smooth, high quality video images.

In yet another swipe at its rivals, Google is offering VP8 royalty-free, in a bid to knock Flash (Adobe) and H.264 (Apple) platforms off their current top perch. Will they be successful? Well, based on history …

Facebook Continues on its Merry Way to Social Media (and Web?) Dominance

Here’s a very interesting finding ripped from today’s social media headlines: The Business Insider and other media outlets are reporting that Facebook now accounts for nearly one in four page views on the Internet in the United States.

So claims database marketing consulting firm Drake Direct, which has studied web traffic in the U.S. and the U.K. by analyzing data collected by Compete, a leading aggregator of web statistics.

Just to give you an idea of how significant Facebook’s results are: by comparison, search engine powerhouse Google accounts for only about one in twelve page views.

And Facebook is now closing in on Google when it comes to site visits – with each currently receiving around 2.5 billion visits per month. In fact, studying the trend lines, Drake Direct anticipates that Facebook site visits will surpass Google any time now.

Another interesting finding is that the length of the average Facebook visit now surpasses that of YouTube (~16 minutes versus ~14 minutes per visit), whereas YouTube had charted longer visits prior to now.

These findings underscore the continued success of Facebook as the most successful social media site, even as it has grown to 350+ million users, including more than 100 million in the U.S. with 5 million added in January alone. No doubt, it’s on a roll.

What is YouTube’s Business Model?

The information is starting to trickle out. YouTube is hemorrhaging red ink. Credit Suisse estimated recently that YouTube will make approximately $240 million in advertising revenue – revenue that has come from a cavalcade of different forms of advertising, licensing and partnership deals.

Balance that income against estimated costs of over $700 million and you get a loss of more than $450 million.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Advertising Age magazine has just reported that YouTube is now selling advertising against 9% of its video views. That’s up from 6% a year ago. But those figures are still paltry. And it’s really no surprise since so much of YouTube’s content is user-generated, devoid of any significant interest and thus not really “monetizable” for advertising purposes.

No one – not even parent company Google, with a market capitalization of over $100 billion – is going to put up with such a scenario forever. The question is whether YouTube will ever be able to generate enough ad revenue to offset the huge bandwidth and storage costs associated with managing a humongous repository of video material. It’s a question that, even if Google’s own senior management doesn’t ask, the company’s shareholders should.

Paid subscriptions, anyone?

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