I Tube, YouTube, We All Tube For…What?

NOTE: This piece was originally published in Finance and Commerce back in July. I’ve updated it a bit, but it’s about 90% the same. If you’ve already seen this particular show, please stop by the box office on your out of the theater and we’ll give you a pass good for free admission next time.

– Austin


I was in a business pitch this summer and while describing how we’d take a promotion based on American Idol and magnify its reach by posting snippets to YouTube, one of the owners interrupted to ask, “What the hell is a ‘U-Tube?’”


How refreshing. A business person who isn’t obsessed over YouTube and viral videos.


Since 2005, YouTube has become the place on the web for video clips. If you want to see a waterskiing squirrel, the latest celebrity interview or yesterday’s political blooper, odds are it’s a search away on YouTube. Did you miss Britney’s comeback performance at the VMAs? No worries, the whole appalling train wreck is there for the viewing (3.3 million times in the last week).


Even by the hothouse standards of today’s Internet-driven culture, YouTube is an overnight success. According to Alexa.com, which publishes web traffic stats, YouTube is the fourth most-visited site on the Internet after Yahoo, Microsoft’s MSN and Google. Late last year, it was snapped up by Google for $1.65 billion.


YouTube is a bit of an obsession in the business world as well. If you believe the hype, busineses everywhere are – or ought to be – making “authentic” videos and dumping them into the YouTube maw so that legions of hungry consumers can snap them up.


Except, of course, when they don’t.


Yes, lots of companies are posting videos on a stunning range of topics (you haven’t lived until you’ve viewed the 67 compelling seconds of “OfficeMax Launches New Ink & Toner Recycling Program”). It also turns out, though, that nearly all of these videos are attracting almost no viewership (OfficeMax’s video, for example, has attracted all of 242 viewers in the two months since its posting).


And, it’s not just OfficeMax. Kellogg’s, Whirlpool, Proctor & Gamble, United Airlines and others are among the hundreds of companies, organizations and government agencies posting videos to YouTube that no one watches.


“Hold on,” the digerati will say. “These examples are from entities that don’t get what makes the Internet different from other communications channels – its interactive, collaborative nature, its informality and immediacy and the need to not just inform but entertain. There are plenty of examples of corporate-sponsored videos that work.”


Maybe, if the goal is attracting eyeballs, not sales. “Raw Tea Partay,” for example, is a pretty funny parody of a rap video featuring a gang of New England preppies with more than 3.6 million viewings since its posting last year, making it one of the all-time YouTube hits. It has achieved for Smirnoff (who makes “Raw Tea”) the “viral” status everyone covets as waves of e-mails and instant messages have spread it worldwide.


The trouble, though, is that the video doesn’t appear to have done much for sales. In fact, based on the financials from Smirnoff’s parent Diageo that I scanned in July, the whole line is down double-digit percentages in North America and around the world. More recently, when the company issued its preliminary results at the end of August, I couldn’t find a single reference to the product or even the category, suggesting that the Tea Partay may be over.


This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for YouTube and viral videos. Today’s Presidential campaigns are using some effective techniques of parody and sampling from their opponents’ material and pop culture (Obama’s ad combining Clinton footage and Apple’s classic “1984” commercial, for example) and in producing fast-response video that can be posted quickly and then filter out to the mainstream media. Earlier this year, Starbucks posted a simple but effective rebuttal on the topic of “fair trade” coffee purchases. While the Starbucks video has been viewed a modest 7,100 times, its directness, “true” authenticity and use of the medium of the initial allegations make it a valuable benchmark about the use of such videos for crisis communications.


And, in case you’re wondering, I didn’t get the business; turns out he hadn’t heard of American Idol either.

Hard to Believe The Pot When It Calls The Kettle Black

OK, conservative readers, warm up the great Ronald Reagan line from his debate with Jimmy Carter: “There you go again.” Cuz I’m going to talk about taxes. And honesty in communication. And hypocrisy.

Wednesday morning on Minnesota Public Radio’s Marketplace, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum talked about how inflation is likely to return when we baby boomers want to collect on the government promise of Social Security. The government won’t be able to meet its commitment, so it will inflate its way out of the problem by printing money, Frum said, disparagingly, like a good conservative (he’s a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute).

Still tut-tutting, he continued, “That’s what happened in the 1960s, when the United States decided to build a Great Society and fight a war in Vietnam, all at the same time, without raising taxes. Let’s borrow the money. And how will we pay it back? Easy — just print it.”

Frum clearly holds this up as an example of bad behavior. But either half his brain fell out of his skull or he’s so used to hypocrisy from too long in the Bush White House that he can’t recognize that queasy feeling in his soul.  He’s describing exactly what his former boss is doing — trying to fight a war and fund domestic programs without raising taxes. But no mention of that in his piece.

Frum loses credibility as a commentator when he doesn’t concede that the people he worked for are making the same mistake he correctly cites from the Lyndon Johnson years. All I’m asking is a little humility and honesty and I’ll be much more likely to listen to this conservative’s view.

Too many Republicans are so dogmatic about “no new taxes” that they’re willing to pass the bill for today’s spending to their children and grandchildren to pay. That’s just cowardly, in my view.

But the communications lesson here is that when you concede error, admit when you’ve goofed up, people are much more likely to find you credible and human and listen to your point. If you don’t admit an obvious flaw, you’ll sound self-righteous. Criticizing your partner for doing exactly what you yourself are doing is called projection, in marriage counseling, and it’s a very unsuccessful way to communicate or build a relationship. I, of course, never do anything like this myself — but if I did, I’d tell you, to be more credible.

–Bruce Benidt