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.
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.