It’s not easy being an industry leader these days. The moment you hit the top, every time your competition releases a new product, it’s going to “kill” you. The Zune was the iPod killer. Microsoft’s new and improved search was the Google killer. And NBC Universal/News Corp’s new service is, naturally, being touted as the YouTube killer.
All which makes for violent headlines, but the proof, as we all know, is in the audience. It’s not enough to release a new service into the wild and expect it to take the Internets by storm. YouTube didn’t become the go-to online video service simply because it was there. And that is the lesson big media needs to learn.
I think it’s important to review what makes YouTube, well, YouTube. It’s obviously not the only video sharing site out there. Grouper, Revver, and a host of other services allow users to easily upload video. If rumors are to be believed, Revver is the place to go if you’re trying to make a buck off your work. But the zeitgeist — that intangible thing — is with YouTube. Users cross the myriad cultural divides. My mother-in-law finds stuff on YouTube, because YouTube is pretty close to foolproof. It’s designed for the casual user.
- Ease-of-use is a key feature of YouTube. Another feature is community. Community is a Web 2.0 buzzword, sure, but it’s also critical to the success of any application in this day and age. You need devoted, dedicated, committed users. Also, you need a community that welcomes newcomers. These seemingly disparate groups need to be able to talk to each other and with the person who uploaded the video. They also need to be able to take the video back to their own communities.
- Which leads to portability. It is beyond easy to embed the YouTube widget in any website. My friend in Oklahoma can use this feature to add goofy video to her blog; she can also use it to embark on a fledgling business. This democratized distribution model wrests control from the content owners, sure, but it doesn’t have to wrest revenues. It’s a business model-in-progress.
- Another feature of YouTube is the emphasis on user-generated content. While the media tends to focus on the so-called copyright violations — and, let’s be honest, the boundaries of Fair Use are still being defined on both sides — they tend to only take notice of the standouts when it comes to user-generated content. The truth of the matter is that series like Lonelygirl15 and Ask A Ninja are drawing in extremely respectable viewer numbers…at a fraction of the production cost associated with big media programming. Once the monetization model is worked out, and it will be, these labors of love are going to be seen as business genius.
All of these elements — plus one more that I’ll discuss in a moment — have made YouTube a key tool for users around the world. The desire for control and, yes, monetization has blinded media companies to the opportunity they’re being offereed. For all of the theoretical billions of dollars YouTube has cost companies like Viacom, it has also contributed to the ubiquitization (hey, if it’s not a word, it should be) of programs like The Daily Show. Personally, I think it would be smarter if the producers attached pre- or post-roll advertisements to clips and uploaded them to YouTube themselves, but what do I know?
So now that we’ve reviewed the key merits of YouTube, let’s turn our attention to the next YouTube “killer”. While some believe that a focus on long-form online video is a risk, I don’t. There are a few barriers to consumer acceptance — bandwidth and storage being key factors — but if TiVo has taught us anything (and TiVo has taught us so much), it is that consumers want more control over when, where, and how they watch television. Long-form video is currently wrapped in a cocoon. I think it’s going to emerge and lead to the reinvention of what we know as television. I also think that’s not going to happen in the next year, unless the companies laying fiber optic lines start working overtime.
The venture is going to partner with portals such as AOL, MSN, Yahoo and MySpace to reach an apparent 94% of the Internet audience. Personally, I’d question that figure, but that’s me. Even assuming that MySpace users are thinking “long-form video” when it comes to the service, MSN, AOL? If anything, Yahoo! is about to see a great opportunity realized. How they take advantage of this chance is an open question.
The Advertising Age article noted above suggests that advertisers are thrilled with this venture. They should be, if the purported 94% of the audience materializes. Do you have any idea how many users it takes to make up 94% of the Internet audience? Neither do I, but trust me when I say the numbers would blow your mind. Remember, we don’t just have the Internet in the United States; it’s global and I suspect they have some sort of hook-up to the International Space Station. In my mind, the only way to keep an astronaut from losing his or her mind is acces to the ‘Net.
The Advertising Age article also points out a flaw that more than one member of Team ‘loper has noted: limited content. At this point, none of the other major studios have jumped on board with this venture. Some are trying to develop their own product, some are trying to see which way the wind blows. Sure, NBC Universal and News Corp (Twentieth Century Fox) have vast catalog libraries to draw from, but catalog — the bread and butter of any media company — simply doesn’t have the cachet that draws big advertising bucks. Long Tail product is part of the slow-and-steady dollar stream, but will it bring the necessary page views to command top dollar? Especially when you consider the importance of targeted advertising.
(I will refrain from noting that, in this day and age, the fact that the major media companies are contemplating putting up $100 million dollars for this venture is mind-boggling. YouTube, we’ll all recall, was started by a couple of guys with some VC at a later point; it ain’t about the money, it’s about the zeitgeist. Money rarely buys zeitgeist. In my experience, money kills zeitgeist.)
Various articles discussing the venture note, among other things, the ability for users to share content. But one key concept is missing from this coverage: user-generated content. Sharing is one thing, UGC is essential. While, sure, the viewing audience for Lonelygirl15 is dwarfed by those of your average network show, since the show was revealed to be a staged production, the producers are seeing approximately 300,000 unique views per new episode. While slick production has its place, I don’t see that the public appetite for UGC is waning.
Another aspect missing from the announcements of this venture: community. The entire press release cycle, including follow-up articles, has been focused on sucking in advertiser dollars. Nobody’s talking user experience — in fact, this venture hasn’t even been named, much less built, so the user experience is certainly not something that can be discussed. Still, advertisers are throwing money at it, somehow believing that these entertainment giants can succeed where so many have failed before.
It is unclear how this experience will compare to the ease-of-use that characterizes YouTube. It is unclear how the audience will react to the product. It is unclear how these major media companies will shed their traditional pushing of content mindset to embrace the sometimes wild and woolly world of community. These are major corporations — how are they going to, for example, manage a, shall we say, diversity of opinions in the comments section of a clip…without coming right out and policing speech?
How will they handle negative comments? Are they ready to have honest, frank discussion on their website?
A key aspect of this Internet adventure is the fact that there’s always a shiny new toy to attract the attention of the masses. Right now, YouTube is riding high. This probably will change as new technologies and toys are developed. It doesn’t sound, however, like NBC Universal and News Corp are taking that necessary great leap forward to unseat the current industry leader.