Your Viral Video Shouldn’t Be a Commercial (Celebrity Apprentice Lesson)

Perhaps you watched Celebrity Apprentice last night, where the b-listers teamed up to create a “viral” video for O-Cedar’s ProMist Spray Mop.

Note that I put “viral” in quotes since it’s not a viral video unless it goes viral. For that matter, let’s call it what it is: try-ral. It’s trying. It may go viral, but it’s not.

This isn’t the first time Celebrity Apprentice has tasked the (has-been but charming) celebrities to create a “viral” video. But here’s my favorite quote from on the coverage and the decision made in the boardroom after the competition:

The execs didn’t get the women’s “number” concept initially but liked the entertainment aspect of the video. They liked the men’s slogan… and thought the concept was clear and highlighted the mop’s selling points, although the video was a bit too much like a traditional commercial. The men win.

Did you notice anything there? The video was a bit too much like a traditional commercial, but… by the way… it won.

At the risk of stating the obvious, please don’t learn from this. They didn’t win despite the video being too commercial. They won because the women’s video was entertaining but not purposeful. That’s not good either. But if your “viral” video is a commercial, prepare to spend your media dollars to get it seen as prerolls. We almost never share commercials… we sometimes send entertaining videos that happen to pitch a brand.

Do not expect people to share your commercial. Please.

Why Marketers & YouTubers Need a Translator

Marketers and their agencies really shouldn’t talk directly to YouTube “stars.” I say that with some authority, since I’m both a product director and a guy who’s crappy videos have been seen 65 million times. You see, the marketer in me is decisive, impatient, driven to move sales and “target” customers. The creator in me is sensitive, procrastinating, egoistic and temperamental.

My sister, a news producer, lived in NYC and California, and refers to the rest of the country as “fly by states.” Indeed, the impatient Madison Avenue and expressive Hollywood are coasts apart, and that’s perhaps out of necessity.


This Great Divide is punctuated by a comment on a recent Fast Company article, titled “Move over Simon Cowell. Make way for Nalts and P0YKPAC” (and we all know this WVFF post is just an excuse to reference that headline). Said the comment by Janet Coldini:

I couldn’t disagree more. I work for a very large, successful media company that has executed 30-plus campaigns (across multiple brand categories) using YouTube talent like the ones described in your post. I can assure you that what we learned is very simple and straight-forward: YouTube celebs can attract people to watch their videos, but they can not deliver against a well-defined set of business objectives. Why? Because these YouTubers are self-absorbed amateurs grappling for 15-minutes of fame. They were inconsistent, expensive and difficult to work with. Worst of all, none of our campaign goals were achieved because the audiences were mostly generated by “bots” – maybe that’s what they call “views” in their world.

Janet’s story isn’t unique, and indeed many YouTube “weblebrities” are sudden (and temporary) pop icons, and can hardly make it to Blockbsusters on time for their shift, much less deliver for a corporate “branded entertainment” assignment. Some can attract a crowd (so can a a loud bipolar person in the park), but can’t find the delicate balance between entertainment and promotion. The result is a crappy cable-tv looking advertisement, or an entertaining video that doesn’t increase awareness, intent or purchase. Yet the vitality of sponsored videos is dependent on the balance, otherwise nobody wins.
As a marketer I know that it’s not scalable for brands/agencies to work individually with YouTube stars. As marketers awaken to online-video “stars” influence and reach, we’ll see more sponsored videos. That’s one of the reasons why, despite doing a lot of direct work for brands, I like working through Hitviews. Brokering between brands and YouTube stars is tough to do well even when it’s a company’s sole focus, and if there are other companies like Hitviews I’m not aware of them.

I am not aware of any credible YouTuber partners using “bots” to drive views  (which is hard to do, and would certainly breach their contract with Google). But I do think Janet’s experience has some merit, and I believe a value-adding intermediary is vital. Someone has to translate the brand objectives into terms that captivate the creator, and keep them focused. More importantly, someone has to know whose side to take when there’s a conflict. If the “star” is being ridiculous, then they need to be told so diplomatically. In other cases, the client may have an unrealistic sense of how promotional the videos should be.

There are so many critical factors to make this work — find the right talent, handling them appropriately, brokering edits — that it’s a specialty skillset that will grow in criticality as the medium matures.

Geico Misses Value of YouTube Star’s Audience

Before we armchair quarterback Geico’s YouTube spend today, let me share a secret story. The names will be changed to protect the innocent.

An extremely popular YouTube star (let’s call him Spiffy) last fall mentioned something fascinating to me in private. A major consumer-products good brand (let’s call them “Yummy Snack”) paid him handsomly to create an enteratining video incorporating Yummy Snack. A member of the Yummy brand team had shared the success story at a conference I attended, but left something critical out. It seems Yummy’s agency hadn’t asked Spiffy to post the entertaining/promotional Yummy video on Spiffy’s channel!

The talented Spiffy voluntarily posted it on his channel, and THAT was the Yummy video that popped. Not one posted by Yummy Snack on some branded YouTube channel page. Not because media dollars drove views. I thought that Spiffy’s generous move was so cool, I’ve decided not to call out Yummy’s agency on this horrible oversight.

YouTube might have saved Yummy, but can you blame them? Google is more concerned about selling media dollars than tipping off agencies to the organic power of a star’s audience.

YouTube doesn’t make money when a promotional video goes viral… only when there’s an ad buy.

Geico Gecko and Numa Numa kid

I like to think agencies have learned something in the past year, so it’s sad to find history repeating itself even today. Geico insurance purchased the expensive YouTube homepage spot to boast its “Gecko & Numa Numa kid video,” which prerolls (without audio). Today’s ad spend cost the Geico more than you or I make in a year, and Gary Brolsma (NumaNuma), the online-video sensation, isn’t posting the video on his own channel concurrently.

Are you kidding me? Much of the value of the YouTube stars is his or her embedded audience. Most stars have fans that will propel the video to the top of the “most watched” and “highest rated,” and share it with friends (assuming it doesn’t suck).

As an example, if Fred made a video endorsing Poprocks, his video would get million of views. If the agency posted it — even with some advertising dollars promoting it — it would get far less.

For a moment, let’s put aside the debate about Geico’s agency associating itself with the NJ kid who is mostly a “one-hit wonder” lacking a recurring audience.  Numa only has 35K subscribers and his recent videos are fetching just a few thousand views. Even so, Numa dual posting the video would certainly attract views for an ROI that’s as good as any media spend. The agency gets credit for driving homepage views to its own “Its the Gecko,” channel instead of Numa Numa’s… but one can’t help but wonder if there’s a longer vision for that branded channel or if it was an afterthought.

Why on EARTH would Geico not pay Gary a few clams to post it on his channel? Even without a lot of daily views, Gary could have posted it on his channel concurrently, and gotten views by:

  • Showing us a “behind the scenes” footage
  • Featuring the video on his channel page
  • Making the Geico spot a video reply to his big hit, where it would get residual views

I’d love to know if this was an oversight or a thoughtful decision because, for instance, Gary wanted more coin to distribute it than made sense for the agency. But absent that, it’s going to be my case study for being “half pregnant” on YouTube– smart enough to tap a star and invest in media, but not savvy enough to tap into the creator’s audience as well.

The lesson: It’s not smart for brands to tap into know YouTube stars without buying media, and it’s not smart to buy media without getting some “street cred” from a known YouTuber. It’s smart to do both. Who’s going to help brands figure this out?

(I’d like to use the case study I referenced at the beginning, but the star would get tainted by the agency for mentioning this slip and “Spiffy” doesn’t deserve it).

The 7 Things Every Marketer Should Know About Online Video

Here is the fresh new list of 7 things every marketer should know about online video. This will be on the final exam, and it’s not “open book.” Remember folks, I’m not the greatest marketing director in history. And I’m certainly not the best online-video creator (even though I’m the second Google result when you search “fart”). But I don’t know many other people that have a leg firmly placed in each world… marketing and online video.

This list can save you months of research, reduce your risks, impress your colleagues and help you lost 20 pounds in 2 weeks. 


  1. They’re Here. Your customers are watching exponentially more videos online than they were 6-12 months ago. Don’t pull a, but recognize that “watching and experimenting” can be as dangerous as making calculated investments in the space and measuring them. 
  2. Buyer’s Market. The ROI of reaching customers via online-video is better today than ever before because it’s a buyer’s market. Assess your options, run tests, measure and scale. But if you spend the next six months on the first step, you’ll lose revenue potential and find the space shifted while you were stuck in “ready, aim” mode.
  3. Find a Sherpa. A calculated investment means you’ve done 3 things- you’ve been prudent about your spending, followed the rules of social media, and analytical on results. The best way to be prudent and stay within social media is to find a “sherpa” who has learned the mountain. Someone who already knows the taste of success, and the pain of making a mistake. 
  4. Analyze Impact: Every stupid list has a “measure and improve” step, but let’s get specific. Very few brands will measure online-video’s direct impact on sales. Likewise, I can’t tell you that paid search is selling my product, but I’ve doubled its budget every year because  have good assumption-based ROI models. If you can’t track sales, simply do a test/control or pre/post using the next realistic proxy measure/driver of sales (enrollment, site visit, intent, awareness). 
  5. Measure Persuasiveness Not Impressions. If you read the third tip, then we agree that impressions is the worst proxy ever. A video view is different from the fraction of a percent of banner impressions that actually get registered by the human eye. We know that, and we accept that if we engage a prospect in an entertaining and persuasive manner for 30-90 seconds, than we’ve increased intent to purchase. Just like a good salesperson is more effective than a brochure, video is the most visceral, engaging and persuasive form of mainstream media… especially if the audience connects with the star. If impressions are exciting to your boss, then stick with nickel CPMs via ad networks. There’s a reason they’re a nickel. 
  6. Please Don’t Just Advertise. You’re going to use this channel to advertise- brands will always advertise. But think beyond the ad play– it’s public relations, sponsorship and product placement too. An online-video star is like a small network or publication. He or she has a loyal audience, and you want to be more than an ad. You want to be a giveaway on Oprah or a Coke cup on the American Idol judges table. 
  7. Find Existing Crowds, Don’t Try Gathering Them. Please don’t invest in your own content or building a brand-focused entertainment channel ( Nobody cares about your brand but you. Find people that have spent the past two years growing audiences who have “asses in seats.” Don’t put on a broadway show about your product- participate in the show that’s already “standing room only.”

nalts youtube poop

How Does an Entrepreneur Tap Online-Video Talent?

I ran into the TubeFilter’s new job board, which has lots of California opportunities but little else. Then I was thinking about the bunch of inquiries I’ve received since I was mentioned in Entrepreneurial Magazine

  • The reality is that there’s a lot of amateur talent available to work without high cost structures — often folks who work part-time or are students. They can create incredible videos, brilliant graphic design, and understand social media.
  • Then there are countless entrepreneurs who need these skillsets on an adhoc basis.

But I’m not aware of a matchmaker service that allows people to post their skills & experience, hourly rate, and garner some “trust” rating (like eBay sellers). Are you?

I do know that Ben Relles, when he needed to produce his first “Obama Girl” video, placed an ad in Craigslist! Within hours he had people to help on various areas of the production. A number of talented video creators found Xltnads/PopTent via Craigslist too. But I doubt most less savvy buyers know how to surf for talent on Craigslist.

Have you seen a service that connects small companies or startups to freelance video creators, graphic artists and writers? I’m just struck that there’s demand for digital talent, and a lot of brilliant talent eager for cash and experience. The big buyers use agencies, who help reduce risk and vet talent. But those larger agencies are expensive because they’re often siloed and bloated with high costs (real estate, overhead, etc.). 

Entrepreneurs want someone reliable, talented, eager and not too expensive. I love linking entrepreneurs with talent, because both win. As an example, I was glad to introduce my neighbor’s startup ( to Brett Slater ( The former gets a good service at a fair price. The talent gets business.

But entrepreneurs are not my target clients for video creation or consulting. It’s very hard to tell if they’re serious, and they often want you to work for free/cheap with the promise of something bigger down stream. Of course, if I was in college or didn’t have a family and a big mortgage, I’d welcome a few hundred bucks to spend time I’d otherwise use to play video games. It would build my portfolio, and certainly be more profitable than working at Wendy’s. But likewise I’d probably have no idea how to find clients. 

I probably get a dozen random messages from individuals or startups a week, and it kills me to ignore them. Sometimes the note is so desperate and poorly written that I know I’d be sucked into a time-wasting vortex by even engaging (example: I’m gonna be big, you won’t be wasting your time, I want to give you a piece of my company). But other times I’m curious if I may be overlooking a chance to work with the next Zappos before they pop.

Big Brands Tap Online-Video Stars

Caitlin Hill (thehill88) on ABC newsI’ve written before about Hitviews, and I’ve been working with the company on sponsored videos. This report (see video) by ABC’s NYC affiliate (channel 7), the most-watched local network in the US. It’s the story of how Hitviews co-founder Caitlin Hill (theHill88) and veteran network executives are turning online-video stars into promotional vehicles for large brands. 

As the recession hits marketers, I’ve seen no sign of a slow-down in this sector. Online-video continues to grow, and advertising dollars are shifting to sites like YouTube. What I find fascinating about Hitviews model is that it has nothing to do with display or overlay advertising. Rather than rely exclusively on “paid” advertising, some progressive brands are sponsoring well-known creators. For example, even though my videos are viewed more than 100,000 a day, there are dozens of independent creators that are far more “subscribed” and viewed. 

These amateurs, some with 300-500,000 views a day, offer advertisers a higher impact model to reach an engaged audience that eagerly await the next video of their favorite online-video stars. The audience trusts the star, and comment and reply. Meanwhile the stars are often 20-something kids who have a low cost of living, and are open to sponsorships and product placements that can be more profitable than, say, YouTube ad sharing. As a Product Director, I find a video about my brand exponentially more valuable than ads alone. As a traditional-media analog, consider the difference between a 30-second ad on American Idol and Coke cups on the judges table. The latter is an implied endorsement by the judges (and you may hate two of them, but probably not all four).

There are a few challenges, of course. And they’re non trivial, which is why few companies have cracked this nut…

  1. Most brands and even their agencies can’t establish relationships with these online-video stars on their own. Even if they do, the learning isn’t scalable. 
  2. The bigger stars are primarily focused on their audience, and not branding or even “business.” That means agencies may be surprised that the video creators aren’t cow-towing to them like a subcontractor. 
  3. Agencies and brands still don’t understand that sponsored videos are becoming both common and appropriate in social media (as long as the sponsor is disclosed), and partially controllable. The star won’t read from a script, of course, but the brand sponsor reviews all videos before they go live. 
  4. The creative challenge is to entertain first, and promote second. That requires sponsors to give the stars some creative freedom and trust their instinct.
  5. Online-video stars sometimes have agents, but often are “one-act shows.” That means that some are professional, and others are child-like. What made them popular with viewers — edgy, autonomous– can undermine them when it’s time to face such things as deadlines and review processes.
  6. Finding stars take significant knowledge of the online-video community. Some are easy to work with, and others are a nightmare. Some get top views, but have images and videos that are not right for some brands. Some work for cheap, and others demand top dollars.

I’m biased because I like Hitviews model, but I honestly can’t think of how brands & agencies can tap these video creators without an intermediary. Trust me because I’ve been on both sides. As a video creator I’ve dealt with agencies that think of me as a subcontractor and want a bloody advertisement instead of an entertaining video that promotes. I’ve not yet seen a company that bridges this gap like Hitviews. There are talent agencies that represent individual stars, and companies like Poptent that help brands find amateur talent. But no clearinghouse for brands/agencies wanting to do sponsored videos with video stars. In online-video’s infancy (2006-2008) it wasn’t uncommon for a popular YouTuber to work directly with a brands (like I did with Mentos).

But for this new-media play to scale, there needs to be a larger entities that can help broker the relationship so the key constituents (at least three) can all get what they need:

  1. First, audiences must like the videos. Failing that, nothing else matters.
  2. Second, the “star” must feel comfortable with the brand, and feel compensated appropriately. The videos take time, but more importantly an excess of them will harm their relationship with the audience.
  3. Finally the advertiser (a brand team or its steward) must feel like their money is well spent, and see the sponsored video as worth more than a preroll, overlay or banner. I’ve only seen about two interactive agencies that understand this, and I know that will change this year. As long as agencies see this as a “media buy” it’s doomed.

The Anti-Virus to Online Video

I’m still procrastinating my AdAge article for online-video, but the process awakened me to something vital about online video. You see, when I was featured for the first time on YouTube it was mocking a “viral video genius.” It was meant to be a joke. Viral video was not an art form, and remains a mix of luck, timing and the impact of the video. But I’ve still been using the term “viral video” like it’s some sort of holy grail, and I’d like to change course in 2009.

Yes friends, the self-proclaimed “Viral Video Genius” is now advocating for the anti-virus. Viral video is dead for 2009, and I hope this Feed Company report of the best “Viral Video” advertisements is one of the last roundups I read. 

Viral Video is Dead in 2009Yes, Virginia. I said it. Viral video is dead. In fairness, it was a bad idea from the beginning. The term viral was around well before online-video and derives from the term “virus.” Needless to say, when I first used the term in interactive-agency pitches to pharmaceutical firms in 1999 and 2000, marketers were deeply confused. 

There are three reasons I’d like to inject an anti-virus penicillin into the arm of marketing.

  1. The term “virus” is not polite or accurate. Social media requires a new mindset where terms like “targets” and “bulls eye” aren’t exactly terms of endearment. Business is packed with war terms, as is sports. Even “retention” or “persistence” isn’t quite the same thing as winning a customer’s loyalty. So when you want a consumer to share your promotional message with their friends, a virus isn’t the connotation you’re after. The term even implies that the video spreads despite the carriers instead of as a result of their work.
  2. Second, it’s increasingly difficult to go viral and virtually impossible to predict much less guarantee. I’ve done more than 700 videos, and only a few have gone “viral,” if that’s defined as millions of views. Fewer and fewer brands will have promotion that is so dang compelling that it will be passed along by consumers.
  3. Third, going “viral” is hardly even a worthy goal. The “viral” obsession is based on a preoccupation with “total views” instead of the right views. In our hysteria to deliver big numbers, we’ve missed a core tenant of marketing that’s more vital than “reach, frequency and single-minded proposition.” It’s called targeting.

Example: Many of you WVFF readers may remember when’s “Subway Pitch” process was documented on YouTube, and spread among interactive marketers and agencies. lost the pitch, and the video reached key “insiders” of the medium even though it did not get many views by conventional measures. If I’m marketing a software product to human resource managers, I want my video viewed by HR people. Sure if it’s seen 10 million times, it’s likely some of them will be HR managers. But if only 2 percent are indeed my target, perhaps I’d rather 200,000 views on blogs read by HR managers.

So let’s get back to the basics. Online-video is growing wildly, and gambling on a “viral hit” is far riskier than identifying and promoting via select channels or video creators. There are two ways to help ensure online-video investment reaches the right people:

  • ensure media buys are focused on the right audience (demographics or otherwise). 
  • partner with popular video shows and creators (professional and amateur) that have already aggregated your most-valuable consumers. 

If you’re marketing a men’s health product called “Macho Cologne,” do you buy an ad in Men’s Health (or try to get an article written about your product). Or would you launch Macho Cologne Magazine, and pray people might find it, and read it? If I’m marketing cat food, I don’t want to create my own cat videos and launch a channel. I want my ads associated with already popular animal video channels and creators (and this is getting easier with Google keywords available on YouTube). And if there’s a popular pet show that features cats, an even higher-impact model would be to sponsor the creator — especially if they have a proven ability to attract regular crowds (not just a one-hit wonder, but regular viewers/subscribers). The combination of sponsored video and advertisements is just the right cocktail is more likely to work. 


You Tube – Clean Up or Censorship?

hot off the press…

A YouTube for All of Us
As a community, we have come to count on each other to be entertained, challenged, and moved by what we watch and share on YouTube. We’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to make the collective YouTube experience even better, particularly on our most visited pages. Our goal is to help ensure that you’re viewing content that’s relevant to you, and not inadvertently coming across content that isn’t. Here are a few things we came up with:

* Stricter standard for mature content – While videos featuring pornographic images or sex acts are always removed from the site when they’re flagged, we’re tightening the standard for what is considered “sexually suggestive.” Videos with sexually suggestive (but not prohibited) content will be age-restricted, which means they’ll be available only to viewers who are 18 or older. To learn more about what constitutes “sexually suggestive” content, click here.

* Demotion of sexually suggestive content and profanity – Videos that are considered sexually suggestive, or that contain profanity, will be algorithmically demoted on our ‘Most Viewed,’ ‘Top Favorited,’ and other browse pages. The classification of these types of videos is based on a number of factors, including video content and descriptions. In testing, we’ve found that out of the thousands of videos on these pages, only several each day are automatically demoted for being too graphic or explicit. However, those videos are often the ones which end up being repeatedly flagged by the community as being inappropriate.

* Improved thumbnails – To make sure your thumbnail represents your video, your choices will now be selected algorithmically. You’ll still have three thumbnails to choose from, but they will no longer be auto-generated from the 25/50/75 points in the video index.

* More accurate video information – Our Community Guidelines have always prohibited folks from attempting to game view counts by entering misleading information in video descriptions, tags, titles, and other metadata. We remain serious about enforcing these rules. Remember, violations of these guidelines could result in removal of your video and repeated violations will lead to termination of your account.

The preservation and improvement of the YouTube experience is a responsibility we share. Let’s work together to ensure that the YouTube community continues to thrive as a positive place for all of us.

The YouTube Team

Brief Editorial:
by Zack Scott

1. Why should videos be demoted on profanity alone? Why not just hide them for people not logged in and are 18 or older?

2. Some of YouTube‘s most popular stars…Bo Burnham, Charles Trippy, sXePhil, Chris Crocker, Mark Day, etc…(name as many as you want) all have used profanity.

3. The new thumbnail idea sucks. Now what if none of the thumbnails are good?

4. YouTube sometimes features videos with profanity.


OK, now I finally understand YouTube’s “Stricter standard for mature content”

“Videos that are considered sexually suggestive, or that contain profanity, will be algorithmically demoted on our ‘Most Viewed,’ ‘Top Favorited,’ and other browse pages.”

They must not like sXePhil.