Last week, Reddit cofounder Steve Huffman confessed that early on, Reddit created a number of fake accounts to make the site look larger, control the tone of comments, and manage which articles became popular.
That stuff is nothing new to publishing: editorial mastheads sometimes bear the names of fake writers, and articles and lists that claim to be driven by objective criteria are in fact rather subjective and lack authoritative sources.
When it comes to video, I remind people that you can’t really hide; what you see is what you get. But, even in the video industry, it’s very easy to fool stakeholders: users, employees, shareholders and marketers. While this behavior usually comes back to haunt you, there are enough success stories to let you think you can get away with it. There’s a gray line here: these techniques all showcased opportunities that smarter entrepreneurs recognized and acted on, which has to count for something.
Fake commentors on YouTube
Similar to Reddit, you can technically comment on your videos to both make your content seem more popular but also control the level and nature of discussion. Let’s face it, the comments section on YouTube can disintegrate quickly, sounding worse than a schoolyard, so by having a few “insider” accounts, you may be able to keep the discussion on the rails, and ensure that you always have some comments to your videos.
In case you’re wondering: We have never done this, though I do sometimes chime in using my personal account – which bears my name and profession, mind you –in addition to having a colleague comment officially on the company’s account.
Adding trailers and music videos to your channels
Some video producers, both big and small, submit trailers and music videos (promotional content that they did not create) on their channels. Seeing how both trailers and music videos are two of the most popular kinds of videos online, this is actually very smart, as it balloons your view count.
But their popularity may over time drown out your content. Put simply, it’s beneficial in the short term, but long term it hurts your brand and content strategy. It also makes you seem more popular than you are, which is somewhat misleading. But, it shows that you can aggregate and distribute content, too.
Inbanner, not instream
I’ve covered this quite a bit, but YouTube’s dominance and the lack of quality video inventory on the Web led a few innovative folks to run instream media inbanner. Today the demand for inbanner has waned considerably (it’s rich media in a banner, not a video ad), as YouTube has opened up advertising supply and marketers have embraced the site.
Driving crappy traffic, reselling it at premium to advertisers
One of the first things I did at my old company was to acquire GoTo.com traffic at $0.01 and then drive that traffic to galleries of attractive women. That strategy did really well and essentially doubled our traffic each month. Today, you can’t buy any good quality for that amount, but many try nonetheless, meaning they are buying low quality traffic.
In case you’re wondering: We never did this at my existing company, but early on we did buy traffic just for the sake of augmenting our traffic (we were not running prerolls at the time). Realizing that you get what you pay for, we stopped the practice. Furthermore, seeing how on average users generate less video views per session (relative to gallery and article), it was clear that the model would not be profitable.
The Network Strategy
Often publishers will sell ads but not have enough volume to deliver campaigns, so they sign up a number of publishers and become a network. Publishers then sell the ads on their own site at a premium, and then offer a discount to run on the network. This isn’t a bad strategy as it adds reach, if it can maintain a level of quality and ensure placement is on good environments, but eventually things deteriorate.
To summarize, there’s a fine line between ethical and unethical practices, and I’m certainly not saying that all of these are shady -- or they’re not. Ultimately, practices that focus on short-term results will come back to haunt you (or worse, make you lose credibility). But, in today’s online world, few entrepreneurs are given the time to build business over the long haul, and are implicitly encouraged and rewarded to build at any cost, even if it means building on a house of cards.