Is Online-Video Biz Monetizing Boredom Cure?

Every day, I spend at least a few minutes browsing through, and reading the latest stats about anything and everything Internet-related, particularly when it comes to online video.  In most of the 10 books I’ve written, I’ve included some sort of graph built from studies that other people have done, and I’ve relied on official, published reports to guide my thinking and beliefs about everything from marketing to online video. 

At some point, though, it dawned on me that I have eyes, ears and the ability to talk to people.  And while by no means scientific, I can get an understanding of what the world is like on my own. So I started keeping a notebook of casual observations and interviews with people about their video-watching habits.

It started on my bus into work and back home again.  I began by walking slowly up and down the aisles during each trip (eventually, the odd looks finally stopped, and people just thought I was harmlessly insane). On average, each bus held about 40 people -- 15 would be sleeping, four would be talking to each other, and the other 21 would be focused on their phone (some would be on a tablet, but not very many).  Of those using a mobile device, usually around five would be watching a video -- about 25% of everyone who was using a mobile device, and 12.5% of the population of the bus. 

I also began to observe people during lunch, in a variety of places. Surprisingly, I didn’t catch anyone watching online videos on their mobile devices if they were there with other people. (Rudely checking their e-mail while in the middle of a conversation, yes, but not watching videos.) Pretty much everyone (I’d say a full 90%) eating by themselves, however, were engaged with their mobile devices, with about four out of every 10 watching an online video. This surprised me -- I thought the number would be lower than that.  Again, it’s about as unscientific as it gets, but these were pretty healthy numbers.

Over the months (I'd started doing this in September),  I found other places -- trains, parks, anywhere I saw people with a mobile device and could subtly figure out what they were doing with it -- and I kept diligent notes on their habits.

But it wasn’t long before simply observing wasn’t enough. Since New York City is actually a friendlier place than most people give it credit for, I started talking to people to find out more about their online viewing habits, and once again, found myself a little surprised by what I learned.  Very few of the people I spoke to were watching for a particular reason.  Some watched to catch up on a show they followed and for some reason missed (about 15%), but most were watching videos at random, in tune with what they were doing timing-wise.  Commuters, for example, were more likely to watch longer-form videos that lasted about as long as their commutes -- they wanted to relax, not watch one video after another.  People at lunch, on the other hand, were far more likely to watch one- or two-minute videos that they could view (I guess) between bites, and not have to think too much about.  Apparently dining is more conducive to browsing around, for some reason.

But regardless of where or what they were watching, one aspect seemed to unite practically every viewer I talked to. With the exception of those watching an episode of a show they had missed, everyone else watched online video for one specific reason: to kill time. Frankly, they were bored, and to a certain extent, lazy.  As one person put it, “I watch because it’s too much work to read.”

None that I spoke to had any interest in investing their time in story-driven, episodic show that they had never heard of. Few (less than 3%) planned on actually doing anything with educational or how-to content that they were watching -- but still they enjoyed watching it (probably not too dissimilar from people who watch these types of shows on TV).  Online news, and particularly Hollywood gossip shows, were also popular, even among men, who weren’t nearly as reluctant to admit this as I would have expected.

Perhaps for fear of laughing out loud on an otherwise quiet bus, viewers tended to watch more serious programming when in public.  They preferred comedy at the office, when they were behind closed doors, and while watching at home after work, when they were more apt to watch short, funny clips produced by amateur videographers. 

Practically everyone I spoke with seemed to agree that while they enjoyed watching online video, and very much expected to continue watching more of it, it wasn’t a practive they relied on. If original, Web-based content was taken away from them completely, they’d go on without missing a beat. That wasn’t the case, however, when it came to their favorite TV shows -- more people expressed disappointment at the idea of no longer being able to watch their TV shows online. 

So what did I learn from my informal research?  People want to watch online video, but they don’t need to.  It’s an interest, but, unlike TV, not a compulsion.  It’s a solo activity, and thus it’s unlikely for a rabid audience to form around any one show or online series.  It’s a time-filler, but that’s not a bad thing. Online video, still now in its earliest stages, is becoming the go-to source to fill the time between other activities.  From a marketing standpoint, that’s a lot of time and a lot of access.  And what now may be an “I can quit anytime I want to” kind of deal, might quickly become more addictive than people expect.

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