Video Focus: Don't Let Ads Kill the Video Star

Pandering to advertisers weakens the power of video sites

I'm writing this column in August, which means that while many of my colleagues take well-deserved vacations, I'm at work thinking about video. Sad, I know, but I'm not the only one. Each day brings news from mainstream media stalwarts and user-generated video upstarts. Viacom and Google joined forces on a deal for the syndication of ad-supported video to sites in Google's AdSense network. This came on the heels of NBC's alliance with YouTube; the network uses the social video portal to distribute clips and solicit consumer-created promos for its programs.

Neither move is surprising given the traction video-sharing has achieved. As I write, sites that feature consumer-generated video -- YouTube, MySpace, and Google Video -- top the Nielsen/NetRatings video ranker, while the more "programmed" video offerings from AOL and msn reveal audience declines. The broadcast networks' own destinations don't even crack the top tier. Clearly, many mainstream media companies now realize that to remain relevant in the new age of networked television they must realize that given a choice, people often choose amateur content of their own making over professional network fare.

Media people seem to get it, but advertisers aren't there yet. Media analyst Jack Meyers recently projected 185 percent growth for video spending in 2007, with the online offshoots of offline media benefiting most. It's great to see video hitting its stride, but if we limit ourselves to the tried and true, we might miss our chance to innovate within the new world of consumer video.

Sure, embracing user-generated video can be a risky move. Readers are no doubt familiar with the Chevy Tahoe campaign, an example of consumer-created video gone wrong. But for every Tahoe, there is an American Express 15-Second Clips Competition. The Digitas campaign leveraged AmEx's Tribeca Film Festival sponsorship to launch a user-generated video competition that engaged cardmembers, drove increases in site traffic, and generated some truly compelling videos.

In August, sensing advertisers' discomfort and looking to monetize its traffic, YouTube announced that brands can build their own channels where they can offer proprietary content, solicit user interaction, and promote products and services. Warner Music christened the service with a channel promoting Paris Hilton's debut CD. The notion of marketer-friendly safe zones seems like a fair compromise. You are in the community but not really of the community. But while Paris might do well, will video enthusiasts flock to your toothpaste, automobile, or credit card channel? Not necessarily.

In a recent meeting with YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, Digitas' creative chief Mark Beeching advised YouTube not to pander to the advertising industry. He's right. The brand channel seems designed to appease those of us who might otherwise be afraid to step outside our comfort zone. But this shouldn't be about placing ads, pushing out messages, or building walled gardens within video-sharing sites.

Any video-sharing site's real value isn't in its technology or content. It's in the passionate, engaged people that, if activated properly, represent not merely an audience for ad messages, but a large, vocal community of willing co-creators who use video to share their own stories and can help us tell ours, maybe even better than we can ourselves.

With or without us, people are already creating content about our clients' products, and other people are watching it. The smartest thing we can do as marketers is to inspire and empower these influential amateur video creators to help us tell and distribute our stories in ways that are organic and more in sync with the spirit of the new social video age.

What will this look like? I don't know, but I'm excited to figure it out.

Greg Verdino is vice president/director of emerging channels at Digitas. (

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