Two million views
That first video has since been viewed almost 2 million times, and Geriatric1927 has gone on to upload 29 more detailing his time as a radar technician in World War II. He has spawned a number of copycats. His YouTube channel is the second-most-subscribed channel on the site, after the infamous LonelyGirl15.
The tale of Geriatric1927 -- his first name is indeed Peter, but he did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview or additional information -- says a lot about the use of the web as a storytelling medium. It also shows how the unlikeliest of net users can become stars when their stories, while far from flashy, are authentic. Perhaps marketers could learn a few things.
Pete Blackshaw, CEO of BuzzMetrics, has been following Geriatric1927's rise and said it proves that a sincere story trumps even the flashiest packaged video.
"Whenever I give speeches to major marketers I'll take these examples and say: 'Why is it that an 80-year-old guy from the U.K. can put up 20 videos at no cost and your website dedicated to that audience can't put up one?"' he said. "'What is it about your impenetrable bureaucracies that keep us from stealing an idea from consumers?"'
He suggests that brand marketers could post customer narratives, which are often filled with their own everyday drama. Or news organizations could dedicate sections of their websites to in-depth interviews. "In the next six months, some creative brand will post on its website an entire interview with a consumer who was used for research purposes," he said.
Another stunning chapter in Geriatric1927's tale is the community he has created -- fellow senior citizens sharing their own oral histories and younger users commenting on their wisdom.
"It's a very self-referential, cross-referential community," said Art Sindlinger, VP-media director at Starcom. For marketers, having a brand recognized by a popular YouTube personality makes it part of the social debate, he said. "You're collecting social currency."
On the flip side, there's another lesson to be learned from Geriatric1927 and other YouTube successes: Even when you find online fame, it can be hard to sustain. Geriatric1927's first video got 2 million views, but not one of the next 29 videos got more than 200,000 views.
It's challenging even for professional content creators. Nike, for example, boasts one of the all-time most-viewed clips on YouTube with almost 7 million views of Brazilian soccer star and Nike pitchman Ronaldinho kicking a ball around in a pair of gold cleats. But Nike uploaded 18 videos, and that was the only one that struck it big.
Mr. Sindlinger heads the Miller account at Starcom IP and cites his experience with the "Beer Cannon" videos, created by Mother for Milwaukee's Best Light. The videos were posted on YouTube and got little traction initially. But once the company put a few ad units on YouTube's home page behind it, the cannon took off. One video now has 1.3 million views.
"Creating great content's really hard," Mr. Sindlinger said. "[Marketers] have to be prepared to place a number of bets, because only a handful of things really blow up, and only a small number that blow up are sustainable."