That's why a cottage industry has cropped up around optimizing and analyzing online video and, increasingly, that industry includes YouTube itself. The company has introduced a suite of tools called Insight that provides more clues into how people find videos and what they do once they find them.
This week, the company will launch a new feature called HotSpots that allows video creators to monitor how viewings rise and fall within a video.
Graphing viewer interest
HotSpots plays a video alongside a graph that maps whether the audience is lower or higher than average for a particular length of video. When the graph goes up, the video is "hot," and more viewers are watching -- because there's either less attrition or some viewers are fast-forwarding or rewinding to isolate a particular point in the video. When the graph goes down, the video is "cold" because viewers are leaving the video or skipping to another part of the content. Another service, Visible Measures, also measures this sort of audience engagement within a video, among other things.
And while pay-measurement services and optimizers can prove invaluable for bigger-budgeted marketers and media companies that need quicker hits and can spend more to get them, Insights has proven valuable to the large group of regular but nonprofessional video creators and uploaders. For YouTube, the benefit is clear: If you give users the tools to attract larger audiences, they'll create more ad inventory.
Take Matt Williams is a 22-year-old senior at State University of New York-Brockport who makes funny prank videos and with his friend Andrew Reynold under the channel name StanleyJenkins. He's not the type who has six figures to shell out on a YouTube ad campaign nor is he a professional search-engine optimizer.
But he is earning a decent monthly chunk of change via his videos -- about what the average college kid could expect from a second job -- and a lot of that has to do with reading Insights data and optimizing for it. He estimates that optimizing videos based on Insights data has doubled his YouTube traffic; in the last two days his videos have collectively averaged 60,000 views.
The importance of related videos
One takeaway? That most of his video traffic is referred from related videos. When a YouTube video ends, thumbnails of related videos pop up and it's important, Mr. Williams said, for a video's thumbnail to be provocative but clear and not misleading. The title should be interesting as well, something that's easy to understand.
"A lot of people think if they just load up the tags with popular search terms they'll get a lot of views," he said. "That doesn't necessarily work. You have to be sure they're related to the video."
He also monitors which search terms bring in audience -- even for old videos, introduced before Insight was available. He noticed the search term "prank" was sending people to a 3-year-old video of of him driving around a Wal-Mart parking lot with a bag on top of his car, just to see how many people "go nuts trying to tell us there is a bag on our car." He added the words "funny prank" to the title and the video took off. It has about 540,000 views. (Warning: it may induce sea sickness.)
Other was to grow viewership? Maximize local audiences. If your video is proving particularly popular in another country, consider tagging it with terms in that country's language. Monitor and change tags daily based on what's popular at the time. And when a new video makes its debut, do some proactive outreach to the websites that appear to be driving the most traffic to the videos.
"Insights started to democratize that flow of information," said Tracy Chan, YouTube product manager. "It allows users who are creating businesses around YouTube audiences to compete with the big boys."
Not only college kids
Big boys use Insights data, too. Josh Warner, president-founder of Feed Company, a firm that major marketers, such as Ray Ban and General Motors, pay to help nudge their videos viral, said Insights allows users to "adjust and calibrate our marketing outreach." Feed Company uses a "bunch of tactics" to do what he calls "audience mapping," or figuring out how a video will appeal to and then reaching out to those people.
Jonathan Mendez, founder and CEO of Ramp Digital, a technology-based marketing firm, has written about YouTube video optimization and said any increased awareness of analytics can't be a bad thing for building a better web. But he warns that analytics can be tough and it's still early. While there are many things he likes about Insights, including its ability to pull in data even when the video is embedded on another site, he questions its accuracy when compared to data from professional analytics firms such as Omniture.
"There's a real question of whether the bugs are out," he said. One thing he warns should not get lost in all the measurement: Success depends on a good video. "Unless you make a good video, all the data in the world isn't going to help get you there," he said.