Web Series Still Struggle to Hold on to Audiences

Survey of 50 Top Web Series Finds Loss Of 64% From First Episode To Second

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- MyDamnChannel's "You Suck at Photoshop" is a near-perfect series for the web: short, funny and low-budget, it both doesn't require viewers to commit to a series and actually provides some useful information for those of us who do, in fact, suck at Photoshop.

'You Suck': MyDamnChannel show isn't immune from web video's problems.
'You Suck': MyDamnChannel show isn't immune from web video's problems.
But the series isn't immune from the one of the most vexing problems facing producers of web video: how to build a loyal audience and keep it coming back. In the short history of web series, most have struggled to replicate the TV model where audiences come back -- and even build -- from the first episode. And retaining audiences is key, given that brands marketing around web video are paying according to that old TV model: for eyeballs.

Online audiences are spotty, fickle and distracted. Even the best web series have trouble getting numbers when they're not getting front-page promotion on a major video portal such as YouTube or MySpace Video. To illustrate the problem, Ad Age asked web-analytics firm TubeMogul to compile viewing stats for the first eight episodes of 50 of the highest-profile web series: EQAL's "LG15: The Resistance" to Crackle's "Hot Hot Los Angeles" to Michael Eisner's "Back On Topps."

What it found is that the series lost 64% of their audiences, on aggregate, from the first to the second episode. The decline becomes less steep from there, but it shows why many series don't last past the 10th episode; by then there just aren't many viewers left. TubeMogul stats include the largest video sites such as YouTube, Dailymotion, Metacafe, MySpace and Yahoo, but don't include Hulu and iTunes sales.

Typical for a web series is a big first episode, partly because portals like to promote new series, followed by choppy up and down numbers. Take Mr. Eisner's "Prom Queen," which went from 405,000 views for episode one to a mere 38,000 for episode two.

Finding reliable audiences
That was fine when web video was still in the experimental phase, but brands advertising on the sites are increasingly asking for guaranteed audiences, meaning producers have had to move past the "post and pray" method in hopes a video goes viral. Producers say even the mighty YouTube isn't the font of views it once was. A year ago, for example, a "featured video" -- one chosen for the home page by YouTube editors -- might deliver 500,000 views. Today, few break the 100,000 mark.

"If you are just throwing your video on your site, the revenue shares coming back to you are not going to make you rich," said MyDamnChannel CEO Rob Barnett. To get brands involved in video, you have to deliver guaranteed views, and increasingly, that means paying for distribution.

It's a change in approach in part driven by the economic model for online video, where the video itself is as much an ad as it is entertainment. Brands are eager to underwrite a series that reaches the right audience, but they're asking for guaranteed audiences in return. "The basic principle is there aren't enough views to go around," said Tremor Media CEO Jason Glickman.

web series data
Compiled by TubeMogul
Tremor, like Broadband Enterprises, has developed a side business of syndicating shows across their ad networks, making the ad unit a video player, much like Google is doing with "Family Guy" creator Seth McFarlane's web series "Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy," which has racked up nearly 30 million views since July on Google's AdSense network. Broadband Enterprises recently entered the content-creation business as well to provide advertisers with both content and distribution.

It's a big shift from early web series, where any promotional budget was used to launch of the first installment of a series, only to see a huge drop-off for episode two. "You get press and great placements at launch, but then the noise drops off and the word-of-mouth drops off," said Paul Kontonis, CEO of For Your Imagination, producer of "Break A Leg" and other series.

Gaining steam first
"Some people don't go to a web series until there are enough there to watch a bunch," said Thom Woodley, co-producer of "The Burg" and Vuguru's "All For Nots." "The strategy should be to do a soft launch and then get people to the sixth or seventh episode."

The argument for paid syndication allows the video to go where the viewers are, and makes it easier for producers to deliver the audience promised to an advertiser. The argument against is the audience isn't as committed, and is less likely to become the kind of devoted follower advertisers are seeking.

Lance Podell, CEO of Next New Networks, said the company categorically doesn't buy advertising to distribute shows, instead relying on cross-promotion, PR and search optimization to build audiences. But the company is also dependent on hits; its most popular videos are Barely Political's "Obama Girl" videos, according to TubeMogul.

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