Los Angeles Times

Fessing up about viral view counts

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

ON Thanksgiving Day, 22-year-old Stanford graduate student and entrepreneur Daniel Ackerman Greenberg posted an article on the widely read technology blog TechCrunch titled "The Secret Strategies Behind Many 'Viral' Videos."

"Have you ever watched a video with 100,000 views on YouTube and thought to yourself: 'How . . . did that video get so many views?' " the post began. "Chances are pretty good that this didn't happen naturally, but rather that some company worked hard to make it happen -- some company like mine."

Greenberg went on to detail the "clandestine marketing campaigns" that his company, the CoMotion Group, has run over the last year for his clients, which he says have included "two top Hollywood studios, a major record label" and "a variety of very well-known consumer brands" -- though he does not name names in the post.

"The members of my startup are hired guns -- our clients give us videos and we make them go viral," Greenberg continued. "Our rule of thumb is that if we don't get a video 100,000 views, we don't charge."

The post goes on to detail a variety of methods for boosting the view count of online videos, with the aim being to earn videos a place on the Most Viewed lists of high-profile online video sites such as YouTube, MySpace or AOL Video. Breaking onto the Most Viewed lists, where videos are exposed to a potentially giant audience, is a must for any video with viral aspirations.

Greenberg's recommended tactics include old standbys such as giving your video a "misleading" or even "fake" title to bait viewers or hiring "the most attractive women available" to sex up your offering. But what really raised reader hackles were his more guerrilla-style approaches, such as paying bloggers to embed the videos in entries, or what he called "having a conversation with yourself": that is, creating phony users and having them engage in a "good, heated discussion" to make it look like the video is creating controversy.

TechCrunch Editor Michael Arrington helped start his own good, heated discussion on the ethics of Ackerman's manifesto. "Frankly, I'm disgusted by this," he wrote in an early comment.

Indeed, in the more than 450 comments that followed, Ackerman's detractors repeatedly tarred his strategies as, essentially, "video spamming":

"Dan, we tend to trust the sites we use to prevent people like you from monetizing our attention," wrote one commenter. "That's what's morally wrong here."

But sober-minded realists swooped in to defend Ackerman, who also helps teach a Stanford computer science class on designing applications for Facebook.

"I don't know if I can read the comments properly for all the high horses that seem to be cluttered around," said one defender to Ackerman. "You run a marketing firm -- this is how you market in 2007. You're not running a church or a kindergarten or a charity."

Whether you see Ackerman as a snake-oil salesman or a savvy new media businessman who's getting while the getting's good, he is not alone. Viral marketing outfits have been operating for years, helping brand owners smuggle products into otherwise innocuous videos, calling on their publicity networks to "create buzz" and, in a newer twist, engaging in "crowd hacking," where marketers vote your advertisement to the top of social media sites such as Digg and StumbleUpon by stuffing the ballot boxes.

Hacking has been around as long as computers have. Simplified, it means finding a system's weaknesses or predictable behaviors and taking advantage of them.

This is what Ackerman and many others have done in the world of online video, where such practices are called "gaming." (In a follow-up to his original post, Ackerman wrote that his company did not necessarily use all the strategies he'd mentioned.)

In online video, the name of the "game" is views. This is the metric by which a video lives or dies. The more views a video gets, the better its chance of making it onto the Most Viewed charts, which can function as a kind of viral launch pad.

But you might be surprised by what they're calling a "view" these days. For many video platforms, including YouTube, MySpace, AOL Video and even Web metrics auditors such as comScore Inc., a view gets notched the moment a video begins to play.

Meaning if you watched only three seconds of a five-minute video, you've actually viewed it. This stands in black-and-white contrast to the way television viewership is measured. In TV, networks and advertisers make you click a remote control every 10 minutes to prove you haven't left the room.

But if the definition of an online view were slightly more strict -- say you had to watch half of the video, or even a quarter, for the view to register -- then all those times when people tune in, get bored and tune out again would no longer count -- and view numbers on many sites would drop.

On more than a few sites, you can simply click the refresh button over and over and watch your video's view count rise. I created a two-minute test video and pumped it to 100 views in about 10 minutes. Is that not odd?

"The reality is it's in everybody's best interest to report numbers as high as possible," said the CEO of one well-known online video site, who asked for anonymity. "And I think it's in everybody's best interest who does that to be opaque about their accounting methods."

Could it be this very lack of transparency about how video sites work that has spawned a shadow industry of tinkerers who guess at and exploit the sites' hidden mechanics?

While view counting remains mysterious, guidelines for measuring online advertisements are in various stages. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which counts Google, Yahoo and MySpace among its over 300 members, is designing rules for exactly when a video advertising event occurs.

Old-media sites such as ABC .com, NBC.com and CBS.com don't even bother displaying view counts on their Web-only content. Why should they tell you if people like their show?

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times