Are Paid YouTube Views Worth More Than Earned?

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Photo: Jerry Bunkers / Flickr, CC

Let’s say you are a major auto brand manager with a hot new car to promote. You’ve decided to be a brand that takes risks, big risks.The plan is to tie your brand to the next 007 movie, and then for marketing purposes, give tickets away for free to potential buyers of your car.

The plan is to give away tickets to those people who meet specified socioeconomic conditions. In fact, that is the entire campaign in a nutshell. In addition, the movie theatres will allow in other patrons that they choose. 

On opening day all the people you reached in your promotional campaign (let’s call them the Paid and Filtered Group) show up at theatres as expected. But the film distributor has also promised you additional viewers that they are calling the Earned Group. What you know about this group is that they witnessed the Paid Group attending your branded movie in droves. Perhaps they were also saw a poster and decided that they would like to check out what all the fuss is about as well.

The question is: Which group do you consider more valuable, the one you paid to target, or the one flocking in because they saw the other Paid Group and poster?

How does an “earned” view on YouTube work?

  1. Upload a video to YouTube, embed it on (a few or several) other sites, and get a significant number of people to watch the video at each online destination.
  2. YouTube scrubs and rates the quality of viewership.
  3. If your video is deemed to have quality engagement, it will be presented as a thumbnail and given placement in various charting categories on YouTube’s home page.
  4. If YouTube gives your video a top promotional (and highly visible) spot, it is likely to receive many more clicks and views. We call this earned.

Paid-to-Earned: The Devil’s in the Details

There are myriad variations on how to execute a paid strategy for the purpose of getting earned views. But the components of the strategy remain the same. 

Display: Present a video across a network of sites as a 300×250 click to play. This can work, but the user must be coaxed into the viewing experience by a single thumbnail. The thumbnail has a big job. It must accurately and attractively convey to the user what to expect. Problem is, most still images of a video don’t properly contextualize the content, expectations are missed, users drop off early and engagement tends to be just ok.

Social Gaming: In which users are playing an online game, and before they can graduate to the next level (or some similar incentive) they are required to click to watch a video. Although the engagement is not fully voluntary, it works reasonably well. It’s similar to the traditional TV advertising model (e.g., commercials between shows). There are many options in this method and they create a wide range of engagement possibilities and varying results.

Influencer Distribution: Find a basket of bloggers, tweeters, and other social media-savvy people online with large followings, and of a desirous demographic. Provide them a video to promote in their YouTube programming (and by give them, I mean pay them to run the video on their channels). This needs to be done correctly; winging it will probably produce results that are erratic and difficult to qualify.  Done well it will work well.

Text Ad Buys: This is a two-step process where a potential viewer reads a text ad (like AdWords), clicks on the text link and opens a new window to a page where the video lives. Once on that page the viewer sees the still frame and must click again to actually start the video. Two points of validation. If the ad copy is accurate to the content of the video, you end up with a highly engaged twice verified viewer. 

At Alphabird we do not run an “or” model; we run an “and” model. We don’t pick one of these methods. We have worked diligently and successfully at perfecting all three variations of the paid-to-earn strategy. Our platform, called “Flight” focuses on performance across many sources, then optimizes to those that perform best. And since YouTube considers duration of view-time a key metric for performance, so do we. It turns out that text ads (done the right way) provide the strongest and most consistent performance. So, text ads end up being a large component in many of our campaigns as well. 

Are Paid Views Worth More Than Earned on YouTube?

To answer this we need to talk about the mysterious and ever-changing YouTube ranking algorithm. YouTube’s method of ranking takes two forms: scrubbing and post-view count.

Scrubbing is what happens when, say, 100,000 people click to watch a video, but the view counts only after YouTube has verified the number’s legitimacy by pruning (or “scrubbing”) away the less valid clicks. How this scrub is conducted remains somewhat mysterious, but appears to be based on the duration of view time. And post-view count ranking – which is also a bit of a mystery – appears to be based on the velocity of the views that did make it through the scrub. Simply put, the only views that really count are those that reveal strong engagement as determined by YouTube.

So, now you’ve presented YouTube with enough highly engaged viewers to get into their promoted pages (where other YouTube users can see your video featured in a marquee spot). The way they are exposed to your video is similar to display. To activate, the video requires a single click of intent.

The question is, does YouTube scrub their own views? If a viewer clicks to watch a video, finds the content not to be what they originally desired, and leaves the video’s page – does that view count? Was it earned? And most importantly was it more valuable than your paid and filtered viewers?

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