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Understanding Viewer Dynamics on Breakout Videos
EPIC-FU episode with 3MM+ views on YouTube

A couple of weeks ago an EPIC-FU episode was featured on the home page of YouTube thanks to the generous selection of their editors. We expected to get a nice amount of views, but we never expected the episode to move past 3 million views when all was said and done. In fact, the episode is still compiling about 10-20,000 views per day as of the time of this writing.

We're obviously very happy that the show is resonating with the largest community of web video aficionados on the Internet. It's gives us a great sense of validation to know that we created a weekly show that can generate those kinds of numbers. Not easy to do these days.

What was especially interesting to us was to watch this video run away from all the other videos that were featured on YouTube at the same time as us. No other video crossed the million mark during the week we were featured. I spent quite a lot of time thinking about why that happened to try and understand the dynamics that affect viewership on popular video hosting sites.

For one thing, we've been producing regular content for a year and a half with JETSET and now EPIC-FU. So to some extent we can call the built-in audience a factor in the video's explosive views. But we didn't have a significantly greater number of YouTube subscribers than many other shows that have been featured and did not experience such a high number of views.

Another possible factor is that we always place a frame strategically in the exact middle of the upload so that when YouTube generates its preview thumbnail, prospective viewers are given a sense of the tone and personality of the show when reviewing the myriad choices for them to watch. However this image is quite small, and some videos that typically experience large view numbers have scantily clad women or mainstream celebrities as their preview image. Our preview image of this video is shown at left.

Then there's the title of the video: taking no sh1t, internet love song, writer's guild. A very typical title for us since we cover so much ground in each episode. It's somewhat provocative, but is definitely less so than many other videos.

Finally we come to the content of the video. We touched on a number of politically charged stories that engendered a great deal of discussion in the comments under the video. In particular we said some things about the Writer's Guild of America strike that is currently taking place. These statements seemed to provoke a really strong reaction from many viewers on both sides of the issue. Given the timing of the strike and the topical nature of the commentary in our video, this seems to be a strong factor in people watching the video and then passing it along to their friends to see, which is the really important factor in generating huge view numbers.

So without getting more scientific about it, it seems like we had a combination of factors that led to the breakout number of views. Good title, solid preview image, passionate existing fanbase, and provocative content. This is the kind of formula we strive to have in every show so that when the opportunity comes along to be promoted on a place like the YouTube home page, we are able to take maximum advantage of that exposure.

Are there any other major factors that I've missed? Why do you think this video has 4X the number of views of any other EPIC-FU video on YouTube?

comments
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Raymond M. Kristiansen said:

Nice write-up. I noticed how your featured video soared, and then I took a look at the comments in it. Many of them were commenting on Zadi, some of them were "wtf is this?", and - overall, I think too few really seemed to respond to the video itself. Of course, those 2k comments cannot fully represent all the 3 million viewers, but it is unsettling to me personally.

For me, it is the Mix community that really is golden when it comes to EpicFU. With it, you are creating more longstanding relationships with the viewers. How much of a community sense is there among your Youtube subscribers? Do you know how many of them end up joining Mix and contributing there?

Admitted, I didnt read all the comments, and I have not seen all the video replies (http://tinyurl.com/yrtksc), but it doesnt seem very uplifting overall. How important is this for you?

You are right about the importance of title, preview image and provocative content. I think the existing fanbase could also help with it - maybe forwarding the youtube link to their friends "our favourite show is featured!"?

Good going with the featured, and good luck with future episodes :)

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Jeff said:

I would try not to over analyze it and try to go with the flow. If you try and match a style over and over it will be the same show every week with no creative mix. The beauty of the internet is that there isn't a form that we follow but the masses that transform the landscape not just on a daily basis but hourly.

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Steve Woolf said:

Raymond -- thanks for your thoughts. Yes, the negative comments on YouTube are par for the course any time a video is featured, unfortunately. We don't put a lot of value in the throwaway comments that say things like "wtf" or "you suck," nor do we put a lot of value in the ones that say "you rock" or "she's hot."

The ones we pay attention to are the ones that clearly show the commenter watched and understood (or not) the video and the message. We responded to a ton of comments during the course of time we were featured, and at one point engaged in a chat-like back and forth because of the amazing stream coming in.

The YouTube community appears to be a loose one, and they move in waves across the videos there. Mostly they are interested in non-episodic content based upon their reaction to regularly posted shows with a point of view. I think that will change in the next 6-12 months as their tastes mature and they are introduced to more and more quality content.

YouTubers tend to stay on YouTube. A very tiny percentage of YouTubers join MIX, but the ones who do are very passionate about the show.

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Jim Louderback said:

I think Youtube is evolving much as slashdot and Digg evolved. There's a herd mentality, such that when one video gets hot it becomes a self reinforcing phenomenon.

I remember when I was running Extremetech and I did a story comparing RC cars. They were new, the take was somewhat humorous, and it led to more than a million views - as compared to about 20k for a typical story. It ended up on Slashdot, and a number of other sites, and that just reinforced it.

These sorts of big spikes will happen. The more important question is whether it will translate into more viewers on a weekly basis. YouTube, like Digg, Slashdot, etc are great for sampling, and those occasional spikes. But it's the repeat viewers that will really help drive you (and us) forward.

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Pete said:

I think we're witnessing Epic-Fu hit critical mass in it's social network of viewers. Though the show is high quality, the great content is only part of the equation. In any network of people, for new technology or media, you have the Early Adopters ( people who watched jetset when it was puppets ), they check out the show first and spread the word to some Brand Advocates. The BAs tell all their friends about the jetset/epicfu goodness. Early Adopters and Brand Advocates watch jetset/epicfu on a regular basis from the start of production.

I'm assuming you know this, but people don't know if they're Early Adopters or Brand Advocates, it's just something they do. Early Adopters are those people who are first to check out a new gadget or tech or show before anyone else. Brand Advocates are people who are close to Early Adopters, but they have the ability to influence others to check out a new tech product or show based partly on their reputation and charisma and partly on the fact they're often well connected in a network. Over time, anyone else who gets the gadget or watches the show either becomes an adopter or a laggard. The laggard is that guy or girl who's the last person on the block to buy an ipod or cd player, etc.

So imagine Early Adopters and Brand Advocates as nodes in a network. Over time, the Brand Advocates tell others about the show, and those people may in turn tell other individuals or other Brand Advocates who tell their social networks about jetset/epicfu, and word about the show spreads and regular viewing by new viewers increases. So if you drew it out on paper (draw a node for each individual in a network and a line to connect them if they're connected), everyone who's viewing jetset/epicfu - color their node in. Now, what happens in the network is, people who are surrounded by others in their social network who view the show regularly (they'd be the empty nodes, surrounded by filled in ones on your drawing), are sort of forced to view at some point, or they miss out on the discussion.

If you were to draw it out on a graph, where viewers are your y axis and time is your x: you'd see a small increase when jetset/epicfu began as early adopters started to view. You'd then see, somewhere down the line, a spike in viewers, that would eventually plateau - these would be your Brand Advocates adopting the show and telling others. Now, the line for viewing doesn't really plateau, so much as go from a definite spike at first, to slowly increasing over time. The BAs are advocating, and slowly but surely, more people are adopting and viewing the show. Finally, at some magical point, critical mass is achieved, and the show rockets in viewers. Your graph would jump tremendously at this point and continues to rise until it hits some unforeseen plateau that's very high on your y axis. This is where people are surrounded by people in their social network telling them about the show and how they have to view it. They've got so many voices telling them or discussing the show around them that they watch so they can participate in the discussion with their friends. From this of course, people fall in love with the show and new viewers are gained from people who'd probably never seek out jetset/epicfu on their own, or even check it out on the youtube feature page.

So Congratulations! The show's a hit! You guys will take advantage of the surge in popularity if you just keep doing what you're doing. If you start to change your style or analyze it to much, you'll f it up.

But being the internet pop culture source, your a central node to many people's networks online. Jetset/EpicFu is interesting to me, as it's the ultimate Brand Advocate for some of the latest and greatest stuff out there. This is the thing, people generally like Brand Advocates, they're fun, charismatic, excited about their product(s), and connected to many,many, many interesting people. (Sounds like jetset/epicfu to me.) Early Adopters tend to be introverted and snarky and not so well connected (think Engineers or some Techy types). BAs and especially EAs, often deal with some level of pain; When you're on the cutting edge, shizz often doesn't work at first, or is a headache to figure out. People keep coming back to jetset/epicfu as it keeps them up to date with the latest and greatest online, and they didn't have to deal with any pain, just visit the suggested links and enjoy. It's brilliant really. Here's to your continued success.

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Steve Woolf said:

Wow, thanks for the fantastic breakdown, Pete!