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  |  June 3, 2010   |  Comments

YouTube’s launch of Leanback underscores why online engagement is a double-edged sword.

The New York Times ran an interesting article about YouTube this past Sunday, this gist of which was this: people watch a gazillion videos a day there, but do it all in about 15 minutes.

Since time is money, that’s not a great thing for YouTube, in spite of its massive traffic. Which brings up some interesting questions, not just for YouTube, but for content creators and owners in general.

Is "Leaning Forward" Still a Selling Point?

For anyone who’s played a role in growing the digital space over the years, the concept of "leaning forward" is a familiar one. The argument that the active engagement demonstrated online is inherently more valuable than the passive nature of TV viewing has been a staple of every case made to shift dollars to the Web.

But as the Times points out, the more active the audience is, the more decision points they reach as they consume content. Each decision point marks an opportunity to "engage" in something new. Which is really the same thing as disengaging in what they were doing before.

The Times article also notes that people still spend about five hours a day watching TV, and so YouTube justifiably wants to be more like TV. They’re launching a product that aims to induce a more passive experience, and it’s kind of delicious that the name of the product is "Leanback."

After years of trying to grab share from TV by selling against it, it turns out that may be the best way to shift dollars is actually to be just like it.

Can the Horse Be Put Back in the Barn?

YouTube basically created (or at least, popularized) a new form of content: snackable video. In doing so it’s become a dominant force online, and had a major impact on our culture as well by democratizing distribution. It just celebrated its fifth birthday, so it’s still a very young company, but it has also become associated with a very specific type of audience behavior.

What the "Leanback" experiment suggests is that YouTube would actually like to change the audience behavior that it created. That’s a completely reasonable business goal, but can it be done, or has the public already decided how it wants to use YouTube?

There aren’t too many times when I’d compare YouTube to a traditional Web publisher like a news site, but when it comes to monetization challenges, they’re in the same boat. Consumers have become trained that news is free just as they’ve become trained that YouTube is for short bursts of entertainment. Both cases present challenges in making money, and both require changing some fundamental expectations that consumers have been developed. Which brings us to the last question.

What is content worth?

Underlying the YouTube Leanback effort is one of the core issues of the day: content owners need a way to make money, which ultimately means a re-examination of the value exchange with consumers.

YouTube wants people to change their habits so they spend more time passively watching videos - not because people have been asking for that feature, but because it’s a better way to sell advertising (at least that’s my take on the execs quoted in the Times piece).

Although it’s not often explicitly stated, this issue is often right below the surface in other content-related discussions.

For example, the ongoing privacy debate could actually be viewed as a monetization debate. Consumers don’t want to pay for content directly, so their Web histories are bought and sold instead. The Web is simply finding another way to pay for itself. As the privacy debate unfolds, sooner or later it will come back to the fundamental issue about how we pay for all the stuff we love to read and watch online.

What about the rise of the so-called "content farms" that rapidly produce content on the cheap? These companies have taken a radically different approach than traditional publishers. Instead of sinking cost into developing content and hoping to find an audience for it, they’re figuring out exactly what the audience is looking for and producing low-cost content that has the primary goal of being monetizable (fake word, sorry). The model seems to be to produce content that has value mainly to the producer, not the audience. If we won’t pay for high-quality content, the Web will get filled up with low-quality content instead.

If it sounds like I’m criticizing YouTube, I’m not. I actually applaud it for experimenting with a new model. Given the core issue about how content gets paid for, I think we’re entering an era when we’re likely to see many more similar experiments, until we end up with a value exchange consumers and content owners can both live with.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Cahill

Adam Cahill is the EVP, Media at Hill Holliday. You can connect with him on Twitter at @adamcahill.

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