YouTube or ConfuseTube?

Last week, I stumbled across a video on YouTube featuring the cast of the new movie “For Your Consideration.”

No big surprises on the content. Like so many YouTube videos, it was creative and engaging, drawing me in for a full view on the first pass. It was also obvious the content was created by the movie creators, not consumers or users, and that too seemed par for the course. These days, everyone’s dropping content, good or bad, on this free, highly visible hard drive.

But then something curious caught my eye.

I saw a banner ad promoting “For Your Consideration” right above the prominently featured video. This confused me and precipitated a few cynical questions: Is this video plus banner ad a paid promotional program, or is it a regular YouTube video the editors deemed worthy of the coveted front page? Would others visiting YouTube for the first time think this was the best or most popular video on the site?

Conspicuously missing from the YouTube promotion was any form of indicator, label, or even watermark suggesting the spot was part of a paid promotional effort. Of course, there’s always a chance I missed the indicator and maybe, perhaps, the studio didn’t pay squat. But even so, it was all pretty fuzzy.

Who Gets the Credit: Voters or Buyers?

Then again, that’s the point. As a site user who finds the democracy of votes a get-to-the-good stuff time saver and decision guide, I was confused. I checked the view metrics on the video: 43,000 over three days. Did the video get the views from organic curiosity or paid promotion? At press time, the views for another video with the movie’s cast has reached more than 230,000, and I have no clue if it’s attributable to front-page promotion.

Which is ironic. Only two weeks ago, I was curiously obsessed with another marketer-created video, in part because it consistently topped the earned votes charts of YouTube, MySpace, Technorati, and other ranking platforms. As a user, there was a certain power and fascination in knowing this creative spot was flying all over the place and rising to the top of the charts, independent of paid placement or promotion.

Balancing Advertising With Chatterbacking

Don’t get me wrong. Advertising is good, and there’s nothing like paid media to spike traffic. Moreover, consumer-generated media (CGM) centered sites like YouTube certainly need viable ad models to survive and thrive. It’s a matter of finding the right ad model, one that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the platform that makes the site so appealing and sticky in the first place.

I felt a bit tricked by YouTube into thinking “For Your Consideration” earned its way to the coveted home page on votes or an editor’s choice alone. The only real hint was the banner ad. Do consumers deserve a more explicit heads up that certain content amounts to paid placement? Google draws that line exceptionally well through its search results. Top and periphery is paid; center is organic and sacred.

Advertisers are increasingly looking to figure out how to piggyback on consumer chatter (chatterbacking). But if we ride the chatter, buzz, CGM, or word of mouth the wrong way, we erode the sacred trust consumers have in the power of organic recommendation or, in this case, organic votes.

We must keep revisiting these topics. They’re sensitive issues. Remember, we blew the whistle loudly on LonelyGirl15. And we all shook the boat with righteous indignation over marketers and their PR firms creating fictitious blogs that weren’t disclosed as such.

Now we have PayPerPost, which is further muddying the waters with a venture-capitalist-legitimized “we pay you to recommend products” model. It threatens to leave a digital trail of consumer head-scratching and backlash over what’s real. Even worse, in its effort to address the transparency question, PayPerPost is now positioning itself as a quasi-official credentialing agency with its site. I’m not sure what’s more disingenuous: co-opting fragile consumer trust with institutionalized shilling or moonlighting as a nonprofit like TRUSTe or the Better Business Bureau when you’re far from it.

The Credibility Imperative

Our most precious asset in marketing today is credibility. In a world of CGM and consumer control, our credibility is fragile and constantly under scrutiny.

Staying credible and participating in the bevy of new ad opportunities are not incompatible. We simply need to work harder to help consumers understand what’s advertising and what’s not. We may need to be a bit more explicit with our labels. We may need to draw the line more clearly. We may need to more proactively disclose our identity and relationships.

This isn’t just about being good citizens. It’s also about having good business practices. We see massive opportunity in advertising around CGM zones because we know the consumer voice is trusted, authentic, and highly creative. If the context is diluted or compromised, our ROI (define) diminishes.

As we continue to push word-of-mouth marketing techniques and test the chatterbacking waters, we must be extra sensitive to how such efforts might be spoiling the broader marketer commons.

At the end of the day, we’re supposed to take a ride with the consumer, not vice versa.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.