Speculating On Reasons for Online Video’s Unprecedented Surge In 2009

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Will Richmond over at VideoNuze published an interesting article yesterday pondering some possible reasons for the meteoric rise in online video’s popularity in 2009.  The article starts with a graph that shows a jump of nearly 124% growth in total views last year.  The previous best improvement in one year was 2008… which had 46% growth from the previous year.  2007 saw just a 39% growth.

So online video’s going along… a young toddler… and it suddenly doubles its growth speed in just one year… going from walking and talking to first day of school in the blink of an eye.

Online Video’s Unprecedented Surge:

2009 saw 33.2 billion views of online videos.  That’s pretty astounding.  And, as Richmond states, it begs the question of what might have caused such a spike.  He then goes on to speculate on some very good possible reasons for the increase, beginning with YouTube’s continued rise in popularity.  YouTube doubled its views in 2009—doubled—from 6.3 billion to 13.2 billion.  Among other moves, their copyright protection system, Content ID, has been very effective.  Brands that used to pull their copyrighted content are now able to monetize the unauthorized use, thereby increasing the pool of good content for users.  YouTube also made more content deals with major studios, which also broadened their audience reach.

Will also lists some other very excellent possible reasons for online video’s huge year.   For instance, the average annual views per user went from 101 to 187; more users spending more time on site watching more content.  The number of US users and the number of total minutes viewed per user also jumped.  Most of this is just standard growth of a popular brand.  You would expect that as any video portal matures its users will grow and will watch more video.

Why Such a Dramatic Rise?

But that kind of organic growth alone can’t single-handedly account for this kind of spike in the data.  Something changed drastically between 2008 and 2009 to drive people to online video.  Maybe several somethings.  While Richmond makes quite a fine case for some of the technical reasons that allowed video to surge in growth, I’m more interested in the cultural causes.  I want to step back a bit and see what happened in the world at large that might have played a role.

I have a few ideas myself that I wanted to toss out there that I believe helped contribute greatly to the dramatic rise of online video views in 2009.  These are just guesses.  I’m an online marketer, with plenty of experience in video and SEO, but I’m no cultural anthropologist.  But clearly something radical changed the growth of video in an unmistakable way in just a single year.  Here are my thoughts:

1) There Are More Outlets for Video than Ever Before

Smart phones continue to rise in adoption, most of which are fully capable of playing videos.  Heck, half the people I know who have one bought it with video-watching in mind.

I have a smart phone.  I watch videos on it in times and places in my life when I am not near a computer.  I’ve watched YouTube videos on it in the airport, in bars and restaurants, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, and many other places I don’t typically take my laptop.  That means I’m almost certainly watching videos in those times that I might not otherwise have seen.  I’m not watching any less video on my desktop and laptop… just increasing my total viewing by virtue of having portable accessibility to video content.

You could make a similar (though less convincing) argument about netbooks… that their portability lends itself to more overall time online, and therefore more time with video.

2) Creating Video is Easier than Ever Before

A second suggested reason I’ll throw out there is that there are more and more people jumping into the video production pool head first.  The easier it gets to film, edit, and upload video… the more video there will be to view.  I can buy a Kodak Zi8 camera that takes HD video for under $200 and have it shipped to my home within a day (yes, I know it’s not “true” HD, but it can shoot 1080p).

The video cameras on those smart phones we were talking about have gotten better as well, as have the video capabilities of your average point and shoot digital camera.

All this extra recording equipment out in the wild—at affordable prices—leads to more videographers.  And in addition to creating more total video online for the viewing, many of these amateur filmmakers are spreading their creations virally to their friends and family… likely creating a few more YouTube disciples in the process.

3) Two Words: Bad Economy

What happens when people have less money to spread around?  Well, in a broad sense, they stay in.  Fewer trips to the mall and the movie theater, fewer meals out, and fewer vacations.  And a lot more time spent indoors… at home… entertaining yourself.  With online video, perhaps?

Additionally, a lot of families are like mine, and have had to cut back on their cable or satellite television service (if not cancel it completely).  I only got the idea to make cable one area where I save money after hearing a few friends talking about how they had done it.  There are probably millions of Americans that have scaled down on their entertainment dollar.  And yet most of these people still have access to the internet—between email, education, communication, work, and entertainment… the Internet trumps the TV for our subscription dollar, and many are unwilling or unable to cancel that service.  Left with just the standard local network affiliates on our television, my wife and I now spend a lot more time watching online video.   In our house… killing cable has probably more than tripled the amount of video we consume online, and we wouldn’t have killed cable had the economy not tightened our wallets.

YouTube and Hulu (and the other video sites) are already largely a buffet of free entertainment, with enough content to draw viewers in on their own merit.  Add in the extra free time that many Americans have had in the course of 2009, and you might begin to see why I draw a line from the economic situation to the increase in views.

And the American economy is far from the only one struggling.  There are major nations all over the globe facing financial hardship unlike any that has been seen in decades.  It’s hard for me to believe that the recession is so perfectly timed with the enormous spike in online video views but has no relationship to it.

What do You Think?

Those are just my thoughts—pure speculation.  I think it’s fascinating to think about what some of the factors are that caused the increase.  Surely there were many reasons for the rise.  And you just know that YouTube is giddy over the one-year doubling of their view count—especially when you consider that TubeMogul says 84% of viewers watch the entire 30-second pre-roll ad without clicking away (maybe Mark’s prediction about this being the year they finally turn a profit is right on the money… more viewers than ever + a willingness on their part to watch pre-roll ads = profit).

I thought Richmond’s piece was excellent.  He did a great job fleshing out the growth patterns of YouTube and Hulu and picking out the facets of each that contributed to the growth.  But I wanted to explore things in a bit more broad sense.  I wanted to look at what was going on in the world in 2009 that helped lead to the 124% increase in views.

What am I missing?  What factors do you see beyond standard organic growth that could have aided such a colossal climb?


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