Visible Measures Rides Susan Boyle’s Coattails to Viral Video Fame, But It’s Got Something Even Bigger Planned

5/27/09Follow @wroush

If you followed news articles mentioning Visible Measures, you might get the impression that the Boston startup’s technology is devoted entirely to tracking viral Web videos. An article in Sunday’s New York Times, for example, cited Visible Measures’ statistics on singing sensation Susan Boyle; it turns out that clips of her performances on “Britain’s Got Talent” are the fastest-spreading videos in the history of the Web, racking up more than 220 million views in the last month alone, according to the company’s Viral Reach database.

But in reality, “The viral statistics are actually a small part of our business,” CEO Brian Shin told me earlier this month. “It’s just what we talk about all the time, because we don’t want to talk about the other stuff we’re doing. When we do our pitch to VCs, the viral stuff has one slide.”

Brian Shin, CEO, Visible MeasuresSo what’s on all the other slides? Shin’s not joking—he doesn’t want to talk about it. All he’ll say is that the company’s developers are hard at work on a new product that will come out later this year and that will allow customers to see more of the information Visible Measures collects about the rapidly expanding world of online video. Listings like the Ad Age Viral Video Chart—a rundown of the week’s most-viewed videos, based on data provided by Visible Measures—represent only a tiny portion of the company’s picture of the video universe, he says. “We have gobs and gobs of information we’re not showing there.”

Whatever the new product does, though, it’s not likely to stray too far from Visible Measures’ core business proposition, which is that publishers and advertisers’ digital media efforts are more likely to pay off if they understand how their content is being used. General Web readership is notoriously difficult to measure, with analytics companies like Comscore and Quantcast producing wildly varying traffic estimates for major websites. But it’s a slightly easier problem to count how many people watched the latest Susan Boyle clips—assuming that you’ve figured out, as Visible Measures has, how to identify those clips once they’ve been virally shared and remixed.

And that makes Visible Measures a key part of the Boston area’s growing digital entertainment cluster, which spans production, distribution, marketing, and, now, measurement.

“In this economy, advertisers can’t put their money somewhere where they can’t measure it,” says Shin. “They have to know what they’re getting. And publishers, in order to maintain high rates [for ads], have to be able to offer transparency.” (Shin will speak more about many of these themes during the “Entertainment Economy” breakout session at the June 24 Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship.)

Visible Measures’ top-secret new product is the main preoccupation for a big chunk of its 38 employees, who work, Being John Malkovich-style, in a space that spans both the fifth and the fourth-and-a-half floors of an old office building in the increasingly startup-heavy neighborhood near Boston’s South Station. The office’s exposed-brick walls are decorated mostly with big posters for newly released movies, courtesy of the Hollywood studios who are some of the startup’s biggest customers (movie trailers being one of the biggest genres of viral Web videos).

Founded in 2005, Visible Measures has raised just shy of $30 million in venture funding from General Catalyst Partners, Mohr Davidow Ventures, and a group of angel investors, including a $10 million Series C round that closed just two months ago.

For the moment, it has only two main products. The first, called VisibleCampaign, is built around the Viral Reach database, which is the Web video equivalent of Google’s vast search index. Matt Cutler, Visible Measures’ vice president of marketing and analytics, says the database consists of information on over 100 million videos culled from more than 150 video sharing websites such as YouTube, MySpace, AOL, and dozens of lesser-known sites. The company uses it to give advertisers and marketers a better sense of who’s watching their videos and who’s making copies, remixes, and parodies.

“As far as we know, it’s the largest collection of viral video in the world,” Cutler says. “It allows us to have really broad coverage of what’s going on in the world of viral video, so that we can track not just specific companies but their peers and competitors and how videos have performed, going back in time several years.”

That’s very useful information for advertisers and publishers, who can spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars producing an Internet video campaign for their own sites, only to find that there are few good ways of tracking these clips once they’ve been copied, shared, or embedded in other sites. To find videos once they’ve started to spread, Visible Measures has developed ways to use Web metadata and comment streams to identify an individual video as part of a particular campaign, even if it’s been copied, transcoded, or remixed. That’s part of what Visible Measures does for Next New Networks, the New York, NY-based publisher of BarelyPolitical.com and the home of “Obama Girl,” to pick just one example. “A large percentage of their viewership happens outside the Next New Network properties, but they still need to understand everything,” Shin explains.

Just as Google can diagnose cultural trends by measuring the frequency with which people use certain search terms, Visible Measures can use its viral reach database to see which video memes are hottest. Just this month, the company introduced the “100 Million Views Club,” a list of the 25 videos (as of May 20) that have been watched at least 100 million times. At the top of the list is a Soulja Boy music video with 360 million page views; Susan Boyle, whose rocket ride to stardom inspired Visible Measures to create the list, is currently in fifth place. Like all of Visible Measures’ statistics, the 100-million list counts both originals and viral copies; in fact, the 25 videos on the list collectively turn up at more than 21,000 different Web addresses. (Interestingly, when I visited Visible Measures on May 4, there were only 18 videos in the 100 Million Views Club, which tells you something about how rapidly Internet video audiences are still growing.*)

Matt Cutler, Vice President of Marketing and Analytics, Visible MeasuresVisible Measures’ other current product is called VisibleSuite—and it’s the one I described in my first piece about the company in January 2008, shortly after the company had collected its $13.5 million B round. VisibleSuite is a video metrics engine that “allows people to see inside the playback experience,” in Cutler’s words. In other words, Visible Measures customers who install a bit of the startup’s code in their video player software can track things like how much of a video each viewer actually watched; where they paused, fast-forwarded, rewound, or skipped; and whether and when the video was shared. Knowing more about how viewers interact with videos from moment to moment, the company contends, can help publishers figure out which types of content are best at holding viewers’ attention.

Ironically, Visible Measures’ ability to analyze viewer behavior may have temporarily outrun many publishers’ ability to exploit that information. The main point of Sunday’s New York Times article was that FreemantleMedia Enterprises, the production company that owns the international digital rights to “Britain’s Got Talent,” has earned little or nothing from the tens of millions of views of the Susan Boyle clips on YouTube. The problem, according to the Times, is that FreeMantle and YouTube (which is owned by Google) have yet to settle on a way to split the revenues from the ads that could be sold alongside the videos.

Which may point to one of the difficulties in Visible Measures’ future—the fact that just because a medium is measurable doesn’t mean it’s easily monetizable. Not only are most viewers of viral video watching copies rather than originals, but they’re doing so via a disorganized patchwork of thousands of video sharing sites, few of which are likely to offer video publishers a share of their ad revenues.

Still, the indirect benefits of viral video sharing may be enough to keep the customers lining up at Visible Measures’ door. Cutler says many companies are developing “a more holistic view of where influence can come from.” Copied, embedded, or remixed videos can sometimes drive traffic back to a video’s original source, for example, and a well-made parody or spoof of an advertisement can often earn more buzz for a brand than the original video.

“On TV, you watch the show, and that’s the end of the experience,” Cutler says. “On the Internet, you watch, and that’s the beginning. You can comment, embed, remix, and republish, and people expend social capital around this. So this notion of a ‘campaign’ is taking on a new and more nuanced meaning.”

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* For geeks only: I asked Matt Cutler by e-mail yesterday how the 100 Million Views Club grew so quickly. He said the seven new additions to the list since early May were a combination of “campaigns that recently crossed the 100 million views threshold (see the bottom of the chart for most of these)” and “campaigns that were identified using new discovery techniques (see Beyonce’s Single Ladies). Believe it or not, sometimes these large campaigns can be difficult to identify, and we’re constantly experimenting with new methods of characterizing our data. These new approaches often yield unexpected findings… which we’re always happy to share with those who share our passion for the world of social video.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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