Shira Lazar Talks Fast and Has Big Ideas (@Idealab)

Shira Lazar

The second monthly Big Ideas talk at Idealab  featured Shira Lazar, media empress at What’s Trending, talking about turning a Youtube channel into a media empire.  It was a fascinating spectacle for she talked faster than an ordinary mortal could possibly take notes and faster than an ordinary moderator (Joakim Baage, GM Spoon Agency) could ask questions.  But that firestorm of possibly caffeine-infused monologue was no rant. Instead, it was the future of the media business at the very speed it’s moving.

Grabbing what I could from this stream of media business savvy, Shira (can I call you Shira?) gave me a LOT to think about and left me questioning some of my own preconceived notions.

What is What’s Trending?

First and foremost, Shira sees What’s Trending as a startup. Launched in May 2011, What’s Trending is like a cross-section between a talk show and analysis of Youtube-based content or, as AllThingD’s Peter Kafka put it: “a chatty chat show about memes and the people who make them.”  They also call themselves “a 24/7 news hub, covering and curating the most shared videos on YouTube and across the social web.”  They’ve grown from a few million to 20 million viewers and, according to what Shira said, are closing in on 900k subscribers. They recently received funding from Bedrocket Media Ventures.

Shira Lazar at SXSW. Photo by JD Lasica

I’m not exactly comfortable with what she means by this subscriber number and I suspect it might be ambitious.  On Youtube itself they have a very respectable 87,000 subscribers. Across the social channels, they have just over 552K. (Mysteriously, on Google+ they have 476K follows, a number i think that must be auto-goosed by Google.  It’s very unusual for a brand’s traction to be weighted so heavily toward Google+.)

[UPDATE: Moderator Joakim Baage wrote in to tell me I am an order of magnitude off on these subscriber number, that Shira said 90K, not 900K.  This makes sense.  Thanks, Jay!]

They publish 4x a day and never after 4pm Pacific.  About 60% of their traffic is from outside the US, a figure Shira seemed interesting in reducing.

I’ve always thought of the Youtube channel concept in classic terms. That is, it’s a place where a bunch of videos get posted.  As a business, I’ve always thought of the channels as a clever concept to help Youtube make money.  But, really, a Youtube channel — especially in the way that Shira and What’s Trending see it — is more like a program, with a personality and a defined audience.

Sure, that core function — posting videos — is part of it, but what What’s Tending is doing is producing original programming geared to a specific demographic.  The original programming they produce is snarky commentary on videos that have gone or are in the process of going viral.

What’s Trending Content.

Here’s an example, based on the recent disclosure that Jimmy Kimmel webjacked the entire Internet with a fake viral sensation about the twerking girl who catches fire. The What’s Trending take is to ride the segment with the respectable notion of fake videos that go hot. Like the Kimmel one, there was the girl who really loves cats (turned out to be an eHarmony ad), and the shocking Eagle Stealing Your Baby.

This seems about as investigative as What’s Trending gets, and even this is done in a slightly over-the-top OMG personality. The piece on Miley Cyrus’s hammer-licking video that she showed us at the Big Ideas event reached for fun but came across trying too hard to be as viral as the videos they cover.  Well, that’s it, really. What’s Trending is in the business of being as viral as the viral videos they cover.  Personally, I prefer what they’ve got going on with the Jimmy Kimmel coverage (toning down the OMG a bit, but I’m not their market). I also thought the live chat with Vegard Ylvisåker (part of the team that created the fantastic “What does the fox say?” video) was pretty substantive and brilliant.

Youtube is a search engine.

Cross Campus‘s Ronen Olshansky asked Shari about Jason Calacanis‘ recent admonition to steer clear of Youtube, that it’s better to build your own.  Sure enough, it’s very dangerous for What’s Trending to tie their horse to the Youtube starship.  There’s no shortage of examples of products built on other systems then choked off by their benevolent dictator.  (Virtually every Twitter API developer got smeared.)  But, Shari responded with some good points.

Cross Campus' Ronen Olshansky

Cross Campus’ Ronen Olshansky

When you are starting from scratch, you need to get audience anywhere you can.  But, she’s clearly thinking of the dangers Calcanis talks about because she went on to say “You should control your audience no matter what. Drive your traffic to a place you can monetize.”  More about monetization in a minute.

Youtube provides unparalleled discoverability. As Shira put it, “Discovery on Youtube is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

That’s because Youtube is the search engine for videos owned by Google, the search engine for everything.  And, even though Google claims to play no favorites with their results, it does so happen that Youtube ranks very highly in the secret Google algorithm.  Search Google for nearly anything and a related Youtube video appears.   We all know the numbers: 1 billion unique user per month, 6 billion hours are watched every month, 70% outside the United States…

Youtube is where the people are and if you want to reach people, that’s where you need to be.

Okay, what about monetization?

To hear Shira say it, they use Youtube as a way to reach people and then have their own and other sites as places where they can further engage and monetize their audience.

Shira said a couple of things about monetization that I thought were interesting.

  • First off, they are making money by integrating messaging into the content.  She said that they were getting “…between $10k and $20k for a shoutout.” which seems like pretty outrageous coin. It’s very unclear as to how many of these paid shoutouts they have since they don’t seem to be delineated on the site.
  • They have distribution deals, that is creating special programs for other sites.  (Open question: do these deals help shape the content of the What’s Trending stream?)
  • She didn’t talk about this but I’m sure they are getting Youtube payouts and Google Adsense money. (I didn’t see a single ad on the site that didn’t have the familiar “ad choices” link attached to it.)
  • I was surprised to not see a “What’s Trending Shop” on their site.

What about competition?

I asked Shira about competition mainly because I expected the standard startup answer “Nobody.” She led with that but she backed it up with some interesting commentary about the value of creating the content you want to create for the audience you want to reach.

She said there’s a limit to the number of advertisers out there. I infer but there is virtually no practical limit to audience.  If you get the audience, you will get the advertiser, presuming you have a way to get to advertisers.

I see where she’s coming from on this. They are reaching out to the masses and if they can engage the masses, they’ll be in consideration for the sponsorships. But, the truth is that there is a significant limiting factor which also defines harsh competition on the user side of things. That is that a user can only look at one site at a time.  So what are the sites out there that provide the same kind of snarky commentary? Boingboing comes to mind.

But, the fact is that What’s Trending is dealing in popularity and, just as a sure path to riches is to help rich people get richer, helping popular people get more popular must have a similar outcome.

New barometer for success is still being discovered.

One of the things that’s so exciting about what What’s Trending is doing — what’s exciting about this whole space we are in, really — is that they are forging a new path.  Old rules and old ideas about what works and doesn’t need to be tested but are not shoe-ins to work.  Failure is important now because it helps to set the path forward, helps us to decide what the new rules and ideas are.

In terms of judging success, Shira said that they are still trying to figure out what it is, that “a new barometer of success is still being discovered.”  And they are certainly on the path.


About the Big Ideas series.

Big Ideas is a monthly series of networking events interviewing leading entrepreneurs, creatives and other thought-leaders. It is held in Pasadena, California, at the famous Idealab space and is sponsored by Cooley LLP and Square One Bank and presented by  Innovate Pasadena, Spoon, and Idealab, Media support os provided by TechZulu and Digital LA. Human80 is not affiliated in any way, other than attending.