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At the PSFK Conference New York 2008, College Humor co-founder Ricky Van Veen describes the lessons he learned from building and monetizing a niche...

Jeff Squires
Jeff Squires on May 22, 2008.

Topline transcription:

RICKY: I’m the editor in chief of collegehumor.com. Going to use the colleghumor story to show how we built the world’s biggest comedy website. Will finish up on how I think traditional and new media will collide. This is the first iteration of the site. Best friend and I started it in January 2000. Used to DJ bar mitzvahs, parties. We were DJ’s at Xmas party, and did this. Originally it was for friends to post videos, then people on our hall, then respective schools. By the end of the semester, but AIM and IM, it had become the place for college students to put their stuff.

Here’s a little sizzle reel (SHOWS REEL). Base layer comes from the user. CollegeHumor was built on user generated content. This guy built 3 days building a transformer costume that actually transformed. The age of our staff average is 24, and we skew even younger with our interns. We’re all people that grew up on the internet, understand what it wants and how it responds. Piers talked about Muckscape – launched by one of our developers. A quote I love from Fred Wilson, Facebook is unlike anything we’ve seen to date, first mega company built by people who had not yet had sex. They know the market better than anyone else. How do we stay relevant as we get older? I’ve been asking since I graduated the answer comes in the form of our farm system. We’ll take a freshman, get out staff to work with them. Intern when they’re a junior and work with us when they’re a senior. Bear it in mind as we expand to TV, film, and books. Want to show how we’re different from Comedy Central. We’re modeling on today’s young person. It all has to come back to our online center, that’s what’s in the kid’s face eerie day. When a kid comes home, the first thing he does is go straight on his computer, straight to the internet. You have to base your company around where the kids are centered. We know what applications our kids are using and we’ve leveraged those applications. Don’t try to build your own. Harness what’s already out there. Like a business things of accredit card company. Shoe company accepts Visa and MC, and concentrate on shoes. Talking to a girl who was part of a startup, it has the best of Flicker and MySpace – I wanted to say, get out. No one wants to join 10 social networks. You want to take what you have and leverage that. We use Facebook’s API and out our 7million users, many come through that. Our editorial voice and personality, we have a lot. That’s ok to pull back the curtain a little bit. Not the mark of an amateur stop like people thought. Even though a weekly site is more official, and Perez Hilton’s site does that. I encourage people to take pictures around the office and post them on the site. We create our own stars.

The downside is the number of fans who apply to be interns. Here’s a product of that mentality. It’s called prank war, writers go back and forth and play pranks on each other. (SHOWS VIDEO.) Where are we headed? Original content. So far it’s been working really well. We have the highest rate of return for original content. Why can’t others replicate it? We have a shit strategy. We shoot for 9’s and 10’s – anything less, they’re not gonna get seen at all. No one goes to a 30-second dig.com to find the most popular page of the day. We know what works. Videos on two different minutes do well, the hook should come in the first 20 seconds. Certain sweet spots that work well for people to pass it along. One is topical humor. This time last year there was an agency that did gorilla advertising, put up blinking lights all over the city, they thought they were under terrorist attack. We made this video, cost $300, and we turned it around in 36 hours. (SHOWS VIDEO.) Same situation – in the writers room, talking about how many of these video games theaters were turning into high octane blockbuster hits – what’s gonna happen when they hit the bottom of the barrel. They’re gonna do Minesweeper, the movie (SHOWS VIDEO).

These are really fun to make and put online. But how do we monetize this. In our dorm rooms, we created bustedkeys, and we became our own product. Now it’s a separate entity and continues to do really well. After that we met advertisers and started to work with brands. We do brands a lot differently. We’re pro-user, that’s why they’ stuck with us over the years, even with YouTube and other young male video sites. I mean everything we do is transparent. If DreamWorks gives us DVD’s to give away, we’ll say, hey, DreamWorks gave us these DVD’s. It’s important with our media saturated generation. They can see through. We only do custom things on the site that we wouldn’t have done already with the sponsor. If you force something unnatural on a website, they’ll ignore it. I was talking to a marketing exec last summer about these widgets she’s making for a kid’s website. I was thinking who would install this thing that’s basically an ad? I asked how many would put it on their pages, she said, none, but the client is really happy. Can’t placate them anymore because they read it in the NYT last Sunday. We don’t believe there’s a benefit to have the ad displayed in an annoying way. 85% flee at the site of preroll video.

One thing advertisers forget when selling to the couch potato is the couch. Viewing on the computer is an active activity, mouse in hand; you want to go on to the next thing. These are page skins, site takeovers that blend in without interrupting the experience. Kids multitask. You don’t need their undivided attention. They can watch a video while they see an ad in the background. The idea of a captive eyeball is bullshit now. You’re got to be in context with what’s being consumed while it’s being consumed. Editorial integration, allowing them to piggyback on our strong editorial voice. Used to be the value ad on top of the media buy. Now it’s the opposite. As a result, we have to make our integration scalable. This is my favorite, America’s hottest college girl.

Where is the internet content world headed? You’d be led to believe that traditional entertainment is dissolving. That’s not the case. Our goal is to get off the web and into TV and film. When will the internet be the end game for content creators? When will they collide? Depends on 2 key factors. The migration of advertising budgets, and big talent. Most haven’t figured out how to monetize video, and big talent isn’t going to get paid until they figure it out. The ad budgets aren’t there yet. Won’t be for a few more years but it’ll happen eventually, and recession won’t speed it up. When they do come, big stars will join high school kids with video cameras, and it will be easier to get their material seen. Access to national stage is important but shouldn’t overshadow the brand. Then the internet will not only be a place to create stars, but a place to retain them. Websites without brand and talent will find it hard to keep up with those who have it. Because of the vast information generated on line – TV and film will be complimentary to them, not replaced by it. Everything is going to convert, just as kids now can’t tell the difference between cable and network TV. When that happens we expect CollegeHumor to be a brand they recognize one way or the other.

Thinking...