I am what you might call a casual cat-video viewer. There are people out there—I know a lot of them, and I’d wager you do, too—who spend hours plowing through YouTube and Buzzfeed, clicking from one cat video to the next and urging anyone within earshot to watch along with them. While I'm far less enthusiastic than that, if you send me a link to a cat staring down an alligator, or a cat trapping another cat in a box, I will most happily watch and probably even discuss it. I suspect I’m pretty close to the norm: who doesn't like a good cat video?
So many people like a good cat video, in fact, that the cat video has become a driving force on our Internet, a booming industry unto itself and arguably as big a player as that other industry that also references cats albeit in more euphemistic terms. Unlike with porn, though, this felt like a game I could get in on. Rumor had it that some people are making serious money off their cat films, their cats following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Maru, Stalking Cat and Dramatic Cat. What could be more appealing to a freelance writer with some time on her hands than making piles of money for little effort? And so I set out to make a viral cat video of my own.
While cats have roamed the Internet since the beginning, their financial potential didn't register with any force until the advent of I Can Has Cheezburger, a site created in 2007 featuring “Lolcats," those famously cutesy photos of cats accompanied by grammatically endearing captions. The site was purportedly sold less than a year later for $2 million. Today, it features cat videos in addition to the original Lolcats. In its wake, a number of other sites began to capitalize on the frenzy. BuzzFeed, a site that has recently become a major player in viral content creation, is one such entity. Jack Shepherd, the man largely responsible for the cat content there, told me that cats generates 3.5 times more viral traffic (shared via Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.) than the average BuzzFeed post. And they generate a whopping 14 times as many “reactions” (likes/dislikes).
The cat video industry has become so entrenched, it’s even been spoofed, a classic sign of entry into the national consciousness, similar to the first time a politician gets impersonated on "Saturday Night Live."
When YouTube began a profit-sharing program in December 2007, video uploaders with a proven track record were offered “partner” status, and a share of the revenues from their videos. In 2009, it opened profit-sharing to all users, regardless of past video success, via Google’s AdSense program (Google owns YouTube). Suddenly, there was virtually no barrier to entry for making money off of one’s beloved feline.
Perhaps no single cat has capitalized on the growth of this industry so much as Maru, the pet of Japanese owners whose videos on YouTube have been viewed over 143 million times. That’s nearly the viewership of the Super Bowl and the Oscars combined. And now he has a book, too.
So I set out to make my cat video. This might be a cinch, I thought. It seemed like a project that didn't require much talent, only a cat. And even though I didn't own one, I know plenty of people who do. I prevailed on several of them to loan me their cat in the service of journalism and potential superstardom.
The first friends to grant me access to their cats were Peter and Gully, English expats with a fine penchant for the absurd. I arrived at their home one evening, bottle of wine in hand as offering. After a glass and a trip to the corner pet store for some catnip, I got to work, while Peter and Gully sat nearby, sipping their own wine, half-ignoring the American chick crawling around their dining-room floor, cooing at their two cats, Schizo and Muffy.
Schizo, the sprightlier, more telegenic of the two, quickly became the focus of my camera’s eye. And she knew it. As would be proven to me over and over again, cats have the wary celebrity’s sixth sense of the presence of a camera, choosing Natalie Portman reserve over Paris Hilton exhibitionism. They might be doing a series of double back flips off the refrigerator, but turn the camera on them and they’ll immediately sit demurely on the floor.
Schizo remained unmoved by the catnip, as well, toying with it with the way Don Draper might fiddle with a poorly made martini. In one hour or so of shooting, I was able to get a collective 13 minutes of footage of her posing and playing. I edited the best of it into a minute-long clip and posted it a couple of days later.
It was a learning experience. For example, while I was working, my hosts had put on an album by some old charming crooner, something I hadn't thought twice about at the time. But according to YouTube's terms, even ambient noise that includes copyrighted material renders a video ineligible for their profit-sharing program. Nicer to discover was the breadth and usefulness of YouTube's editing features, which helped me adjust the video's lighting, edit the footage down to its best parts and steady the shot post-recording. All welcome enhancements. While the video wouldn't be eligible for monetization, I posted it anyway, just to get a gauge of the number of hits a cute cat giving a mediocre performance can expect to bring in.
To date, that number is 22. Even the application of alluring SEO best practices in the titling —"Cat Distracted by Camera"—wasn't enough to draw in the unwitting masses.
Any cat video posted to YouTube faces stiff competition. Currently there are about 2.3 million cat videos on the site;according to a Google rep I spoke with, that’s between eight and nine years’ worth of cat videos. Of course the field was not always so crowded. The first cat video to go viral was posted in 2006. Called simply "Puppy vs. Cat" (solid SEO!), this historic footage captures a cat confronting an entire litter of puppies. “Confronting” in this case is perhaps too generous a word, since nothing happens in the video. The puppies are adorable, and the cat is wary of them. The nonevent has attracted almost 13 million views. That’s as many viewers as for a typical episode of "Two and a Half Men," a show for which 30-second commercials bring in a quarter-million bucks.
Since those days, standards have gotten higher. During his time at BuzzFeed, Shepherd has gained a nuanced understanding of the elements that can propel a video to the head of the crowded pack: emotional resonance, the element of surprise, a narrative context. Cats doing “people things” and “interspecies” footage do particularly well. “A good piece of cat content often hits all of these notes,” he says.
But you still see the odd viral cat video that thrives despite its seeming mediocrity. Like this one, of an unsurprisingly cute kitten doing not much of anything, has racked up almost 7 million views.
Undaunted, I set off for my second film session, this time to the apartment of my friends Tyler and Leigh, who rescued their cat, Luna, on the night of the lunar eclipse in February 2008. The unofficial going rate for use of another's cat for the night now standardized at one bottle of wine, I again presented one upon entering.
After another fine dinner, we turned our attention to Luna, this time taking care to turn off the background music. At first, she sat unmoving on a dresser in the hallway, eyeing the camera with a mixture of boredom and disdain. But a couple minutes into that first take, she jumped off the pedestal, walked a few steps, and began to stretch, as cats do. Leigh, attuned to the wants and needs of her cat, picked her up, and Luna proceeded to reach to the sky with her front paws. It was adorable. It was also, it seemed to me, kind of a people thing to do—and thus accomplishing one of Shepherd's "dos" on the checklist for a good viral cat video. I felt the giddy rise of potential. Yes, that’s me giggling off-camera.
I put up the stretching video along with a short clip of Luna doing a sort of aerial flip off of a chair. Both were eligible for YouTube's profit-sharing program; and this time around, I went so far as to place a dignity-stripping link on my Facebook page. Still, collectively these two videos have made me four cents.
While I hadn't yet found success, over the course of my research, I spoke to someone who had. In 2007, Jennifer Selke, a summer-camp director living in Berkeley, uploaded a video in which her cat Huey unscrews a jar of treats all on his own, then digs in. To date, it has garnered over13,500 views, a modest hit by YouTube standards, but enough to have captured the attention of the kitty-litter maker Fresh Step, which paid her handsomely (she can’t disclose the precise sum) to feature the video in a commercial. Hers could be called the Justin Bieber path to success.
But a commercial deal isn’t necessary for viral cat fame. Indeed, some might even say it's old school, old media, antiquated. The revenue potential from YouTube videos is speculative, since YouTube doesn’t divulge numbers and most of those making real money from their videos remain mum on the topic, as well. But estimates suggest that monetized videos bring in anywhere from $1 to $10 per 1,000 views. If your video attracts a million hits, then, you might make anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. For a viral hit, revenue could easily reach into the six figures.
I gave myself one more chance to make it in the viral cat video world. This time I visited the Manhattan studio of Dina and her two cats, Billy and Dora. Once again, I showed up equipped with the requisite catnip and bottle of wine. As with the earlier trial, one cat stood out as the performer: Dora. Dora was bewitched by the catnip, and mostly unfazed by the camera, playing and going generally nuts. Crazy like cats get. But as Shepherd had explained to me, “cats doing cat stuff” is not the way to break out of cat-video anonymity.
Minutes after my camera ran out of memory, Dina brought out a new toy, which inspired Dora to perform some seriously athletic flips. You’ll have to take my word for it that this was the most captivating thing either of the cats did that night.
The thing I chose to post, because I captured it before the camera filled up, featured Dora standing by while Billy, the dominant cat in the household, smother his face with the catnip. Dora sits by, attempting to look disinterested until Billy grows bored of the toy, then she pounces. If anything, I hoped viewers might find this power play between these two cats interesting—a psychological study.
And thus we come to the inglorious end of my great experiment, where I give grudging respect to those who have captured feline gold on film and walked away the richer, in spirit and in savings account. Maru, Stalking Cat and Dramatic Cat: I tip my hat to you.
THE FINAL TALLY
Total videos: 4
Total minutes of raw footage: 68
Total monetized videos: 3
Money spent on wine: $30
Money made from subsequent videos: 4 cents
Total number of views: 75
Total number of views, monetized videos only: 53
Most successful video: The stretching video, with 44 views