FORBES: InfiniGraph Invents Video Thumbnail Optimization

Bruce Rogers ForbesBruce Rogers, FORBES STAFF
I’m Forbes’ Chief Insights Officer & write about thought leadership.
Originally posted on Forbes

A Series of Forbes Insights Profiles of Thought Leaders Changing the Business Landscape: Chase McMichael, Co-Founder and CEO, InfiniGraph

Optimizing web content to drive higher conversion rates, for a long time, meant only focusing on boosting the number of click-throughs, or figuring out what kinds of static content got shared most often on social media sites.

But what about videos? This key component of many sites went largely overlooked, because there simply wasn’t a good way to determine what actually made viewers want to click on and watch a given video.

Chase_McMichael_Video_Machine_Learning_Headshot_2_2016

Chase McMichael, Co-Founder and CEO, Infinigraph

In an effort to remedy this problem, says entrepreneur Chase McMichael, brand managers may have, at most, tried to simply improve the video’s image quality. Or, in a move like a Hail Mary pass, they might have splashed up even more content, in the hopes that something, anything, would score higher click-to-play rates. Yet even after all that, McMichael says, brands often found that some 90% of viewers still did not watch the videos posted on their sites.

As it turns out, the “thumbnail” image (static visual frame from the video footage) has
everything to do with online video performance. And while several ad tech companies were already out there, using so-called A/B testing to determine how to optimize the user experience, no one had focused on optimizing video thumbnail images. Given video’s sequencing speed with thousands of images flashed up for milliseconds at a time, it meant that measuring the popularity of thumbnails was simply too complex.

Sensing a challenge, McMichael, a mathematician and physicist with an ever-so-slight east Texas drawl, set out to tackle this issue. He’d already started InfiniGraph, an ad tech firm aimed at tracking and measuring people’s engagement on brand content. But as his company grew, he found that customers began asking more and more about how they might best optimize web videos in order to boost viewership.Panthers_Video_Machine_Learning_iPhoneKRAKEN (1)

Viewership, of course, is key: Higher video viewership translates into more shares; more shares means increased engagement. And that all translates into more revenue for the website. Premium publishers are limited in their ability to create more inventory because the price of entry is so high. These new in house studios are producing quality content, but getting scale is a huge challenge.

When he started looking into it, McMichael says, he often found that the thumbnails posted to attract viewers usually fell flat and the process for choosing thumbnails hasn’t changed in 15 years. And the realization that the images gained little to no traction among viewers came as something of a surprise: Most of the time, the publishers and brand managers themselves had selected specific images for posting with no thought at all into optimizing the image.

According to McMichael, the company’s technology (called “Kraken”) solves for two critical areas for publishers: it creates inventory and the corresponding revenue while also increasing engagement and time spent on site.

Timing, it turns out, was everything for McMichael and InfiniGraph. Image- and object-recognition software had been improving to the point where those milliseconds-at-a-time thumbnails could be slowed down and evaluated more cheaply than in the past. Using that technology along with special algorithms, McMichael created Kraken, a program that breaks down videos into “best possible” thumbnails. Using an API, Kraken monitors which part of the video, or which thumbnail, viewers click on the most. Using machine learning, Kraken then rotates through and posts the best thumbnails to increase the chances that new users will also click on the published thumbnail in order to watch an entire video.

This process is essentially crowd-sourced, says McMichael—the images that users click on the most are those that Kraken pushes back to the sites for more clicks. “What’s fascinating is we’ve had news content, hard news, shocking, all the way up to entertainment, music, sports and it’s pretty much universal,” he says, “that no one [person] picks the right answer”—only the program will provide the best image or images that draw in the most clicks. On its first few experimental runs, InfiniGraph engineers discovered something huge: By repeatedly testing and re-posting certain images, InfiniGraph saw rates of click-to-play increase by, in some cases, 200%. Says McMichael: “It was like found money.”

InfiniGraph is a young and small company, even for a start-up: The Silicon Valley firm has eight employees in addition to a network of technicians and specialty consultants he scales on and as-needed basis, and has boot-strapped itself to where it is today. McMichael says he’s built a “very revenue-efficient company” because “everything is running in two data centers and images distributed across a global CDN.” His goal is to be cash-flow positive by this summer. Right now InfiniGraph works exclusively with publishers but the market is ripe for growth, especially in mobile devices, McMichael says.

Recently, Tom Morrissy, a publishing leader with extensive experience in both publishing (Entertainment Weekly, SpinMedia Group) and video ad tech (Synaptic Digital, Selectable Media) joined InfiniGraph as a Board Advisor.

“So many companies claim to bring a ‘revenue generating solutions that is seamlessly integrated.” This product creates inventory for premium publishers and is the lightest tech integration I’ve seen. I was completely impressed with Chase’s vision because he truly thought through the technology from the mindset of a publisher. Improve the consumer experience and the ad dollars always follow” says Tom Morrissy

The son of a military officer father and registered nurse mother, McMichael grew up in the small town of New Boston, Texas, located just outside of the Red River Army Depot. A self-described “Brainiac kid,” McMichael says he was always busying himself with science experiments, with a special interest in superconductors, or materials that conduct electricity with zero resistance. Though he’d been accepted to North Texas, McMichael still took a tour at the University of Houston, mainly because the work of one physics professor who discovered high temperature superconductivity had grabbed his attention. “So I went to Paul Chu’s office and said, ‘hey, I want to work for you.’” It was the craziest thing, but growing up I was always told, ‘If you don’t ask for it, you won’t know.’”

That spawned the beginning of seven-year partnership with Chu during which time the University built a ground-breaking science center. McMichael spent seven years in DARPA funded applied science, but decided to leave for the business world. A friend of McMichael’s worked at Sun Microsystems and encouraged him to leverage his programming knowledge. His first job out of college was creating the ad banner management system for Hearst. “So I got sucked into the whole internet wave and left the hard-core science field,” he says. He also worked at Chase Manhattan Bank in the 90s, building out its online banking business.

As for the future for InfiniGraph?

McMichael says his mission is “to improve the consumer experience on every video across the globe, and it’s an ambitious plan. But we know that there are billions of people holding a phone right now looking at an image. And their thumb is about to click ‘play,’ and we want to help that experience.”

Bruce H. Rogers is the co-author of the recently published book Profitable Brilliance: How Professional Service Firms Become Thought Leaders - Originally posted on Forbes