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It's hard to overstate just how fast video sharing has caught on. previewed its site in May 2005, and made its official debut six months later. Early last month, Google paid $1.6 billion to buy it outright.

Why so much? YouTube is on fire. It's the 10th most popular website in the world, one on which 100 million clips are viewed each day. With Google's money and prodigious web expertise behind it, who knows how far and how fast this phenomenon can grow.

But does it have commercial potential? If your personal exposure to YouTube gives you the impression that it's largely a bunch of teenagers passing goofy video clips back and forth, you may be right. Nielsen/NetRatings reports that of the site's 20 million unique visitors each month, the 12- to 17-year old age group is dominant. Political activists of various stripes are also heavy users of the site.

That's where YouTube stands right now. There's not much advertiser interest in a medium whose prime demographic gets its disposable income in the form of an allowance from their parents. Google is in the business of selling ads, so you can bet it will soon figure out how to encourage the uploading of more meaningful content to YouTube, the better to attract a higher-income demographic.

Meaningful content is where restaurant operators come in. Consider: Almost all of the Food Channel's lineup of shows are, in substance, stretched-out cooking demos. And live cooking segments led by guest chefs are staple fare on everything from network morning news shows to locally produced offerings. There's an insatiable demand for this type of programming, and the people who watch it are exactly the kind of folks big advertisers-the same ones Google already does business with on its other ventures-want to reach.

It all adds up to an opportunity waiting to happen. You've got a chef, you've got signature dishes and your restaurant already has visibility in your market. What's stopping you from shooting a few quick how-to cooking videos and posting them on YouTube?

It doesn't cost much to do so. We went to a Target store to see what they had available in digital video cameras and, whoa, they had 56 options. A decent camera with sound capabilities can be had for just over $100, good ones were in the $300 range and, at around $600, even the top-of-the-line models were reasonable. Heck, you may already own a cell phone that has this capability. Be sure to check out a unit's sound recording capabilities before you buy; lousy sound will send visitors scurrying away from your site.

No matter what you have, if your gear produces files whose names end in .mpeg or .avi, you can just send your clip up to YouTube and the rest takes places automatically. The YouTube site converts your file to Flash Video format-what you want it to be in when your clip starts being passed around. The cost to of getting your clip out and about on the Internet? Zero.

From there, you wait for web users to check out your clip and start sending it to others around the Internet. They don't call this phenomenon "viral video" for nothing. Ideally, you'll want to describe and tag your YouTube videos so that those who see it will come to your restaurant's site to see more.

Wondering what makes a good online cooking demo video clip? We recommend you check out how the pros at the Bravo network set up Leanne Wong's demos. Titled "The Wong Way To Cook," they're about the right length (2:45) and they're positioned beautifully on the page. Viewers see and hear Wong making her dish while a printed version of the recipe she is preparing is displayed directly below the video window. Archiving means that interested parties can pull up this cooking video anytime, as often as they want.

You can't get cheaper publicity than this. But if you take the time and still-reasonable expense to post most of your videos exclusively on your website, the payoff might be even higher. Your restaurant's site will be the place interested parties will come to find out about your food, not YouTube. And we'd say your chances of converting these visitors into paying customers for your restaurant should be very high. Think of it as how grassroots marketing is being done right now.

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