YouTube has changed media culture. Four hundred hours of video are uploaded to it every minute and it has over a billion users, mass reach, high levels of engagement and is loved by Millennials in particular. Nowadays all platforms – such as Facebook and Twitter – that wish to have a healthy future must give users the opportunity to share video. That trend was initiated by YouTube and then facilitated and accelerated by faster internet access and device innovation, such as smartphones that allow you to film. In this respect, YouTube is an innovator that got its timing right, got lucky and has gone on to be a global success story.
YouTube has changed rapidly in its first 10 years. Early on it supported musicians and replaced MySpace as the platform for aspiring artists. Today, it is a huge video sharing platform that has everything from entertainment – ‘epic fails’ and ‘cute kittens’ – to informative lectures on many topics. The platform opened the doors for a new self-invented type of celebrity – the YouTuber – and new entertainment formats. Superstar YouTubers, like PewDiePie, show themselves playing video games and give tips for gaming success to their followers. YouTube is also a huge archive for old films and video and it is evolving into a seemingly limitless archive and a global ‘everything’ channel. It continues to innovate and evolve – as all must to survive in the Darwinian world of online media.
Should you become a YouTube creator?
The appeal of YouTube for advertisers is evident – a mass audience and the opportunity to target messages. The question I will address in this piece is: Should brands and companies get involved as publishers (and not just as advertisers) by creating video to upload on YouTube, or at least collaborate with those who are good at it? And how can they be successful at it? The guidelines here are drawn from my work advising brands in an innovation unit called The Zoo (which is “a think tank for agencies and brands” inside Google).
Is YouTube a good place for all types of companies?
Creators can be quite diverse. In particular, I think YouTube is underused as a form of Business to Business (B2B) and staff communication. Yet, some types of brands are better placed to be creators on YouTube:
1. Brands in high interest categories (such as automotive, travel, food, luxury, technology, fashion): These, of course, also have information-hungry audiences, so brands have the opportunity to build trust and credibility by providing knowledge. For example, a glimpse behind the scenes at one of the great fashion shows (in New York, London, Paris or Milan) fascinates large numbers of young women. Popular and well-made videos perform well in search results which can increase a brand’s engagement among all stakeholders (such as staff, trade customers) as well as ‘mental availability’ for potential buyers and those actively considering a purchase.
2. Gaming brands and new technologies: YouTube is home to many influencers in tech and gaming – positive reviews from the likes of PewDiePie (41.5 million subscribers) and KSI (11.7 million subscribers) can help launch and popularise a new game.
3. Brands targeting Millennials and Gen Z: YouTube has a broad user base, yet the heavy usage is among Millennials. YouTubers (those self-made media stars that the platform spawns in large numbers) look and feel like representatives of the Millennial and Gen Z; they ‘connect’ with them in a way that few brands (except perhaps BuzzFeed) can emulate. This is ‘their’ channel – not that of their parents.
4. Brands that wish to be seen as experts: In some categories (home improvement, technology and beauty are good examples) there is a hunger for advice and information.YouTube has evolved into a search engine in its own right and people increasingly turn to it for a “how to” film. (“How to” is a very popular search term on both Google and YouTube, such as “how to iron a shirt”, ”how to make lasagne”, “how to mend a puncture” or even “how to do my hair in the style of Game of Thrones”.) Brands can be the providers of expert answers and increase their credibility and trust among potential buyers.
5. B2B marketers – especially professional services: ‘Thought leadership’ is how many professional services’ brands build their reputations and YouTube is now a way to project thought leadership in easier-to-consume short film formats. For example, by videoing conferences and webcasts, companies can generate informative short films that can reach a wider audience over time – it is often a good idea to post edited highlights rather than the full version.
6. Companies who think they might be adversely affected by ad blocking: Consumers are increasingly choosing not to look at ads with ad blocking being highest among the young. Thus, video content (as long as it is useful or entertaining) can be an effective way to engage with online audiences. It ‘bypasses’ adblocking software as people choose to watch it and so value it more.
7. Companies looking to be truly customer-centric: Companies have to be really tuned in to the daily needs and interests of their customers if they are to win audiences in the competitive and constantly changing market for online video. They have to be constant creators (rather than occasional campaigners) because the setting up of a YouTube channel creates the expectation that fresh video will be posted regularly. For many companies this challenges existing structures and practices, but it may be just the cultural change that a company needs.
The importance of a channel strategy
The sheer volume of video uploaded to YouTube makes it exciting, but also somewhat intimidating. The audience is huge, but how can a marketer find the audience that is relevant to his or her brand? In YouTube’s earlier days some had success with a ‘viral’ and got bags of free publicity. Typically, however, ‘virals’ only delivered a short-term hit and brands rarely found a way of retaining and developing the burst of interest they had created. Staking the success of your brand on ‘a great viral’ is a bit like planning for retirement by backing a horse at the races. You might win occasionally, but it is not a good solution for companies that need a reliable plan.
Brand owners now have to be more hard-headed. They must plan a channel strategy because setting up and maintaining a YouTube channel is a significant investment in time and money, and will require new ways of working every day. (Such are the challenges of becoming a publisher rather than an advertiser.)
First (and foremost), brands need to know why they wish to have a YouTube channel – and I have set out some answers to this above. It pays also to have a distinctive channel idea (examples of this, All Things Hair and VAT 19, are shown in the case history boxes). Brand channels need to marry what people are looking for online (i.e. the available audience) and the purpose of your brand or company (i.e. your brand’s expertise and areas of interest).
Once you are clear on the role of your channel, the key questions are how to a) be discovered, and b) revisited regularly by your audiences. To help, Google has developed a framework for planning and developing channel content. The aim here is to show how a channel builds both audience and ‘subscribers’. Persuading viewers to subscribe to your channel is all important for long term audience building as it means that they are prompted to view your videos whenever you post a new one.
Partnering with YouTubers to reach audiences
YouTube’s other great stroke of luck is that it spawned a new type of ‘celebrity’ – the YouTuber – and they represent potential partners for brands.
A word of explanation about the YouTuber phenomenon: For Millennials (and their younger siblings) YouTube is appealing as it promises money, recognition (fame for some) and the opportunity to set up your own business. It therefore attracts a stream of budding ‘media entrepreneurs’ – who, as members of the YouTube partner programme – stand to make money from the numbers of views from the pre-roll ads before their videos.
A few make a lot of money from both ad revenue and endorsements. For most, though, the revenues are modest.
For brands it means that new sources of trust have emerged. Some categories (beauty, gaming, new technologies of all types) have been transformed. In the UK beauty market two YouTubers Essie Button and Fleur DeForce have over one million subscribers each and another three have about 300,000 subscribers each. By contrast, key brands in this category – L’Oreal and Rimmel have respectively 27,310 and 10,000 thousand subscribers.
Any brand with news (an event or an innovation) may choose to engage YouTubers by giving them access to experiences and knowledge. YouTubers are ‘news hungry’ (provided it is relevant to their area of expertise) as they are constantly on the lookout for subject matter for new videos. Think of this as a new type of PR in which the YouTuber is a trusted independent voice rather than a paid for endorsement.
Brands often choose to feature YouTubers on their channels. Unilever does so all the time on its All Things Hair channel (see case history). For others who do not have a channel (and no wish to commit to setting one up) YouTubers are part of a PR strategy. Increasingly, YouTubers are professionally managed – Disney Owner Maker Studios is a good example – which makes it easier for brands to access and deal with a YouTuber or even a ‘stable’ of YouTubers.
YouTube’s new media culture
I started this piece by saying that YouTube has changed media culture. It has evolved its own stars, codes of communication and (to use an old fashioned word) its own etiquette. Companies that wish to be successful on YouTube should spend some time immersed in this new culture before starting to create content. That said, YouTube is a big democratic tent. Its heavy users may be young, but that is changing. I fully expect to see Boomer YouTubers soon. What I write here may not be true in a few years’ time, so brands should keep a weather eye on how the platform and its audiences are developing.
What next for brands on YouTube?
VAT 19 gives a glimpse of how things might develop. The brand came to market as a fully realised and fully integrated retail and publishing idea from the start, suggesting a model for new brand creation. But who will create and own these brands? Well, YouTubers became more professional and more commercially minded very quickly. Even Grumpy Cat has an agent and Simon’s Cat (an animation channel on YouTube) sells lots of merchandise from its dedicated e-commerce site. So my prediction is that we will see new intellectual property being created by groups of YouTubers managed by their agents, who understand the value of a strong entertainment-led brand.
Case History 1 All Things Hair (174,000 subscribers)
There are around one billion Google searches relating to hair care every month – a large information hungry audience that is difficult to ignore. So Unilever brought together all its hair care brands into one channel – All Things Hair – which, as the name suggests, offers advice and inspiration about all aspects of hair care and styling. Analysis of search terms inspires the creation of videos that answer the questions people have. Some of these questions are evergreen – like party hairstyles or hairstyle for weddings. Some reflect fashion and news – like the trend of messy buns or the new hairstyles of celebrities. At the time of writing the channel features one of the UK’s most successful Youtubers – Zoella – thus attracting subscribers to the channel.
Case History 2 Vat 19 (2.9 million subscribers)
VAT 19 is a new global online retail brand (based in the US) whose mission is to enable you to shop for ‘curiously awesome gifts’. From a search analysis perspective, this brand sits well at the intersection of a numbers of popular searches (such as ‘gift ideas’, ‘new tech’, ‘party ideas’, ‘world’s largest’, ‘bloopers’ and ‘DIY’) which fuels viewers to its YouTube channel. Its twice-monthly video newsletter is a well-pitched content hub for building subscription (nearly two million). Outtakes and bloopers appeal to those just browsing for entertainment. So VAT 19’s YouTube channel clearly understands the tricks of the trade when it comes to building and retaining audiences. It also provides a model for other brands planning a dedicated YouTube channel by clearly defining its YouTube channel idea and how this relates to and complements its brand idea, and how it taps the information and entertainment hunger of consumers online.
Julian Saunders is Managing Partner, The Joined Up Company. firstname.lastname@example.org