Breaking Through To The YouTube Culture

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Brands are struggling to understand YouTube.

It’s a mystery to most brands why some videos work and other don’t. There are videos that breakthrough and achieve viral success (the kind of action that then gets picked up and amplified by traditional media) and then there’s everyone else. For the most part, brands participate in YouTube by creating pre-roll and post-roll ads (essentially TV commercials that are played before or after a YouTube video is viewed). The introduction of this ad format was met with mixed emotions by YouTube viewers. Since then, YouTube has introduced TrueView (that little button that enables viewers to skip an ad after five seconds). This works, because it gives the viewers control and – more importantly – it’s a signal back to advertisers that their message is either working… or not. The cumulative data that YouTube is gathering around TrueView will also enable them to teach advertisers how to create messages that YouTube viewers might actually care to watch. If done well (and, I’m betting that YouTube will do this exceedingly well), it could usher in a new era of commercials: one where the ads being created actually have the viewer in mind. Heaven forbid.

But, YouTube should mean much more to brands.

Have you seen the latest issue of Fast Company magazine? Bethany Mota is on the cover. I’ve been talking up Bethany Mota for a long while (more here: Is Bethany Mota The Future Of The NewFronts?). I was first introduced to her by my teenage niece, and it led me down a deep rabbit hole of YouTube viewing. It’s nothing new that YouTube is creating celebrities who have millions of subscribers on their own YouTube channels, but it’s becoming so big and important that if you want to know about how to connect with specific segments, you may be better off finding out who the YouTubers are, instead of splashing your spend at specialty TV channels. The pulse of YouTube beats in a very different way.

That very different way.

This is the true struggle with brands and YouTube today. Sadly, most brands are simply trying to sell their wares to people who are watching YouTube. The real opportunity (and the one that most brands aren’t focused nearly enough on) is trying to become a part of the YouTube culture. It’s a slight, but important, nuance. If you were looking at getting your brand more involved on YouTube, I would be asking this one, very important question: are we trying to sell to the people on YouTube, or are we trying to become a part of the YouTube culture?

How does a brand become a part of a culture?

This can be answered in two words: not easily. This is why the vast majority of brands give up the dream of creating content and opt into a buying media mindset. It’s almost easier to burn through the cash than to try and be relevant to an audience. Scary? Yes. True? Probably. Becoming a part of the culture is partnering into it. It means doing things that add value to the community – not to your bottom line. I wrote about this concept in my second business book, CTRL ALT Delete. All too often, brands focus on creating a message that shouts loudest, when they could have spent the same amount of time and effort doing something that the audience might actually like, care about, share with others and have a desire to connect back to. Brands shun this, because they feel like they are limiting the message to a much smaller audience (it is, after all, easier to just pay for as many eyeballs as possible). But, there’s a new nuance to this: YouTube has become so massive – and these YouTubers have built up such strong followings – that brands can now connect and add value to these niche audiences that still have a mass following.

Don’t believe me? 

Go and pull up the viewership on a TV show that you feel could reach your target audience. Now, go and look at how many subscribers Tyler Oakley has on his YouTube channel. It may not be the same kind of viewers, but the point is that his numbers (and there are many others like him) typically trump the kind of mass media numbers that traditional brands look at. And, that’s the point: it’s not just that YouTube has its own culture anymore (it kinda always did). It’s that now – right now – it has scale. Mass… mass scale and, sadly, most brands think that the best opportunity to capitalize on YouTube comes from posting a commercial and crossing their fingers that the viewers don’t simply skip it.

YouTube’s culture. It’s real. It’s growing. What’s your play?