YouTube has been one of the biggest game-changers in the media world in the last decade, but who’s emerging as the victor? In the second of a series of three articles we analyse the arm wrestle taking place between individuals and the big corporations.
It’s hard to believe it’s just eight short years since YouTube was founded. In that time it has changed the viewing world, one X-Factor clip, beauty tutorial and cute animal video at a time. Today, six billion hours – that’s more than 680,000 years – of material is viewed on the website every month.
“YouTube reaches everyone,” says Claire Tavernier, Interim Managing Director at ChannelFlip, which specialises in pairing up brands with high-profile “vloggers” (video bloggers). “There’s so much different content, and so many different types of people watching. It’s not demographically dependent.”
Among the site’s wide demographic, though, is one audience that is both immensely attractive and hard to reach through traditional marketing: young people. Resistant to old-school ads, they are more responsive to peer recommendation. And that’s where the power of YouTube’s informal, “authentic” content comes in. Because when you watch TV, you are part of an audience – but when you watch a YouTube vlogger, you are part of a community of friends.
That means an endorsement from a popular YouTuber can be a powerful generator of sales for a product – ChannelFlip helped Panasonic create buzz round a new hairdryer with the help of young beauty bloggers, and can track a direct correlation between sales upticks (culminating in a product sell-out) and the gadget’s appearance on YouTube beauty videos.
It is striking that these product placements are very much an equal partnership, Tavernier explains. Far from being flattered or swayed by the corporate approach, the YouTube creative will consider carefully whether such engagement is in the long-term interests of their relationship with their viewers. “Because this sort of content is so self-expressive, so personal, these young creatives are very conscious of their responsibility to their audience,” she says. “They won’t engage with a brand if it feels fake.” Only when a relationship feels right to both parties can ChannelFlip “bring them together”.
TV channels look to YouTube stars in the hope of finding creative synergy, but the online videos are just the start of a journey, says David Lyle, Fox executive and CEO of the National Geographic Channel, who contributed to Cambridge Judge’s recent Entertainment Master Class. “You ask yourself, ‘What would that look like as a TV show?’ You don’t want to make a programme that’s a 30 or 60 minute YouTube clip.”
Of course when NatGeo’s development teams are scouting for new talent or programming inspiration, YouTube is one of the first places they go. “It’s like dating,” says Lyle. “You never forget the ones that get away.” Lyle, whose channel broadcasts into more than 85 million North American homes, has perhaps surprisingly been “knocked back” more than once by online stars. They prefer to keep broadcasting right where they are – on YouTube.
Lyle’s background is in unscripted content – he was formerly President of Fox Reality, and one of the team responsible for launching American Idol. It’s a pedigree that gives him insight into those who make the content that populates YouTube, which is often informal, spontaneous and unscripted.
YouTube is perfectly suited to the lone wolf, or ‘digital auteur’,” he says. “You can be the creator, the scriptwriter, the shooter, the editor. You can make a product that’s uniquely your own – and be the star.
And for some, that untrammelled autonomy will always trump what an established media operator can offer. Even adding a regular salary to the equation doesn’t always tip it in favour of the big corporation. For the creators of the most popular YouTube content, the income generated by advertising and merchandise spun off from their videos will significantly outweigh the fees they could command as a presenter of a one-off TV series – although Lyle believes that the exposure, potential for career longevity and superior production values offered by a terrestrial, cable or satellite channel make for the better long-term prospect.