Wednesday, May 21, 2014

YouTube: When the going gets weird…

Each day I aspire to have what I call a YouTube miracle. It’s my own kind of religious experience, when I’m able to find, quite unexpectedly, footage that I thought could not possibly exist, never existed, or was long lost to the ravages of time. Examples: in the past week I have been able to find Iggy Pop interviewing the mysterious man of the electric violin, the late Nash the Slash, on an unidentified cable access show from the early 1980s . And if that wasn’t enough I then happened upon a video that consisted of nothing more than a still image of council housing, located somewhere in London, accompanied by the sounds of a pirate radio station that once emanated from the area in the 1990s.

Such videos have maybe a few hundred or a few thousand views. There’s no business model, in the conventional sense of the term, in this stuff. Just the wonders of living in a world where somewhere, it seems, someone has everything you could ever imagine. On Betamax, VHS, cassette, reel to reel, or whatever format. And for no reason other than they can, people are digitizing and uploading these gems. With any luck they will be found one day, by a grateful searcher such as myself. Is YouTube overflowing with this kind of bizarre material, with limited appeal, of middling audio or video quality, and possibly without rights clearances? Indeed it is. And that’s the miracle of it all. That though it’s owned by Google, a company with more power and resources than some countries, YouTube is still able to accommodate these artifacts from the margins, when the company could easily initiate a policy that anything that nets less than, say, 1,000 views within a year of being posted gets pulled from the pipeline. The YouTube that hasn’t done this is the YouTube I love.

On the other hand there’s a YouTube that desperately needs to steal advertising dollars from the world of broadcast television. The other week I caught wind of news that YouTube is starting to promote some of its personalities via traditional media, such as television, magazines, billboards, and subway ads. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, nothing at all. Why not take some born on YouTube success stories, put some marketing dollars into them, and see if you can notch up the audience level from X to Y. Makes sense to me.

So, you may wonder, which YouTubers were chosen for this inaugural outside of YouTube marketing campaign? Did they choose the YouTubers with the most subscribers, or the most views? No, because that would be this guy, 24 year old Swede Felix Kjellberg, who goes by the moniker PewDiePie and does play by play of himself playing video games, puts the video up on YouTube and at present is averaging about 10 million views per day has 4.5 billion views in total, and is reported to be earning $4 million per year. Instead, they went further down to the view list, to people with a fraction of the views of PewDiePie, to a trio of young female YouTubers whose video landscapes cover food, fashion, hair, and makeup.

I speak of these people:

Beauty blogger Michelle Phan, who boasts 6.4 million subscribers, close to a billion views, and is also a spokesperson for L’Oreal and has her own line of makeup with them, called Em Cosmetics.

Food blogger Rosanna Pansino, with 2 million subscribers and over 300 million views for her videos that show you how to make things like Rubik Cube brownies and Captain America birthday cakes.

And the third YouTuber that's part of the current advertising-outside-of-YouTube campaign is self-described “fashion/beauty/fun” blogger Bethany Mota, with six million subscribers and about 500 million views. She's sort of a teenage/DIY version of Ladies Home Journal, with videos on topics like Easter food and fashion tips.

Outdoor ad for select YouTube channels 

According to this article, ads for these YouTube channels are appearing on television channels with strong youth audiences, such as the CW, and magazines that appeal to young women, such as Allure and Seventeen. Subway stations in NYC and Chicago are also carrying ads for these YouTube channels that skew heavily to a female youth demographic.

All of this got me thinking about how there is a huge chasm between the mainstream and the magical moments on YouTube. The former being videos on makeup, food, and decorating, which are really just five minute versions of the thirty minute TV shows we already know. The latter being things like the deep archival material that lives on the platform -- as referenced a few paragraphs ago -- and the bounty of fringe and outsider culture which for the first time has a chance to reach a global audience. Perhaps not a huge audience, in mainstream terms, but a worldwide one nonetheless.

I’ve been tracking some of this data on spreadsheets for a while now, so I see the prolific activity that is happening in strange and still largely unknown corners of YouTube. Material that has unmistakably found a consistent audience of, say, tens to hundreds of thousands views per day, maybe not millions per day, but not a trivial amount. With the right systems in place could these slim niches become fatter niches, or perhaps break out beyond the category of niche and into something more substantial, though still shy of blockbuster status? This is not a problem of the inherent appeal or quality of the content but, rather, a problem of matching the right content to the right people. There are undoubtedly people, who, if they knew YouTube channel X existed would be likely to enjoy what is has to offer. But at present there is no perfect system for bringing audiences and viewers together.

Broadcasting is an imperfect system, but a powerful one. What will YouTube’s television, magazine, and billboard promotion of already popular YouTubers tell us? Most likely that middle of the road content that is already popular at the level of a few billion aggregate views can become even more popular. From a business point of view this may well solve some of YouTube’s immediate concerns, such as the ability to charge television-like prices for its ads. But what a shame that YouTube didn’t extend (or hasn’t yet, to give them the benefit of the doubt) its current experiment to its cornucopia of less obvious, less mainstream material.

As Internet and legal scholar Tim Wu has put it, the titans of the Internet era, such as Amazon, Google, YouTube (owned by Google), and eBay are “big dogs with long tails”, meaning that their businesses are predicated on, and depend on, a proliferation of both the big markets at one end of the spectrum and the niche markets that are able to exist in these digital, small incremental cost, times. So, while YouTube’s current experiment, of promoting already popular, mainstream-appeal content creators is likely to make this form of popular culture even more popular the boat that’s being missed, I believe, is the creation of a system that brings more of the platform’s ‘unpopular culture’, for want of a better term, to the surface. This could, in turn, transform thousands and thousands of slim niches into thousands of thousands of mid-sized ones. And who knows, hidden in that haystack could be the next Vice, whose journey from the absolute margins of popular culture to billion dollar media empire is told in this earlier blog post. With fewer way stations than ever between audiences and creators the unlikely is now more likely to happen. The question now becomes, will the unlikely ever get the helping hand of marketing dollars, to bump it up from unpopular culture to somewhat popular culture? And how much does that matter? With small enough production budgets can big enough audiences be just that, big enough? And maybe, just maybe, this opportunity lies not within YouTube/Google but within the entrepreneurial community, who may see a future in thousands of small sparks, not just a few massive bonfires.

Bonus plug section: For those interested in learning more about YouTube's challenges in attracting TV dollars and big name brands I recently co-authored a business school case on the topic, which can be found here.

Related Posts: 
Beauty & the blog: or how a quirky girl is beating the brands at their own game
The Stars of YouTube: Buffer Festival 2014
YouTubers in 2015: The appeal of the Annoying Orange
Why PBS moved from 'owned & operated' media to YouTube
North America's first YouTube FanFest: Fans love YouTube & YouTube loves its fans
Platform Capitalism, or why your parents don't understand the Internet