Earlier this month YouTube released the newest edition of its creator playbook for brands, the document which YouTube regularly releases to help inform creators about the best practices for how to be effective. Notably, this new version reflects YouTube’s evolving understanding of itself as a social network, heavily emphasizing the role of subscribers and community-building.
The problem is, most brands and digital marketers still don’t understand that YouTube is a social network, and thus fail to fully engage their audiences.
So why does this blindspot exist? Older demographics (i.e., those most likely to be marketers) tend to use Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, while younger users are preferring to use YouTube. As a result the voice in any boardroom is unlikely to truly be aligned with, or understand the nuances of user behaviors. Furthermore, for years the platform has been perceived through the lens of its role as serving viral content, and this narrative has dominated the industry.
Many brands wrongly focus on creating blockbuster viral hits instead of applying the same incremental, engagement strategy that they use Facebook and Twitter. This intersection of lack of use and perceived role of the platform has left marketers lagging behind independent content creators.
As I’ve outlined in the past, YouTube has a number of social media features, just like Twitter or Facebook. More importantly, the nature of the interaction between creators and subscribers on YouTube can lead to far deeper engagement than between “followers” and the followed.
A great example of this is the missed opportunities to engage the YouTube audience is Dove. It’s clear when looking at their Facebook or Twitter that responding and interacting with their community is a priority for the brand. They take the time to interact with thousands of comments and questions from customers. But on YouTube, with the launch of their Dove Real Beauty Sketches, the brand landed a themselves a viral hit, generating tens of millions of views, tons of press and blog pick ups and thousands of comments.
If Dove values interaction with its community, as reflected by its investment to do so on Facebook and Twitter, why not on YouTube as well where they received over 17,000 comments, many of which were incredibly thoughtful and articulate. But given current priorities, these are ignored.
Commenting, a staple within any social network, has become a huge priority for the YouTube platform. Taking a page from Facebook’s policy, YouTube has pushed its users to shed their anonymity and use real names. The site has also rolled out a feature called Top Fans, “a set of tools to help YouTube creators identify, understand, and interact with their most engaged and influential viewers”—essentially, acting as a hub for influencer identification. In the latest YouTube Brand playbook, YouTube emphasizes how important interacting with these commenters are, noting that “part of what makes YouTube remarkable is that you can converse with your fans in real time.” Also, YouTube has aggregated and centralized comments for turnkey management.
Dove also missed an opportunity, by not incorporating any calls to action to subscribe or in video programming, to leverage the 60 million views it generated to convert viewers to subscribers, which would provide an evergreen distribution platform for all their video content to follow. The subscribe button serves the same purpose as a like or follow, with the homepage feed highlighting the latest subscriber actions such as uploads, updated playlists, comments, likes, etc. According to the YouTube Brand Playbook, subscribers also spend twice as much time watching a brand’s content than non-subscribers.
So who is doing YouTube right? Unlike most brands, which mistakenly perceive YouTube as a passive TV-style viewing experience and/or a place strictly for ‘viral’ videos. GoPro has been one of the few brands to take advantage of the social media features that YouTube provides, and they’ve reaped the benefit. Where Dove generated just over 7,000 subscriptions on their 60 million viewers, GoPro generated 15,000 off its 10 million viewers of the viral hit, Lions – The New Endangered Species.
With over 1.7mm+ subscribers on their main channel, GoPro has developed a built-in community it can engage with and distribute content to. Furthermore, they’ve swelled to the #4 most subscribed brand channel on YouTube, generating nearly half a billion views to date.
While GoPro has hours and hours of entertaining content on their channel, it’s clear that they’re embracing their community and interacting with them in near real time much in the same way most other brands would leverage Facebook or Twitter to respond to consumers evangelizing their brand. A cursory look at their activity feed shows a series of likes and comments across dozens of channels beyond their own.
GoPro has a kind of home court advantage thanks to the fact that the brand is creating a product that consumers are using to create their own YouTube videos—but any brand can take a page out of their playbook for engaging customers on the platform. Inviting community participation is something that I regularly recommend for my own clients. It’s simple enough to apply the same principles and practices of community management on Facebook and Twitter and carry them over to YouTube.
While many marketers and digital thought-leaders should be praised for their innovations in digital—playing an instrumental role in taking brands into the social media space—they’re now faced with the classic innovator’s dilemma (whether they know it or not).
It will be interesting to see how brands and social media agencies adapt to these changing platforms—both YouTube and beyond. As The Innovator’s Dilemma author Clayton Christensen noted, “Disruptive technologies typically enable new markets to emerge.” Will the marketers of today known for their digital innovation adapt or, will a new generation of marketers (myself included) step in to fill the gap?
Brendan Gahan (@brendangahan) is a YouTube expert helping Fortune 500 brands with their YouTube influencer and community building campaigns. He was named Forbes 30 Under 30 in Marketing & Advertising and one of the 25 Top YouTube Business Power Players for 2013.