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The evolution of YouTube and what it can teach us about digital marketing & brand management

From humble beginnings in 2005, YouTube has emerged as the most ubiquitous video content sharing platform on the internet. Since then, it has undergone a number of iterations which took it from a small community with a seriously DIY aesthetic to the pioneering corporate juggernaut it is today.

There are three stand-out developments in YouTube’s history which ensured the site’s continued viability. The ongoing struggle for the platform is reconciling the needs of its home-grown content creators on the one hand, and those of the marketing industry on the other. The result has been the birth of a mutually dependent relationship between these two oft-opposed interest groups.

The foundation of YouTube’s current ecosystem was laid in 2007, with the launching of the ‘partner system’; the first of what is now an established way of nurturing a self-sustaining content-creating community.  This allowed creators to monetise their videos by having more control over ad content, splitting revenues fifty-five to forty-five in favour of the creator. This was then enhanced by the introduction of pre-roll ads in 2009, which in turn would peak corporate interests; although their engagement with the platform would come with some conditions, as will be seen later…

By 2010 YouTube had more monetised views than any of its competitors had views in total. The same year saw the implementation of ‘Multi-Channel Networks’ (MCN); large corporate bodies which employed dedicated staff to grow huge followings by cherry-picking small channels to add to the network’s roster. MCNs operated by giving channels partner status in exchange for a cut of their ad revenue. Whilst not immediately apparent at the time, this was a hugely significant step towards YouTube seeking to operate more along the lines of traditional media, as MCN’s pushed the site towards adopting more ad-friendly policies. They were in many ways a proof of concept, that concept being the latent revenue-and-follower potential available on a platform like YouTube.

Last year, YouTube’s long-term strategy became clearer. ‘Demonetisation’, a system which had been in place since 2012, is an algorithm which flagged videos deemed to be potentially inappropriate for the advertisers it hosted. Then in 2016, the system was built upon to allow content creators to see which of their videos had had their ads withdrawn; this was news to some, who were unaware that some of their content had been demonetised for years. The vague guidelines issued by YouTube said that the demonetisation program targeted videos which contained, for example, ‘sexual content’, ‘violence, including display of serious injury’, ‘inappropriate language’ and so on. Whilst the Demonetisation program had been running for a long time, the update was prompted by advertiser’s overriding fear that they might run against terrorism-related uploads. Here we see the video hosting giant take steps to make their platform ‘safer’ for advertisers who shudder at the thought of their logo appearing alongside the more putrid content which occasionally makes headlines.

As it stands, the YouTube community – known for its alarmist tendencies – can be relied upon to show outrage at any rapprochement between their platform and corporate interests. Often quick to demonise the higher-ups for neglecting their user base in favour of pandering to advertisers, the finer points of YouTube’s long-term strategy are often left by the wayside. In a time where social media and content sharing platforms are a dime a dozen, YouTube knows that it must adapt in order to stay relevant. As the likes of Netflix expand the potential for streamed video content, YouTube understands that it is worthless as a platform if its user ecosystem drops out.

 

Over the past year, TV has slowly but surely infiltrated the YouTube space. Channels like Comedy Central led the way; tired of having copyright-infringing clips continually uploaded, they went straight to the source, posting five-to-ten-minute highlight reels of their best-performing shows. They were quickly joined by a slew of US chat shows, including Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Late Show, Conan and Late Night with Seth Meyers all joining the fray. In response to this, YouTube shifted the focus of its SEO. Such changes are not made lightly, as YouTube’s subscription system is the primary way in which content creators ensure viewer retention. Yet with big TV showing an increasing interest – along with the potential for a greater share of marketing budgets – YouTube amended its algorithms to favour channels which upload frequent, shorter videos on a near-daily basis. In other words, in order to be featured on the homepage and stay on subscription feeds, channels must produce a steady stream of content which is generally beyond the capacity of the bedroom webcammer.

As with most changes passed down the YouTube food chain, it was met with outrage as a slew of videos from prominent personalities on the platform blared ‘YouTube is dead’ on their thumbnails. Whilst hyperbolic, there is a legitimate worry to be had if you are a small DIY channel – the kind of people on who’s backs YouTube was built – now having to compete with whole teams working for major TV production studios for whom producing up to five clips of last night’s late night TV is more than manageable.

YouTube is therefore caught in a trap between its founding identity as the home of DIY video content, and its business identity as an advertising-based revenue stream. At this stage, it can ill-afford to sacrifice either interest group to appease the other; yet this dilemma is ultimately what makes it such an exciting platform to host a new relationship between content and advertiser which is distinct enough from TV to warrant new creative processes. 

 

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