The question of whether YouTube can appeal to brands was answered a long time ago. It has already proved that it can and it does. The billboard ad unit on the homepage, for instance, is easily one of the best pieces of advertising real estate on the web. And even putting display and rich media aside, the world’s leading video platform manages to successfully sell bucketloads of its pre and mid-roll inventory to top tier brands.
That said, YouTube is still regarded by many as the home of cat videos, squirrels on skateboards and feral teenage commentators. And while YouTube has in many respects grown up and taken action to shake that image, there’s still a lot more that could be done to get more brands on board. Here are five relatively easy things we think YouTube could do:
1. Make a Clearer Distinction Between Premium and User-Generated Content
YouTube users should have some sense that there are two YouTubes within the same site. One YouTube should feel glossy and more akin to a broadcast-style environment, where comments are turned off, the quality is consistently high, and the only advertisers in sight are premium brands.
The other YouTube should be the short-form, UGC oriented YouTube that dominates today. This side of the tracks should be aimed more at the SME video advertisers that Google is currently trying to get on board via Adwords. You wouldn’t have to create a new YouTube brand to achieve this. All you’d have to do is design the premium sections a little differently so the user immediately knows what to expect.
2. Make a Decision on Ad-Skipping
So when you encounter an ad that can’t be skipped, it suddenly feels like you’re being ‘forced’ to endure a 30 second spot. If that was my brand’s ad, the last person I would want it shown to is someone who feels my brand got between them and their content by ramming an unwanted ad down their throat. YouTube needs to commit one way or the other, or at least make it a little more clear why some ads are skippable and others aren’t (a more obvious separation of premium content and UGC, as outlined above, would be one possible solution).
3. Rein in the Trolls
YouTube has had a problem with abusive comments for years now and thus far the company hasn’t taken the issue seriously enough. The average YouTube comments section feels like some sort of Hobbesian dystopia where society has completely broken down and it’s every man for himself.
While there’s undoubtedly a policy page somewhere on the YouTube website saying abuse and racism are unacceptable, it appears that for the most part the offenders are tolerated and often go unpunished. YouTube always say they’re working on a fix, but nothing ever seems to work, and the hatred/racism/homophobia/sexism/bullying continues.
But even if YouTube does manage to finally tackle the problem of abusive comments, there are also perfectly well-intentioned comments that could damage the environment from a brand advertiser’s perspective. For example, if ‘looooooooooooool – dats sooooo lame’ is top comment, upvoted by 99 other YouTubers, can you still regard that page as a premium environment for a brand? Perhaps you can and only the video content matters, but it seems likely some of the more risk-averse brands would have concerns.
However, in tackling the problem, YouTube also has to balance the needs of the nicer, more civilized members of the YouTube community, of which there are actually plenty. Any move to punish negative comments needs to be balanced with freedom of speech considerations, which is no easy task, particularly when your site is used by people from all backgrounds, cultures and religions. What is acceptable banter in one culture could be offensive abuse in another.
It’s also important to remember that YouTube users are even more valuable to Google following the underwhelming response to Google. YouTube remains the closest thing Google has to a social network, even if it is something of an antisocial network at this point in time.
Here’s Adam Buxton discussing YouTube comments — well worth a watch:
4. Improve the Connected TV Offering
YouTube’s connected TV app is poor, at least on Samsung TVs, which are the most commonly-owned devices. The app feels like a half-hearted effort both in terms of design and content. Now, you could make excuses. You say it’s still early days, that the audiences aren’t really there yet and that the industry could still go in a variety of directions. But getting early adopters on board is always important with new platforms, and anyone who has used the YouTube up until now will in all likelihood have to be actively persuaded to return.
You really don’t get the sense that this is the moment YouTube has been waiting for, yet you should. After all these years, YouTube now has access to the larger living room screen, so beloved by brand advertisers, and all it comes up with is an app that looks like a half-finished first draft. You could blame the limitations of the connected TV platforms, but in the UK alone both the BBC and ITV have managed to create far superior apps with less resources at their disposal (less resources on a company level, that is.
5. Make a Stronger Commitment to Quality Content
Looking in from the outside, YouTube’s content strategy appears to have evolved largely through a process of trial and error, which indeed it probably has. And when YouTube has been responsible for so many ‘firsts’ online, it’s only fair that we should be a little forgiving and allow room for mistakes and experimentation.
But the strategy isn’t beyond criticism either, because the focus at YouTube seems to have been less on how to create great brand-friendly content, and more on working out what’s the cheapest possible content that YouTube can persuade brands to buy in to. So Google has essentially dropped its bait to the bottom of the ocean and then raised it slowly to find the point at which brand advertisers start to bite.
Now, let’s not be naive here. Google’s a business, not a public service broadcaster with a duty to anyone other than their shareholders, so they’re perfectly entitled to operate whatever business model they please. But you do get the sense that YouTube is still a little too late to the party when it comes to quality content. The consumer transition to connected TV and OTT is kicking off now, and Google’s content strategy feels like it’s lagging a few years behind.
YouTube is still far too dependent on low quality short-form content which doesn’t work on connected TV. Part of the problem with short-form content on connected TV is related to the problems with navigation on most devices. Having to use your remote control to go down down down – right right right right right- oops, back again, – up up right – left left left – f**king hell, finally, select – is too much hassle for the reward of a poorly-produced three minute video.
So could YouTube’s short-form content shine on connected TV once the discovery and navigation problems are solved? Probably not. The problem runs deeper than that. Consuming video content on a TV is a very different experience to the web. For a start, your expectations rise immediately. You’re also usually in a very different frame of mind and want to sit back and relax. This isn’t a quick video you’re snacking on when you’re actually supposed to be getting some work done, or when you have a social network open in another tab. You’re expecting the content to be, erm, TV quality. And very, very little of YouTube’s content – other than what has been provided by broadcasters – is anything close.
Perhaps the $300 million Google has invested in content will start to deliver, but again you have to wonder if it’s going to be too little, too late. $300 million might sound like a lot of money, but when you think of that content being spread thinly across the many markets Google operates in, all of a sudden it seems like the mainstream broadcasters don’t have too much to worry about, for now at least.
To put that $300 million into context, remember that BSkyB recently spent £3 billion for the rights to broadcast Premiership football from 2013-14 to 2015-16, and that’s before a single game has been broadcast. Still, it’s going to be interesting to see what YouTube’s budding filmmakers can do with the new-found funding and whether the content is comparable to TV.