7 years and $300 Million Dollars later, the majority of the YouTube Original Channels have closed their doors or found soft landings at bigger media companies. It is now abundantly clear that giving money to TV folks and celebrities was an unwise move. It doesn’t mean those people weren’t talented and creative it just means they weren’t a fit for YouTube. During this whole process the narrative, delivered annually by Robert Kyncl, swerved from guardrail to guardrail with an academic approach that seemed disconnected from what was happening on the ground. Unfortunately, similar tactics seem to continue today.
The basic theme from YouTube seems to violate the cardinal rule of YouTube which is you can’t make someone into something they’re not. Being authentic is at the core of being successful on YouTube and being YouTube is at the core of being successful on YouTube. Two current examples that violate this cardinal rule include YouTube RED and the folly of traditional publishers.
If it’s one thing we know it’s that, generally speaking, YouTubers are not actors. They are simply being themselves which is sometimes extremely interesting and worth millions of followers and views. Many have tried to put YouTubers in lead roles and most have failed. The rule of thumb in working with most YouTubers is, if you want the greatest chance of success, don’t ask them to do something they’ve never done before. In defense of YouTubers, that’s a pretty safe rule to follow in most things in life. Although I’ll take the check, paying me $100k to sing opera isn’t going to fill the seats even if I have a decent voice. So it begs the question, why would YouTube RED empower big YouTubers with tons of cash to make and star in scripted programming as their debut slate? The results have been less than stellar delivering what amounts to bad TV. The YouTuber just isn’t the same when he or she is not only asked to do something new but asked to do it outside of the meticulously crafted environment of their channel. This also underscores YouTube’s challenges of having so many different customers (brands, media companies, vloggers, viewers, musicians, etc.) and trying to be all things to all people. For YouTube RED, you have the divergent goals of the core RED team wanting conversion to paying customers and the Originals team wanting to compete with NETFLIX and HBO. I’m not sure a fan seeing their favorite YouTuber in a different and, many times, less favorable light is going to get them over the goal line to pay for the service. I have to believe the YouTuber’s channel is the better funnel for conversion than a standalone production; but, I digress.
The next example is the time spent on helping traditional online publishers stake their claim on YouTube. This is another classic case of asking someone to be something they’re not. The problem is, making good YouTube does not align with the content these publishers have made and continue to make for their website advertisers. Despite being web companies, most of them are very traditional publishers and, for no fault of their own, that’s the master they serve. They may be great companies but, making a video strategy work either on or off YouTube would require them to reinvent their approach to production. As we all know, no one watches recurring video series on websites; and, many websites end up in the vicious cycle of continuing to produce expensive content while having to cannibalize their valuable homepage inventory to prop up the views for sponsors. These are just smaller versions of the internal battle between the Yahoo! homepage and the video content buried on one of their many subdomains. Maybe it’s a loss leader and some of them can sell the properties to TV but, turning into a production company seems even more removed from their core businesses than creating a viable YouTube strategy. So, why does YouTube continue to engage these publishers in many of their flagship campaigns when they are as far from being YouTube-y as you can get?
The basic answer is that marquee names have always been sirens for YouTube. From musicians to actors to cool websites they have been swinging wildly in hopes of bringing what they consider legitimacy to a platform that is, arguably, already legit. They have propped up these players while at the same time claiming they’re non-interventionist and don’t pick winners.
I propose there is a virtuous balance between YouTube remaining algorithmically non-interventionist and becoming a curator of quality talent and catalyst for the development of a new wave of media companies like Ripple and SNARLED. I believe, if done correctly, this could achieve everything the Originals did not. Below I’ve listed some basic changes that could make a major difference and, potentially, create more value for the viewer, the advertiser and YouTube.
First, and most importantly, create a section of the site that is manually curated daily/weekly by qualified editors. They should choose from quality content creators including individuals, brands, media companies et al. They should be categorized by subscriber count capped at 750K and organized in three categories <250k, <500k, <750k. This (or a more well-thought out version of it) will be an amazing tool for viewers to discover new content and creators to reach a new audience.
Create qualitative measures that can qualify developing channels to receive a YouTube partner manager. Empower partner managers to select qualified channels they are passionate about and see if their advocation yields a higher chance of creator success.
Create a quantitative path for developing channels to achieve performance requirements that qualify them for high volume, site-wide promotion.
Create a more favorable collaboration workflow that has incentives for bigger channels to work with smaller channels
Allow viewers to subscribe to individual shows in addition to an entire to channel to reduce churn and allow creators to super-serve fans of specific shows.
All this being said, I still love YouTube and it remains the only game in town for people like me who want to launch recurring scripted and unscripted series. I also know there are millions of YouTube viewers who have yet to see SNARLED or HISSYFIT but would fall in love with them immediately if they did. If any of the features above where implemented viewers would realize they’re missing out on a whole world of quality programming they may, otherwise, never find.