Advertisers' Branded YouTube Videos Are Losing Their Cool Factor

In the many annual fake-out April Fools videos produced by Google this year, one practical joke involved some humor that probably hit a little too close to home for many video content producers: the eight years of YouTube was all a ruse, merely a cover for the world’s largest and most exhaustive online video contest, and it would be shutting down for ten years to select a winner.
The video promoting this “contest” featured many of the biggest viral video stars that had launched their careers on the platform, everyone from iJustine to the kids in the “Charlie bit my finger” video. As with any great joke, though, it twisted a very real fear about YouTube’s (and thus, Google’s) rights over personal and/or branded content into the humorous package of a mock doomsday scenario.
What if YouTube really shuts down? What happens to all your content? What could you actually do about it? Where does YouTube’s ownership stop and yours begin?
When TIME magazine named “You”(Tube) Person of the Year in 2006, barely a year after the online video service had launched, it was clear that a real sea change had taken place. However, the medium was so fresh and so new – “Look, silly cat videos all in one place!” “Hey, that hilarious rap parody from Saturday Night Live!” – that no one really thought of it as a business or vehicle for brand promotion (though it should be noted that Saturday Night Live quickly had videos that violated its copyright taken down and moved most of its content to Hulu).
Producers of all stripes – whether they shot from mom’s basement or 30 Rockefeller Center – merely pointed, clicked, and uploaded, and viewers sat back and watched the magic happen. Those viral video stars were becoming as famous overnight as it once took years for the stars of the big screen or silver screen…and almost anyone could become a viral video star.
Now move that slider seven years into the future. Nearly every brand, whether video is their prime medium of communication or not, has a YouTube channel. Nearly infinite hours of video – certainly more than any one person could watch in their lifetime – are uploaded to YouTube’s cloud, and there are now even “viral video studios” that use it as their prime medium (e.g. Maker Studios).
However, as with a lot of technology, the “gee whiz” factor is eroding, and in all those hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute, people have to think twice about what they give away for free (or rather, what they let Google, YouTube and AdSense take).
While YouTube in aggregate might still make sense as a prime online video destination – certainly for the consumer – it might not be the best path for a video content creator whose name isn’t Psy (who still made relative chicken feed for billions of views) or Annoying Orange (where the creator is nearly indistinguishable from YouTube itself, developing years of branding and content around it, not to mention millions of views, with the ability to leverage that identity to sell merchandise through other platforms).
YouTube could integrate a pay solution like Vimeo’s paywall or Dailymotion’s “tip jar,” which it is actually planning to do with the channels of such companies like the aforementioned Maker Studios or Machinima, but that’s counter-intuitive to YouTube’s primary mission and identity as a warehouse of free, easy-to-discover, ad-supported video content. The fact is that while YouTube is a mostly open platform driven by high traffic and ad revenue, the average content producer is at the mercy of “free” views that translate to mere cents on the dollar.
When YouTube does try to reward creators that pull in ad eyeballs – as they have attempted to with the partner program – the results are usually mixed, with very few producers making any significant revenue, while the ones that are have very few insights into that revenue generation, given the general lack of transparency around metrics.
Of course, this is also about more than just money. What content producers are giving up when they use YouTube is something arguably even more important, especially to the brand-conscious or artistically inclined: control. You are not only at the mercy of YouTube’s slow upload times, but at the mercy of the advertising that is being shoehorned into your content as a pre-roll.
You are at the mercy of every obnoxious video that has in some way engulfed your SEO (do a search for “Domino’s Pizza” on YouTube if you don’t believe me). You’re at the mercy of YouTube’s wonky metrics, the same metrics that can be hijacked by fake views, or show the ubiquitous “301 views” on a video (as a preventive measure against those fake views) when 10 times that many people have commented. Most of all, you are at the mercy of someone else’s brand.
Look, if you’re an aspiring musician or comedian, or want to tell the world to leave a certain pop star alone, YouTube can still be a great way for you to deliver your message and get some attention. However, we live in a very different time than we did in 2005 and 2006, especially when it comes to “web video,” which now lives well beyond the desktop browser.
There is fragmentation not only in video platforms competitive with YouTube, but in the devices that stream this content. If you are an established brand creating video to engage your customers or acquire new ones, it pays to shop around. The ease with which brands can upload and publish content to YouTube (which, let’s face it, sometimes isn’t even that easy or convenient) could ultimately be offset by the headaches they will face in extracting value from that content, even if it’s compelling, and their audience, even if it’s significant. No fooling.

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