YouTube at Large(r)


During the MTV Movie Awards, YouTube launched a new initiative aimed to change the way YouTube creators are seen by their communities and by the world at large. I’m not saying that this is a bad strategy or even a bad thing for YouTube, but I think it is worth discussing because it will change YouTube.

Several advertisments were run featuring YouTube creators Rosanna Pansino, Bethany Mota, and Michelle Phan. These weren’t endorsements for products, they were advertisements for their YouTube channels.

Now, this might seem a little puzzling. All of those channels are growing extremely quickly…they don’t really need the help. Plus, YouTube doesn’t even own them…so why invest a bunch of money in their promotion. Any one of those creators could leave YouTube for a show on TV tomorrow and say “Hey, thanks for the free promotion YouTube! Now I have a real show!”

So why are they doing this?

  1. Those creators (and other creators) are now actually less likely to leave YouTube because they see that YouTube is investing in them much the way a traditional cable network would.
  2. YouTube wants to build the idea that a YouTube channel IS a “real show.”
  3. YouTube is a big deal, but not to the “right” people. 

Who are the right people? Advertisers…people who buy advertising. They’re advertising to advertisers. 

OK…YouTube is a BIG FREAKING DEAL. Like, I am not a top 100 YouTube creator and yet I can’t go to the grocery store without snapping a selfie with a couple people. (This is totally cool, btw, as long as I am not currently eating or in the bathroom.) Young people are watching more YouTube than TV (no wonder Disney bought in).

But advertisers are not young people, and they’re looking at YouTube like it’s a soup made of 2,000,000 ingredients, most of which they don’t recognize and none of which go together. It terrifies them that they have to deal with this disgusting mess in order to reach young people.

So YouTube’s strategy is to make YouTube stars “actual stars”. The difference between those two things has nothing to do with engagement or viewership, it has to do with cultural perception. That’s what YouTube is aiming to change. Instead of having a dedicated loyal community, YouTube wants it’s stars to have a dedicated, loyal community AND broad cultural recognition. The way that Stephen Colbert has his slavering superfans, AND his name is known by everyone. 

This mass cultural recognition will bring in more ad money (especially to the top 5% of YouTube, which YouTube will now be selling as a premium package.) And that’s great. As a YouTube creator, if I have more money, that means I can make more cool stuff, grow my company, employ more people, etc.

But there are broader, less exciting implications for us to be ready for as well:

  1. More ad money means more competition from more institutionalized companies. Companies that operate efficiently and do market research and clever accounting and have VPs of business development and lawyers and other things that I find intensely tedious.
  2. The barriers to entry on YouTube get higher…the gatekeepers re-take their posts. If YouTube stardom is “legit” stardom, the competition will increase. The people (or algorithms) who decide what content is getting featured, shared, and turned into TV ads will be the new gate keepers.
  3. YouTube will be less cool. Not all of it, mind you, there will still be pockets of exciting, interesting, revolutionary weirdness, but YouTube’s broader culture will be more bland every year in order to appeal to broader audiences and advertising execs.

None of this is shocking to me. It was always going to be the path that YouTube headed down (if it didn’t implode.) I guess I just thought it wouldn’t happen so fast. 

My personal view is that YouTube’s strategy should be to foster great content, not cater to advertising executives. But I recognize that this strategy accomplishes both goals at once, so it’s not like I think it’s a bad strategy. I think YouTube could spend a little more time being cool before very intentionally and publicly going mainstream…but I’m a YouTube Hipster…what can I say.

If I’m angry about anything, it’s how shortsighted the advertising industry has been…making YouTube jump through a thousand hoops in order to get them to buy cheap ads when, really, YouTube has all the power. If ad agencies would like to stop reaching anyone under the age of 30…they’re welcome to keep marginalizing the most culturally important medium of the 21st century. Eventually they’d get fired and the problem would solve itself. 

Congrats to Bethany, Michelle, and Rosanna…I can’t wait to see who’s next.