We’ve All Forgotten YouTube. Here’s Why It Deserves a Second Chance

As TikTok stakes its claim, YouTube is still poised to reach its brand-building potential

By Jason Mitchell, CEO, Movement Strategy

With TikTok taking hold of creators and brands, it’s important to remember how our shared obsession with this flavor of video content started – YouTube. It’s the platform that gave birth to modern influencers – those that curate and regularly release their video content with the goal of building their brands. It also helped give influencers such an absurdly large influence over Gen Z, making them more likely to know, follow and be influenced by YouTubers like Emma Chamberlain than a traditional celebrity. For a long time, not only was YouTube considered cool, it set the tone of what the wider culture deemed cool, how brands approached marketing, how content should be formatted and more.

YouTube was both the place to build brands online and to see exciting, original content. But somehow, along the way, that’s been forgotten.

These days, brands tend to treat it as an archive for old TV spots. Influencers tend to think of YouTube as a proving ground – a place where people start their career before moving to TV. Yet, so many times we’ve seen YouTubers try to make the leap to TV, find smaller audiences than they had on their own channels, and move back. Doesn’t this suggest that YouTube should be seen as a destination, not a stepping stone or afterthought? This was always its intent as a platform, to be a home for creators and businesses to grow. It has tremendous brand-building potential. Just look at Mr. Beast, an influencer who turned down a billion dollar offer for his YouTube business.

This is especially true when compared to traditional marketing channels. Our experiences have shown that when a brand or influencer produces content that is highly engaging, the cost of attention on YouTube is much less expensive than it is on other video platforms like TV. Not to mention that on YouTube, people are opting in to brand content as compared to TV where it is just disrupting programming the viewer actually wants to watch.

YouTube deserves a second chance to become more central to how we create content and build brands. But getting there will mean rethinking how businesses and marketers use and prioritize the platform.

Getting a second wind

YouTube certainly has work to do to earn back attention from marketeers. Spending has always favored traditional channels like TV – a bigger business with deep roots in advertising. The difference in scale between advertising operations on TV and YouTube isn’t even close. Also there’s a bigger industry comfort level with TV. It’s the world most marketers grew up in and it’s seemingly easier to create content and buy media in that space.

But there’s a shift coming. As younger millennials and Gen Z take over high level marketing roles, dollars will drift away from TV and other more traditional channels to digital channels – YouTube being one of the largest of these. Also, studies show that more people between the ages of 18-49 watch YouTube videos than watch linear TV. This presents a huge opportunity for brands.

For its part, YouTube is already taking steps to accelerate this shift. The introduction of YouTube Shorts is a direct response to the success of short form video content on TikTok, an addition which has become an incredibly fast growing part of the platform. But they could be much more aggressive in courting brands and creators.

Take past efforts like YouTube Spaces. A decade ago, YouTube continually invited brands to their physical content creator studios around the world, hosting events, engaging with agencies, and giving creatives the tools and resources they needed to put out better content. And while the pandemic seemed to put a final end to that, it’s a blueprint that TikTok has copied with great success as well as building out robust brand services that eclipse similar offerings from Meta, YouTube and others. It’s an approach YouTube should consider revisiting.

The other hurdle? Brands tend to measure everything on a “cost-per-click” or “return on ad spend” basis and YouTube simply doesn’t drive as much traffic as other platforms. For instance, from a paid media perspective, Meta drives a lot more qualified traffic. That said, plenty of influencers have done an amazing job of leveraging their YouTube awareness to launch product lines with e-commerce shops. So, the question is not whether better ROI is possible but how to build stronger brands on YouTube to deliver the intended impact.

Reaching its potential

In many ways, the process of building brands on YouTube should be similar to other platforms.  Brands should start by being a fan and consumer first, then allow that familiarity with the culture and community to guide an approach to creating original content. But after that, what’s needed is a willingness to experiment and break persistent marketing habits by following some basic guidelines:

  • Format editorially – Because of their editorial mindset, many publications do a great job of building their brands on YouTube with content that also helps make the platform a stronger marketing tool and a better place to visit. Brands can learn a lot about constructing verticals and developing editorial formats from these YouTube experts. For example, our work with Netflix helped them turn their YouTube channel from a place where they could host trailers and other promotional material to a real content destination. Spotlighting the series characters and working with show talent resulted in videos that tapped into YouTube themes and behaviors, creating strong repeatable formats that helped Netflix gain views and grow subscribers.
  • Take your time – Building a brand on YouTube takes a level of consistency, which means committing for the long haul. Too many times brands “try” YouTube for a short amount of time and quickly move on if they don’t see immediate results. Instead, brands need to operate like LEGO, who has been focused on their channel for years and it shows. They have figured out how to create weekly videos specifically for YouTube, featuring their product in scenarios that kids love. They also commit time and resources to thinking about format, how to get it served up within the YouTube kids app, how to design thumbnails and more.
  • Ask the right questions – The common mistake that so many brands still make on YouTube is that they start by thinking about the message they want to put out. They ask: “How can we showcase our product?” or “How can we take our TV ads and repurpose them for YouTube?” Instead, they should take a lesson from Under Armour Basketball. They asked “ What would Under Armour Basketball’s version of the hot sauce-fueled celebrity interview series ‘Hot Ones’ look like?” From there, they created a YouTube show where the talent wears the most recent Under Armour products, but the audience tunes in because of the premise and the interviews. When comparing the cost of getting people to watch a minute of those YouTube videos to a minute of TV, Under Armour’s effort was drastically less expensive because when people tuned in, they were watching for 5 minutes instead of 30 seconds.

With the right outlook, YouTube can be a better and effective platform for brands. So before marketers commit their time and attention to the same traditional advertising channels, they should rediscover what made YouTube such a powerful cultural driver and help it re-establish its brand-building potential.

About the Author

Jason Mitchell is the co-founder and CEO of social media agency Movement Strategy