According to one story, YouTube was born six years ago when early Paypal employees Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim needed a way to share video footage shot at a dinner party at Chen’s San Francisco apartment. But it isn’t true. Karim has denied that the site was born out of a meal at his friend’s place, and Hurley has said that the tale “was probably very strengthened by marketing ideas around creating a story that was very digestible.” In other words, even the origins of a site supposedly created to enable amateur video-sharing are now buried beneath a layer of professional marketing. It’s the kind of subtle professionalism that can be seen most clearly on the site itself where, despite the occasional popularity of finger-biting babies and toilet-trained cats, the most popular footage is produced and distributed not by enthusiasts but by professional content companies. YouTube’s first video might have been of Jawed Karim’s trip to the San Diego zoo, but its number one slots have now mostly been taken over by large media companies using the service to reach audiences directly.
Even many of the videos that appear to be amateur — and many of the clips that were uploaded by amateurs – have professionals behind them or rely on professionals for their popularity. Susan Boyle’s famous rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” for example, which has now picked up almost 70 million views, isn’t a clip of an amateur with a surprisingly good voice singing one of her own songs in the bathroom. It’s a cover from a top musical that appeared in a 2009 episode of Britain’s Got Talent, one of the UK’s most popular television shows. Nor was Gary Brolsma, the YouTube sensation who shot to fame with his lip sync of the Numa Numa song, uploading an original creation to the Web. In fact, by distributing a song he didn’t own, he was breaching copyright. (Not that the copyright owners would have had much reason to complain.) The site’s top performers at time of writing include Amy Winehouse’s flop in Belgrade, a Britney Spears video and an interview with an NBA player. There are precious few entirely amateur videos on the site’s Most Viewed list.
Ten Thousand Professional Partners
There are no reliable figures that compare the ratio of professional content on YouTube to amateur content but the site receives 35 hours of video every minute and says it has 7,000 hours of full-length movies and shows, most of which is presumably professional. The site’s 10,000 partners include Disney, Turner, Univision, Channel 4 and Channel 5. And the 94 percent of AdAge’s Top 100 advertisers who have run campaigns on YouTube aren’t uploading footage of their pets or their children. They’re offering ads and footage created with giant production budgets and often featuring well-known stars. The site’s ten-minute upload restriction (now increased to fifteen minutes) was introduced primarily to stop users from uploading entire shows that they didn’t own.
That doesn’t mean that most of the videos submitted to YouTube are sent in by content companies or published by amateurs ripping off content companies. But it should surprise no one that the bulk of the most successful clips on the site have professionals behind them.
In part, that’s because professional content is likely to be better. A large budget buys talent and equipment that produces content that people want to see. But the marketing matters too, another area in which professionals have an advantage. While anyone can create and upload a video to YouTube, that film has to be seen even as thousands of other clips are being put on the site at the same time.
The Marketing Needs Professionals Too
In a 2007 expose of how YouTube marketing really works, Dan Ackerman Greenberg told TechCrunch how he was hired by firms to promote their videos. His methods then included:
- Opening forum discussions, sometimes with multiple identities to create false conversations and attract attention.
- Sending the video link to opted-in email lists.
- Paying bloggers to embed the videos on their pages.
- And using word-of-mouth marketing to help spread awareness of the video.
Today, those methods would likely include social media as well. When Wieden + Kennedy created the Old Spice ads, the company’s promotion strategy included using Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and blogs. They even pushed it through hacking community 4chan.
It might seem then that YouTube has effectively become an open distribution channel for production studios and advertisers. Instead of going through cable and satellite companies to put their content on screens, they can now go directly to audiences by managing their own YouTube channels — and their efforts are overwhelming the submissions of well-meaning (and attention-seeking amateurs).
But the victory of the professionals on YouTube is neither complete nor necessarily a bad thing. Not only does it mean that viewers aren’t restricted to lolcats and teenage crooners but some YouTube contributors have been paying attention to the best videos on the site and raising their own game to compete. Make-up artist Michelle Phan’s 150 videos, for example, were all created using iMovie on a Macbook Pro. They’ve now been viewed more than 390 million times, winning her sponsorship from Lancôme for whom she is now a spokesperson and whose products now appear in her videos.
The influence flows the other way too. Roger Federer’s trick shot, in which he hits a bottle from the head of a stage hand during a shoot for Gillette, is clearly a piece of advertising created for the cosmetics company. But it’s shot to look like a piece of amateur footage, as though the idea had been spontaneous and captured by chance by another stage hand with a camera.
YouTube then has become an odd mixture of things. The site might have started with amateurs in mind but even as professionals have taken it over, some amateurs have managed to join them — and many professionals are trying to look like amateurs.