Why Does YouTube Beat Facebook in Fan Engagement? It’s the Psychology

(Screengrab via YouTube)

(Screengrab via YouTube)

Recently I wrote about engagement rates in brand communities on YouTube versus Facebook; the data I gathered suggests that Facebook communities may be larger, but YouTube engagement runs far deeper. The question is why? I think the answer lies in some of the fundamental principles of behavioral psychology.

The top performing YouTube creators are masters of building communities—and have spent the last few years building them from the ground up. And whether they’re consciously aware of it or not, the creators with the largest followings leverage one of the fundamental concepts in behavioral psychology: operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning, a concept from behavioral psychology, is the idea that you can modify an individual’s behavior with rewards and/or punishments. Psychologists and trainers call these “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement.”

The ways successful YouTube creators interact with their audience “trains” them to become a community.Likewise, when brands fail to engage on the platform, it’s often because they’ve failed to take this basic psychology into account.

And although they don’t use the term, YouTube is doing their best to encourage creators and brands to use operant conditioning on their audiences as part of the community-building process.

The YouTube brand playbook, for example, emphasizes this kind of “positive reinforcement” that will keep an audience coming back. YouTube hits the nail on the head when they state that, “Your fans want to feel as though they’re helping shape your brand. Give them that rare chance to connect with your brand by providing opportunities for feedback or, better yet, involve them in your content.”

Successful creators on the platform seamlessly blend content and community. They understand that the two are one in the same, and they iterate their content based on how their community responds.

Look at hugely popular YouTuber Phil DeFranco: he asks his audience questions at the end of his segments to provoke engagement. Not just any questions, either; DeFranco is a master at provoking thoughtful, interesting, or funny discussion. He then joins in the conversation in the comments section and on Twitter, and even features comments in his videos.


Annotations of invitations to subscribe, watch the next video, like, favorite, and share populate most every video – but they work. They work not because of the technology, but because the personalities behind them understand what make their fans tick.

For positive reinforcement to be effective, it needs to be the right kind of reinforcement—businesses encourage sales by offering bonuses, and parents incentivize potty-training with stickers.

Successful YouTubers incorporate the community into the content, because they understand that recognition is a way to incentivize participation, sharing, viewership and a sense of community – and those are the foundations on which a successful YouTube community is built.


When fans share, comment, create, and respond they’re rewarded with something they actually care about – recognition from someone they admire and a digital stage.

DeFranco is hardly alone in this positive reinforcement strategy, and a cursory glance at any of the top YouTube personalities will review some version of this.

Epic Rap Battles of History, which has nearly 10 million subscribers, sources content topics from users and features the names of those that submit the selected topics. Ray William Johnson, the 20th most subscribed channel with nearly 11 million subscribers, has a running feed across the bottom of his videos highlighting comments from viewers. The list goes on.

It’s been shown that the effects of positive reinforcement become stronger the closer the reinforcement comes to the desired behavior. Essentially, the faster one can reward a behavior the better, giving those that move quickly an overwhelming advantage.

Brands often fail at this kind of conditioning.

For one, most brands are detached from the feedback cycle. Their process is slow: they hear agency pitches or develop creative ideas in-house, make a decision two months later, maybe take another month to hire a production company, take another month to actually shoot, yet another to edit…and then, finally, it goes live.

In contrast, channels like SourceFed serve up multiple videos each day. The speed and volume at which successful creators work allows them to incorporate feedback, test, and learn what works, and optimize towards their goal.

Brands miss out on the opportunities to build on their ideas, instead focusing on a mishmash of content around a variety of topics and campaigns. Consumers don’t think in terms of campaigns; when brands suddenly switch up their advertising, they may miss out on building opportunities to condition consumers into becoming community members.

A great example of this kind of failure is McDonald’s.They’ve failed to implement the most basic best practices, which I recommend to my own clients—there are no end cards, and titles and tags are inconsistent—and there is little to no self-awareness of the few people who are interacting with their content.

All content is meant for distribution, with no opportunity or invitation for engagement, nor is there any acknowledgement on behalf of the brand to communicate with the few subscribers that are commenting and/or engaging with the content.

McDonald’s and brands like them are conditioning people not to come back, not to interact, and not to bother.

To be clear, I’m not making the argument that audience participation in the creative process makes for better art. Writers, directors, and artists who listen to their fans (or their critics) too much can lose the sense of vision that made them special in the first place. The argument I’m making is that on YouTube, community is king. Thriving channels are thriving communities.

In the nine years since YouTube’s arrival on the media scene, only a few brands have really figured out how to use the platform effectively. But figuring this stuff out isn’t rocket science—just basic psychology.
Brendan Gahan (@brendangahan) is a YouTube expert helping Fortune 500 brands with their YouTube influencer and community building campaigns. He was named Forbes 30 Under 30 in Marketing & Advertising and one of the 25 Top YouTube Business Power Players for 2013.

Why Does YouTube Beat Facebook in Fan Engagement? It’s the Psychology