Brands on YouTube: The Keys to Success in 2015

Ignore the view counter, for one


By this time in 2015 most brands will look back, and, after having spent millions of dollars on advertising and production, will have little to show for their efforts.

YouTube is the ultimate litmus test for brands.

You can’t buy your way to success on YouTube the same way you can buy a community of “likes’” or “followers” on other social networks. You can’t buy engagement through promoted posts (and even when you pay for views, its obvious when the content is terrible—millions of views and only a dozen or so comments). Only a few brands (Nike, Red Bull, GoPro and a handful of others) and the native YouTube celebrities themselves have been successful on the platform.

So here’s what you need to be aware of for 2015 so you don’t waste millions:

Re-Think Your Budget Allocation

One old habit brands need to get rid of is their rigid allocation of ad dollars. The pre-digital approach of designating budgets as “working” (i.e. paid media) or ‘non-working’ (i.e. creative and production) dollars is no longer relevant and applied today results in wasteful spending and diminished returns. During the Mad Men era this approach made sense, and according to Adage:

For decades the conventional wisdom was to limit the nonworking spend on creative, research, strategy and production in order to devote as much as possible to “working media.” The lower the nonworking to working ratio the better, by this logic. Acceptable levels fell in the 10 percent to 20 percent range. That in turn helped institutionalize the old compensation formula where agencies got paid a 15 percent commission on an account’s media spending.

Today, with the ability to generate earned media, and the role of content being the biggest variable in how much earned media is generated, its important that brands focus on where they’re getting the most results and allocate accordingly. This is what new companies which are effective in this space are doing well. I’m sure that no one at Red Bull or GoPro (two brands put on a pedestal within the industry) is thinking about 80 percent of budget having to go against working dollars vs. 20 percent non-working regardless of what is driving value. Their sole focus is on what’s going to get the results they want – whether it’s engagement, brand awareness or something else—and if this means reversing that allocation they’ll do it without hesitation.

In essence, this means adopting a “growth hacker” startup mentality focused on results vs. process.

TV is as different from YouTube as Radio is from TV

Most anyone under the age of 25 or 30 sees digital video as an entirely different medium than that of previous generations.

Red Bull's Scheckler Sessions. (YouTube)
Red Bull’s Scheckler Sessions. (YouTube)

For millennials, digital video is not TV or Film, it is a window into the lives of people they care about—the creators and influencers of YouTube. In this format, you don’t have to have self-contained stories with an introduction and backstory, a good guy, a quest, the climax and resolution for content to be entertaining or engaging. As I outlined in a recent post, adopting these traditional methods to content creation within the digital often leads to a disconnect that’s as drastic as putting a radio ad on TV. It just doesn’t work.

Instead, brands have to start from scratch and ask—what does my brand have to offer to people as an experience, an emotion, so that they want to come back every week?  Red Bull does an exceptional job of this with several recurring content series featuring its sponsored athletes with dedicated shows such as Ryan Sheckler’s “Sheckler Sessions” and Jamie O’Brien’s “Who is JOB.” These series follow the athletes, document typical “day in the lives” and cut down the events into short webisodes—the content is not unlike what successful YouTube vloggers are also doing.


As marketers, we often get lost in our own idea of what our consumers want, instead of going out there and finding out what our consumers are actively seeking and engaging with.

It’s critical to build with the end in mind—if we want engagement we need to ask, what are our consumers interested in and passionate about? What are they out there searching for and what credibility does my brand have and what can I add value you to?

We have insights that are at our fingertips within any YouTube channel. It’s easy to take a look into YouTube insights and identify what worked organically and what only generated views because of paid media support. We, as marketers, need to hold ourselves accountable to apply this information.

Nike is one brand that does this better than anyone. Nike Football may have had the #1 and #2 most viewed videos of 2014, but they didn’t forget about the importance of creating content based on their audiences existing users interests and invested heavily in creating “hygiene” content, i.e. videos “specifically created to capture viewers searching key terms related to the brand.”  The Nike football channel does this through their Nike Academy series, which I’ve documented in a previous post:

The Nike Academy videos are primarily “how-to” and training videos to help football players looking improve their skills, its content directly related to the brand and the consumer – the content appears in search around terms and information that footballers are actively searching for and pulls these viewers into the channel.

For example, the Nike Academy produced “Shot Stopping,” a training video that goes through a typical warm-up, training, and drill routine that goalkeepers who attend Nike’s football academy run through. The video also provides helpful tips and commentary from Nike coaches outlining the importance and rationale behind each drill. To date, “Shot Stopping” has generated over 478K views and is the #1 search result on Google and YouTube for the term.

It’s easy to get caught up in your own marketing efforts and think its far more exciting than it actually is, but its far more effective to focus on what your consumer is actually interested in.

As marketers, what we say doesn’t matter if its not what our audience wants to hear.

Epic Meal Time (YouTube)
Epic Meal Time (YouTube)


Your competition online is more than other brands, you’re competing for attention against all content creators—brands, publishers, individuals, studios and everything in between. There are over 6 trillion ads served each year, and 300 hours of content uploaded to YouTube each minute. With all that noise its easy to get lost, especially as a brand, and especially if you’re not focused with your message.

One of the easiest ways to ensure you’re more likely to be remembered is to focus on simplifying your message and working on refining your content over time. In this way you’re growing an own-able identity that gains mindshare with consumers.

It’s a moneyball approach—hit a lot of singles and doubles and make incremental gains over time. With content this means trying to build on ideas that gain traction and turn them into recurring series, not starting from scratch every three months with a new campaign. Cut away the stuff that doesn’t work, do more of the content people like—regardless of how much you personally would like it to work.

This is a lesson the successful YouTube creators know all too well. Take a look at someone like Epic Meal Time—each episode is the same format, but that doesn’t make it less funny or entertaining. As I outlined in a recent post about successful brand channels:

By replicating a specific format each time its clear to the viewer what you can expect from your channel. It also allows the brand to iterate on the concept and make it more and more engaging over time. The brand can apply YouTube insights and learnings to each episode (ie audience likes more bacon, let’s add more bacon and watch views and engagement go up). People go to a channel and subscribe to a channel because they know what to expect and they like what it stands for.

Ignore the View Counter

Views don’t matter. How long you can retain a viewer does.

Brands obsess over their views—but its easy to buy them. Any idiot with a credit card can go and buy views via YouTube’s TrueView ads and rack up a high view count. If your content sucks, it sucks, but it can still get millions of views if you have the money to buy them (which brands do). This doesn’t mean people care any more about your brand or you’ve created shareable content or your even reaching the right audience. It just means you’ve thrown good money after bad.

Early on YouTube’s algorithm would reward videos with high view counts—designating videos with high views as valuable and thereby placing the content higher in search, the subscribe feed, and suggested videos. In a blog post in October of 2012 YouTube changed all that, and announced that they adjusted their algorithm to “reward engaging videos that keep viewers watching.”

So, what does this mean? Content that keeps people spending more time watching YouTube videos gets prioritized over content which does not. As a result, if you’ve got 10 million views, but people only watch five seconds, the content will be ranked lower than content that has 1,000 views, but people are watching every last second. This is because you can buy views, but you can’t buy people actually caring about your content enough to watch every last second.

This is a drastic change in thinking about YouTube for most brands. I recommend that instead of asking, “How can I get 90 million views?” You should ask yourself, “How can I get 100 percent of my audience to watch to the end of each video?”

The Creators Are Stars—Treat Them like it

According to recent surveys, YouTube creators are more famous to teens than traditional celebrities. But few are getting the dollars or support from brands on par with TV and Film stars, despite the fact that many generate prime time TV numbers.

Working with YouTube creators is a huge opportunity for brands to buy low/sell high. What brand wouldn’t want a prime time TV spot, celebrity, and production rolled into one for pennies on the dollar? If you’re targeting millennials, that’s the opportunity with a high-profile YouTuber.

Michelle Phan, YouTube star. (YouTube)
Michelle Phan, YouTube star. (YouTube)

Most brands currently dabbling in the space are doing one-off brand deals. This often leaves creators looking to make a living jumping from brand deal to brand deal (and often working with competitive brands in the process). With how valuable these audiences are, why not lock them into 360 deals similar to traditional celebrities? Aeropostale (with Bethany Mota) and L’oreal (with Michelle Phan) are currently among the few brands who seem to have recognized this opportunity, and have been wildly successful—meaning there’s still a huge opportunity for other brands outside of makeup and fashion to pluck up some of the biggest creators on the platform.

In  2015 remember..

Like anything else, YouTube will change, but chasing a silver bullet—gambling on a viral video or throwing money at the problem—will be the sources of failure for many brands this coming year. Instead, those brands who grow will be those that remember digital video is a completely different medium, and they’ll adapt.

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. Subscribe to his newsletter for whitepapers and case studies.

Brands on YouTube: The Keys to Success in 2015