Last week we decided to produce a video on the Top 10 YouTube producers -- the ones who we felt stood out above the rest when measured by views, subscribers and mainstream popularity. I've always stated that it's possible that this century's Spielberg or Chaplin may emerge from the ranks of YouTube “celebrities." But if you went with some of our subscribers' comments, the list contained some pretty "crappy" producers (their word, not mine).
My first reaction: "Don't kill the messenger." My second reaction was to ask myself: "If viewers on YouTube think that many of the most successful YouTube channels are 'crap,' then what will marketers think?"
In fact, reading some of the comments, it took me back to an event that YouTube produced in 2008 in New York City. That was one of the first times I heard YouTube executives refer to their programming as "torso content." They were trying really hard to show the site had the content that audiences wanted. Anderson Cooper came out on stage to introduce singer Esmee Denters, with the audience shifting from "Oh, look, Anderson Cooper is here -- a real celebrity" to "Who is that young girl with the guitar?"
Talented as Denters was, I recall thinking: "Man, this is depressing." And ironic. YouTube was relying on a real TV personality to introduce someone from new media, in an effort to demonstrate Madison Avenue cred. Its strategists were either too dense to realize the ironym or I was too stupid to appreciate the symbolism (probably a bit of both).
YouTube's objective in putting up the event was to demonstrate that marketers would eventually follow audiences, with the hypothesis that as younger generations take over the CMO roles, they'll embrace the very kind of quirky programming that is popular on YouTube.
But last I checked, marketers are embracing the Web, but they're gravitating to a lot of the same things that they're drawn to in traditional media. YouTube is without a doubt now printing money, but that’s a result of its sheer size and despite the content, not necessarily as a result of it -- the same way that Facebook makes money because of its size and not because of any inherent embracing of social media from marketers. Social media drives a discount to Facebook's revenue growth, much the same way that YouTube's content is an obstacle of its revenue growth. YouTube executives can tell me I am clueless, but hen they need to explain why they're spending $100 million to recalibrate the content on the site, despite getting 72 hours of new content uploaded each minute.
Conventional wisdom is that marketers will change. Problem is, they don't. I think audiences' tastes change, if anything, as we get older. After all, when you're a kid, you may like to put ketchup on your scrambled eggs, but when you get older, you're the one changing your order for egg whites with sun-dried tomatoes instead (No, I've never ordered that). All of a sudden, we watch the news and listen to classical music.
Similarly, my gut says that real ad dollars will forever elude the vast majority of YouTube celebrities who -- according to our audience on YouTube anyway -- are too oddball for mainstream marketers. But then again, those are the very same channels that have millions of subscribers and billions of views, while we have 125,000 subscribers and 175 million views.
Clearly he who laughs last laughs best. I'm just not sure who'll be the last man standing.