YouTube remains by far the biggest platform for online video globally – and it also accounts for a huge proportion of the online ad revenue the format generates.

That means it’s a platform that even established media businesses can’t afford to ignore, but they are regularly being outperformed on the Google-owned platform by digital startups.

There are even a few original channels who take on as wide a beat – if not wider – than the BBC and cable news channels in the United States, that are distributed exclusively on YouTube, and they are attracting audiences that are greater in size than those legacy channel’s own presences on YouTube.

The Young Turks, for instance, a digital-only news channel that used YouTube as its primary outlet, has a subscriber base of around 1,850,000 at time of writing, while the BBC News channel has fewer than 320,000 and The Guardian’s YouTube channel has only just over 111,000 subscribers.

That kind of success is being achieved with far more limited resources, so what is it they are getting so right? Here’s a run-down of some different approaches to YouTube adopted by two well-established media businesses that you might expect to perform well on YouTube as compared to two upstart challengers who genuinely are performing well.

Established media

BBC News

  • 318,000 subscribers
  • Joined April 2006

BBC News could, on the face of it, be expected to perform extremely well on YouTube. After all, its brand recognition alone and position as an arm of the corporation that also puts out the world’s most widespread news content would suggest its mere presence on YouTube would ensure its success. And as a state-funded broadcaster, it also doesn’t have to worry as much about whether YouTube is the best platform to monetise its video.

But its ‘about’ section makes it clear that the content it puts out is ‘specially selected’ from their existing stock of video content, rather than being created especially. Tellingly, one of its most popular uploads in the last year consists of a spider getting into frame on a live broadcast, rather than a news item or documentary.

Al Jazeera

  • 631,281 subscribers
  • Joined November 2006
Al Jazeera positions itself as a more global-oriented news source, in opposition to the relatively narrow focus of most Western media, and its YouTube content reflects that. As with other broadcast focused rolling news channels, their publishing and content strategy consists of regularly uploaded news updates not unlike the quarter-hour updates on Sky News. Notably, though, its most viewed content is often the long-form documentary pieces rather than those updates, which suggests that you cannot simply transplant the content strategy from television news to online and expect it to succeed.

Digital Originals

The Young Turks

  • 1,849,000 subscribers
  • Joined December 2005
The Young Turks (TYT), which advertises itself as being extremely ‘honest’ with its audiences, is a digital news outlet with a strong video focus. Their YouTube channel was the first to air live, daily digital news shows, and takes its cues from cable news roundtable shows like Fox and Friends in the US. 

Though the channel is not without its detractors, it is clear that TYT positions itself as an alternative to broadcast television news in its attitude and presentation, even though it clearly uses some of the trappings of that medium. It claims to be the ‘largest online news show in the world’, with 27.5 million unique viewers a month. That counter-culture attitude is also evident in another of the great digital news success stories…

Vice News

  • 1,107,000 subscribers
  • Joined November 2013
An upstart in every sense of the word, Vice News is well known now for its online documentaries, which marry high production values to topics that aren’t typically covered (or at least covered with such a subjective focus) by established media outlets. It is notable in that it uses YouTube as its primary video distribution platform, and is currently in the midst of a drive to raise awareness of its YouTube content. Its already impressive subscriber and view figures are even more so when you consider that it only launched in that tail end of 2013.

Legacy hangups

The similarities between how the legacy media groups are publishing content to YouTube and their approach to broadcast goes some way to explaining why their subscriber numbers are a fair distance behind those of the digital-first outlets. In a case of history repeating itself, they are trying to transplant their existing video formats to the new platform. It’s an approach very similar to what newspapers have tried moving from print to web – something that many are only now realising isn’t a clever approach.

Established broadcasters already have the existing infrastructure and stock content, so it appears they see YouTube as a new repository for that content, rather than a place to try delivering video that works well online and appeals to online audiences. Some of that content performs well on YouTube, such as Al Jazerra’s long-form documentaries.

But the digital original channels like The Young Turks and Vice News are taking advantage of YouTube’s features, such as ability to broadcast regularly scheduled content on that platform first and a lack of time limit that prevents rolling news channels from broadcasting long form content regularly, and they’ve succeeded in creating viable and growing digital brands on YouTube.

Though they, at times, emulate some of the trappings of the legacy broadcasters, their content is different enough in form that they can use that to set their stalls up as iconoclastic, irreverent news outlets in direct opposition to their legacy forebears. And as long as those older publishers continue to simply publish their existing content to digital sites without taking advantage of their unique features, there’s nothing to stop Vice, TYT and others from establishing themselves as the definitive sources of online video news.