Big publishers are having an issue with YouTube. No, not that issue. No, not that issue either

The trouble is that, despite YouTube being a rich seam of advertising revenue, it’s a ridiculously packed space. Everybody and their dog has a YouTube channel and standing out in that crowd is as tricky a proposition as it comes. Even organisations who’ve carved out their own niche in an unusual medium and built up an event portfolio that spans continents have a hard time building up a significant YouTube presence.

That’s doubly true for legacy news publishers, many of who would struggle to compete in terms of raw subscriber numbers with some mid-tier channels as ranked by Google’s Preferred score. In part that might be because, despite video being a priority for a lot of publishers, YouTube isn’t necessarily as central to their strategies. More likely, though? They simply have a hard time replicating what makes the most successful YouTube channels as popular as they are.

There are a number of reasons why that might be the case. The first is that, as huge organisations that always have one eye on their reputation (and protecting their ‘premium brands’), they’re unwilling to adopt some of the practices of YouTube stars for fear of damaging that brand. The common practise of exhorting viewers to “like, share and subscribe” is so well-known now as to be worthy of parody, and for publishers who have always prided themselves on their reputation as destinations, such a practice might be seen as base or beneath them. But there’s a reason so many YouTube channels that achieved early success did exactly that; it’s a call to action that prods the viewers’ memories that those things are options.

The second is that YouTube is an inherently personal medium. YouTube stars have made a habit of directly addressing their audiences, making them an implicit community through certain techniques that were organically refined as the platform matured. A recent article by Sarah Hagi for VICE provides a brief history of ‘YouTube voice’ (and also handily touches upon how the widespread adoption of those techniques has exacerbated the issues with standing out in the YouTube crowd):

“This all goes back to having to show excitement and enthusiasm. To Emily Blamire, a PhD student, YouTubers are trying to entertain us and keep their audience engaged. “We see it from the very start of a video,” Blamire explains, “In those first ten seconds or so, they’re very similar in that regard in that there’s the, ‘hey guys’ they’re almost half yelling at you.” Mixing the shouting, unbridled enthusiasm (and for many women, uptalk) is when we usually get the YouTube voice we all know and love (or loathe).”

The third and potentially biggest issue is that publishers don’t necessarily have that one-to-one relationship that enables that growth. That’s not least because, as organisations with many employees, there are often precious few individuals who have regular contact with that audience in that same way that solo YouTubers and podcast hosts do. Of the top 50 YouTube channels in terms of subscriber numbers, the vast majority of those that aren’t official channels for musicians are individuals or groups of two to four creators.

There’s also the possibility that the way discovery works on YouTube, with recommendations based on the user’s history, doesn’t necessarily serve news publishers well. According to a study by Reuters, people rarely seek out video news content online (with an exception made for breaking news), and supporting research by marketer MediaKix demonstrates that none of the most popular YouTube genres are especially news related.

Consequently, unless Google decides to change something about how it recommends video to appease traditional publishers in the wake of the latest advertising controversy (and stranger things have happened), it’s unlikely that any of those issues will go away any time soon.

In the meantime, however, publishers looking to increase their audience size on YouTube should consider the following:

  • Having individuals host series on their channels as a matter of course, to increase engagement with a specific host
  • Depending on overall strategy, actively encouraging viewers to subscribe or share videos
  • Careful consideration of tagging to ameliorate the discoverability issue