Going Viral not Required to Succeed – with YouTube’s Lane Shackleton


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Key Points

Lane Shackleton

  1. Virality is not the only measurement of success. Producing consistent videos that garner solid viewership is a big achievement in itself.
  2. Organic search is a very strong signal of intent. Viewers can find new, related videos, but this is not as strong of a signal as organic search.
  3. The concept behind YouTube’s TrueView is giving users a choice but also maximizeing the value for advertisers.
  4. Giving users the ability to skip ads acts as an incentive for advertisers to make their content as entertaining as possible.
  5. Content does not have to be hilarious to succeed. Videos that are not meant to be funny but are meant to educate the audience, or answer a question, or tell the audience something they didn’t know can rack up lots of views.
  6. The fundamental difference between advertising on television and YouTube is the ability to share. If a person sees a commercial on TV that they really enjoy, they have to then go to online to share it. Advertising on YouTube also provides vastly more metrics for advertisers.
  7. Volume of videos can make a serious impact on buying decisions. If one brand has 100 products and a video explaining each one, they are much more likely to sell than a competitor with 100 products and no videos.
  8. The most advanced advertisers will do a lot of testing. They’ll put a up a couple of variations of a video, and run each of them as an ad just to get more traffic on them, and then they’ll modify the video based on what they learn.
  9. Measuring success for a video means determining what success means for you. If you’re going for tons of views, a funny prank might work. If you’re aiming to instruct customers, a prank video might not be the best idea, even if it gets a lot of views.

Eric: What do you do at YouTube?

Lane: I’m a product manager on the YouTube monetization team and specifically I work on AdWords for video which is our video promotion tool for advertisers and marketers and people who want to build an audience. I also work on video ad effectiveness which is essentially helping prove to advertisers that they are gaining value from their video ads.

Eric: YouTube has been around for many years and it seems to me that there are a number of people in the industry that believe you have to go viral with a video in a big way to be successful. People believe you need to have a success like Blendtec, or Intuit’s Tax Rap. In your view, is it actually necessary for a video to go viral for a campaign to be successful?

Lane: I think there are lots of ways to be successful without going viral. An example would be the toy company, Rokenbok. They get lots of views on their content and they would consider themselves a success in terms of the video content they are producing, but they are not necessarily getting 50,000 views because everyone is sharing them now.


(On shares of your videos) I think that it is a good proxy for, “Are you creating great content that people want to watch and share?”

At the same time if you break down going viral and what it means, it means that people are watching content and they’re deeming it interesting, or deeming it worthy to share with their friends. I think that it is a good proxy for, “Are you creating great content that people want to watch and share?” I think at its heart, it’s a great thing that certain advertisers are able to achieve that, but by no means do I think it’s absolutely necessary.

Eric: What role can organic YouTube search play in helping people get views for their videos? Is that often or frequently a significant component of a publisher’s or advertiser’s success in getting views for their videos?

Lane: Search is a way for a user to explicitly call out the content that they want. If a friend told me about an Audi ad, then I might go seek that out through search. It’s a strong signal of intent, and it’s a strong signal that someone found out about that content in some way.

At the same time we can grow a lot of our viewership with video advertising because we are able to suggest related videos to a user while they are watching another video. So if I’m on the watch page, and I’m watching a video about cars and I see an interesting Audi video, that’s less of a direct signal of intent, but I still get to the video and discover that video in a different way. Organic YouTube search is a very strong signal of intent whereas other forms of discovery may not be as strong.

Eric: If you’re trying to maximize views, you want to use multiple platforms. For example, it makes sense to embed the video on your website. It makes sense to make it friendly to both YouTube and Google search and it makes sense to use the advertising mechanisms like AdWords for video to help boost the total viewership and exposure your video gets.

Drive YouTube Views

Lane: Yes, exactly. It’s very similar to a small or medium size business; it’s very similar to creating a website. You create a website and then potentially not many people find it unless you start to promote it through social media or through advertising or lots of other ways. You can think of a video in a very similar way.

Eric: I know there are several different YouTube advertising products. Can you take a moment and define for us what specifically AdWords for a video is that’s distinct from the other products?

Lane: Sure. So AdWords for a video is really focused around our TrueView family of formats. The notion behind TrueView is that both the user experience and the advertiser value are maximized when the user gets a choice.

For example TrueView in-stream allows a skip button, or puts a skip button, on an in-stream ad and doesn’t charge the advertisers until the user finishes the ad or watches it for 30 seconds; whichever comes first. So it gives the user a choice, but it also incentivizes the advertiser to create better content. And that’s the premise behind TrueView, that we want to give users a choice and we want to maximize the value for advertisers. And it turns out it benefits our partners as well because it allows them to retain their audience.

Eric: When exactly do the AdWords for video ads show up in the user’s experience?

Lane: All AdWords for video ads belong to the TrueView family, which means that people have to choose to watch your ad. There are a few ways that viewers will encounter the ad formats. One way is through the YouTube search function – this is a format called TrueView in-search. If I do a search for a movie, for example, I’ll see ads for a movie trailer at the top, denoted with a yellow background and the word “Ad” in the corner.

Olympus Has Fallen Ads

We also have the TrueView in-stream format, which is a skippable pre-roll video ad that plays before a piece of video content. We have another similar format called TrueView in-slate which gives people the option to watch one of three ads, or see regular commercial breaks throughout the video. This format is only for longer-form content. Then finally we have the TrueView in-display option, where ads appear alongside other YouTube videos as a recommended video.

Eric: We’ve established that success isn’t defined by being viral, but Baljeet published an article that a video doesn’t actually have to be funny to be successful, and I think a lot of people think that’s the case.

Lane: There are all types of content that people can create that is not necessarily funny that can be successful. Some things that come to mind are companies like ModCloth and RevZilla. In these cases, the content is not meant to be funny, it’s meant to educate the audience, or answer a question, or tell the audience something they didn’t know.

So there are all different types of content that can succeed in engaging the user while not necessarily becoming something that they share with 100 friends because they think it’s funny in this case. Modcloth is a great example of a brand that creates a variety of content with a goal of getting users interested in their brand. They also have product videos that they run for people who are already interested in ModCloth, which they embed in product pages on their website.

Eric: Can you expand a bit more on the ModCloth strategy as you see it?

Lane: There are different types of messages that they try to tell when users are at different stages of being interested or buying from ModCloth.

For someone who has never heard of ModCloth before, they use more of a general message that speaks to fashion and emails and essentially doesn’t get very specific, but can be aspirational and can pique a user’s interest.

Whereas once that user may be visiting the site often, or you know is interested in that first ad, then they may show something more specific like a piece of clothing, or they want to show off a pair of shoes, or something like that. So it’s taking that user through a purchase funnel for them.

Eric: How might this differ if the same brand were to do the same thing on TV? Are there elements that tend to make it different, or do you think it would be extremely similar if they would try to do the same thing on TV?

Lane: On TV it’s very difficult, if not impossible to grab that ad off the TV or to share that ad with your friends; whereas for YouTube that’s the natural progression of what users do already. They’re used to grabbing the URL or clicking the share button and sharing it with their friends. So I think that’s a fundamental difference between YouTube and TV.

The second thing is the viewership and the engagement that happens online is greater, and it’s very measurable so an advertiser can measure how many views they got. They can measure that instead of impressions. They can measure the view rate and how much users are watching. So I think that’s an important distinction whereas on TV some of this may be a little less measurable.

Eric: Right, a really advanced YouTube advertiser would be making use of those analytics in an aggressive fashion to figure out what’s working and what’s not to tune their campaign.

Just because a video doesn’t go viral doesn’t mean that sharing isn’t going on. In fact, in the case of ModCloth, which target female fashion, when one woman shares an ad with someone else she might be saying: “Hey doesn’t this look really cool, what do you think?” That is a bit more of an explicit endorsement than might be the case with a video that goes viral.

Lane: That’s one great advantage of YouTube and online videos is that users are very used to sharing and when you have ads that feel like content it feels very natural to share that content and you blur the lines between advertising and content. That’s really what we’ve been advocating our advertisers to do.

“That’s one great advantage of YouTube and online videos is that users are very used to sharing and when you have ads that feel like content it feels very natural to share that content and you blur the lines between advertising and content”.

I think you’re right in that when I share a ModCloth video and I say, “hey check out this piece of apparel,” there are multiple effects going on. One is I’m sharing it with a friend and I’m endorsing it in a way. The other is that the video is a really expressive medium in that case where the user on the other end of that sharing can really get a good sense of that product for example.

That said, there are plenty of viral videos that help brands promotes themselves, perhaps by leading me to have a more favorable opinion of a brand. For example, I may start to think of Audi as a cool brand because I see their paintball duel ad.

Eric: What does Revzilla do?

Lane: They sell motorcycle products: motorcycle jackets, gear, helmets, that type of thing and they do an excellent job of using video.

They use it to answer common questions about things like the fit of their clothes. They use it to showcase products in really meaningful ways. And this kind of goes back to one of your earlier questions about what are the other things that someone can do. With all of that video content, RevZilla has established themselves as an authority on the subject of motorcycle gear.

This is a great goal for small-to-medium sized businesses when they embark on a video campaign – establish themselves as an expert. If you’re choosing between two brands and one has 100 videos all about their products and can speak really well about all the products that they’re selling versus someone who you don’t much insight into, as a consumer, you’re more likely to choose the brand that appears to be the expert.

Eric: It really is content marketing play which can help you build an audience and a following over time, as well as establish relationships with other experts.

Lane: TurboTax does that really well. Right now it’s a timely example because they’ve kicked off a big push for tax season so they’re establishing themselves with all the videos on their channel as the experts on taxes. For example, if you want to know what a “dependent” is, they have a video for that.

Eric: There’s another component to the RevZilla example, which is this notion of driving conversion, right? If somebody wants an instant answer to your question, like how to pick the right product, I imagine that sites that aren’t able to effectively answer questions like that lose sales that RevZilla doesn’t because they have the ability to answer the question on the spot.

Lane: Absolutely. Users are smart and they seek out information. RevZilla is a great example of someone who gives them the information right at the time that they’re making that purchasing decision. So if they’re trying to figure out one element over the other and they can see someone try it on and fit and can see how it works, right when the user is making that decision, you’ve given them the information that they need.

Eric: Can you talk about the analytics you make available?

Lane: There are two graphs and YouTube analytics. One is a relative audience retention and the other is absolute audience retention graph and I think those two graphs are incredible tools to let a creator know how they’re doing relative to other videos that are similar length as well as how they’re doing generally.

The most advanced advertisers will do a lot of testing. They’ll actually put a up a couple of variations of a video, and run each of them as an ad just to get more traffic on them, and then they’ll actually modify the video based on what they learn. We try to give advertisers and creators, for that matter, all the tools that they need to optimize their viewer retention over time.

Eric: That’s really part of that process of fine tuning the video advertising campaign in each case over time, which is great. Even if you have a video campaign that you’re supplementing with advertising, that’s a great way to do that.

Is it more difficult to make an advertising video be successful rather than just a normally published video?

“If your goal is to answer the biggest frequently asked question on your site, it’s been successful if you get less phone calls asking you” (that question)

Lane: I always tie this back to the goal. If your goal is to answer the biggest frequently asked question on your site, it’s been successful if you get less phone calls asking you your most frequently asked question on the site. If you want to build a big audience and reach people you’ve never reached before and have people share the videos with millions of people and go viral, I think that’s a pretty high bar for success.

But at the same time, in both of these cases, you’re making thoughtful content for a purpose. So if you want something to get shared a lot, you may skew towards doing something like a prank of doing something unexpected, something that surprises the user and makes them want to share that.

Whereas if your goal is to drive a sale of an individual product on a fashion plate, then you’re explicitly trying to give them a different experience. I think it comes back to the goal of the content that you’re producing and being thoughtful about giving the user the right thing to accomplish that goal.

Eric: For many people, the goal of trying to make something viral is the wrong goal, because you might find yourself in a situation where–to use a baseball analogy–if you’re at the plate with two out at the bottom of the ninth and the bases are loaded and it’s a tie game, a single will do very well. You probably shouldn’t be swinging for the fence.

Lane: That’s right. A lot of people are trying to achieve business goals that don’t necessarily equal a viral video.

Eric: Do you have tips for people on how to improve their chances of having a video campaign stand out more or have a better chance at success?

Lane: Absolutely, the first is to start with great content and have that content organized in a thoughtful way on your channel. If I land on your channel as a user set things up so I can easily understand the types of content you have on the channel and if I’m interested in the content you have.

When it comes to the an ad campaign, having a strategy about how you’re promoting that content is key. Are you trying to build awareness across a broad set of users and then re-market a different message to those users? Or are you trying to target users who are further down the purchase funnel?

It comes down to again, what type of business goal you have. Starting with great content, organizing it well on the channel, and putting that all together in campaigns with a thoughtful goal, I think is a 30,000 foot view.

Eric: Thanks Lane!

Lane: Thank you Eric!

About Lane

Lane is a product manager at Google and YouTube. He is the Co-founder of Miracle One Wines & Bluebird Wines. He is a big fan of the interwebs, creating stuff, unique vino and long days outside. You can follow Lane on Twitter.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Eric Enge
Eric Enge is a partner at Stone Temple Consulting (STC), which has been providing SEO Consulting services for over 5 years. STC has worked with a wide range of clients, ranging from small silicon valley start-ups, to Fortune 25 companies. Eric is also co-author of The Art of SEO book.


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