coachella sunset

Coachella kicks off – it’s music festival season

Coachella weekend two kicks off this Friday, which means we’re in the midst of music festival season. Over the course of two weeks, 200,000 festival-goers will flock to Indio, CA to partake in all the Coachella festivities.

In recent years, the music festival landscape has exploded in popularity. In fact, 32 million people go to at least one music festival every year. With festivals for practically every music genre and walk of life, festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza are drawing larger and more diverse crowds than ever before.

32 million people attend in person, but millions more experience the magic without setting foot inside, on YouTube. There have been 5.1 billion views on music festival content on YouTube in the last three years – there are more daily views on music festival content on the platform than there are daily attendees at some of the country’s biggest events. 

It’s not surprising, as YouTube is the top music service in the world.

YouTube and Music

Music on YouTube

For the past seven years, YouTube has been giving Coachella fans the opportunity to watch live performances. According to  Variety, viewers will be able to choose from three different live streams, as well as a 360-degree virtual reality mode, on Coachella’s YouTube Channel.

Music Festivals on YouTube

By creating engaging video content or partnering with social media influencers, brands can share their messages with millions of fans experiencing the excitement on YouTube and other social media channels.

There’s an Opportunity for Alignment

As festival-fans tune in for performances from the shows, pre-festival prep videos, onsite experiences and post-fest reviews, there’s an opportunity for brand activation.

Pre-Festival Prep: Pre-Festival YouTube content includes tips and tricks intended to prepare music fans and enable them to have the best festival experience possible. They include survival guides, camping tips, Look Books, Style Guides and “Get Ready With Me – Festival Editions.”

Onsite Experiences: Festival goers document their personal experiences through YouTube vlogs, incorporating real-time elements of the festival, such as what fans are eating, performances they’re watching, and the people they interact with.

Post-Festival Reviews: Creators review key moments of past festivals including notable performances, events, and even fashions. Post-Festival videos ensure the legacy of Music Festivals on YouTube. Fans can easily reference and relive their favorite parts of any festival.

At Zefr, we understand video content and have found the most important Music Festival topics, trends and influencers on YouTube and turned them into targeting and influencer opportunities. Our technology can align your brand with the most relevant music festival content at the video level to successfully reach fans on YouTube.

Let’s Chat

Find out how we help your brand contextually align with the best videos on YouTube. Click here to request a demo with a member of our team and see Zefr in action!

Cultural TrendsEbook

For decades, “award season” has been the pinnacle of the entertainment industry and has become woven into the fabric of pop culture as the year’s best movies, music and TV shows are honored and audiences of millions look on.

The season culminates with the Academy Awards this Sunday, and ratings on TV tune-in to the ceremonies is down. Way down – last year’s Oscars hit an eight year low. But viewership is actually up, 54% year over year, on YouTube, as the way viewers engage with award show content shifts.

Social video has drastically changed the viewing experience. Instead of leaning back and watching 4+ hours of a ceremony, many people now turn to platforms like YouTube to catch the clips they care about most, and upload their favorite moments.

YouTube offers brands an unprecedented opportunity to engage with award season content before, during, and after the live event, extending their strategies from live-TV advertising into premium award season content on the platform. ZEFR looked at all of the award season content on YouTube, and put together an e-book uncovering what (and when) people are actually watching on the platform. Statistics within include:

  • There have been 1.01 billion views on award season content over the last three years.
  • The Oscars are the most popular ceremony, followed by the Grammy’s and the Golden Globes.
  • Half the views (51%) are on content directly related to the award shows – clips, highlights, recaps and reviews.
  • There are more than 262 million views on beauty and fashion-related content including red carpet recaps and celebrity “get the look” videos.”
  • Video uploads spike the day after a show as people share their favorite moments – and viewers tune in to see what moments mattered most.

Download the full e-book, including all of ZEFR’s statistics on the Oscars and other awards ceremonies, here.

Thought Leadership

Brands are increasing their investment in YouTube advertising, as the largest video platform in the world continues its rapid growth. Marketers know they need to advertise on YouTube to reach their audience, an insight that is well supported by audience viewership data. But today, most brands lack the control or visibility into the specific inventory they are buying, which raises critical issues regarding the brand safety of the content they are running against.

Recent news has thrown into focus the issue of brand safety as marketers are running ads against content that can be created by anyone. PewDiePie, arguably the world’s most successful influencer, lost his standing with Disney’s Maker Studios and with YouTube due to anti-Semetic stunts. Super Bowl ads have been seen running in front of terrorist recruitment videos. These stories are trending, but the issue isn’t new – and it’s only going to grow as more content is created and brands continue to increase their investment on the platform.

How does it happen?

Most advertisers target their intended consumers  on YouTube based on keywords, audience (demographic) and channel (typically via Google Preferred, the most popular influencer and creator channels). But each of these approaches assume that all of the content isolated by one of these targeting options is similar and therefore safe. ZEFR has found that this isn’t the case.

Let’s take Michelle Phan’s channel for example. She’s known as a beauty influencer, but only 52% of her content is related to beauty. The other 48% is better categorized as lifestyle content, including career advice and current events. A beauty brand may only want to align with that  52% of videos, but if they’re buying her channel in Google Preferred, they don’t know which videos within the channel they’re aligning with.

Michelle Phan channel audit conducted Summer 2016
Michelle Phan channel audit conducted Summer 2016

The same theory applies to brand safety. Not all content within a creator’s channel will be considered safe or on target for every brand.

There is another way

ZEFR’s technology delivers TV-like contextual relevance and brand safety on YouTube, allowing brands to leverage the incredible potential of the platform at the individual video-level. There’s a tremendous amount of great content on YouTube for brands, and video-level targeting allows for marketers to exclude specific videos from their YouTube buys, ensuring that they’re never running ads against content that is not relevant. It requires an understanding of each discrete video that only ZEFR is able to provide.

ZEFR’s solution

Here’s how it works. A video is uploaded to YouTube. ZEFR analyzes the video for:

  • Relevance – Is the video content aligned with the brand’s media strategy? What is this video actually about? If a video is of a father and son tossing a football and it’s called, “My Son is the next Tom Brady,” the video isn’t about Tom Brady. It’s about a father and son moment.
  • Brand safety – Is this video appropriate for a brand to align with? Does it have profanity, negative imagery, violence, or controversial opinions? Is it promoting negative activity, or hate speech?
  • Forecasting – Is this a video that’s generating views, or trending upwards? Will it deliver enough impressions so that an ad is seen by a real human audience at scale?
  • Performance – Is this a video that can carry an ad? Is it meaningful enough content to justify placing an ad before it? Will it help you reach your key performance KPIs?

If each of these indicators are met, the video is organized into a content segment with thousands of other videos that are all contextually related. Every day, ZEFR evaluates over 8 million videos, while only qualifying 250,000 of those videos for inclusion in premium, brand safe campaigns that deliver performance.

Video-level targeting is the future

So, should brands be afraid to align with influencer content on YouTube? The answer is no. Brand safety is an easily mitigated risk when video-level targeting is employed. “It’s so important to target ads at individual videos on YouTube, so brands can ensure that they’re aligned with the most relevant content at any given time,” said Rich Raddon, co-CEO, ZEFR. “The content within channels varies, and not every video is right for every brand. ZEFR’s technology and review process ensures that an ad will never run against a video that is not considered safe.”

For more on ZEFR’s video-targeting solutions, contact us at

Oded Noy is the Chief Technology Officer at ZEFR

Cultural TrendsReport

Super Bowl LI will see the Patriots take on the Falcons this Sunday, and more than 100 million people are expected to tune in live – for both the football, and for the advertisements.

Commercials have become a cultural force during the Super Bowl, often overshadowing the game itself. From Apple’s iconic 1984 ad to Chrysler’s stirring “It’s Halftime in America” spot, brands leverage the Super Bowl as an opportunity to make a statement that can change the trajectory of their business.

With the rise of social video platforms like YouTube and Facebook, brands have the chance to extend their Super Bowl story even further, going far beyond a 30 second spot during the game. Brands can now tell more nuanced stories around their Super Bowl ads before, during, and after the game, offering new opportunities for creativity and reaching their audiences in unique ways.

This enhanced “blast radius” has changed the way key brand verticals are communicating, and we’ve looked at the biggest categories to make some predictions about what we’ll see from advertisements running on Sunday.  Check them out in the infographic below – some have already proven to be true!



Cultural Trends

It’s not going out on a limb to say that social media played a major role in winning the presidential election for Donald Trump by enabling him to fight hostile coverage and bypass the mainstream media and speak directly to his supporters. It’s been pointed out time and time again, including by Trump himself during an interview that aired on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday night.

“When you give me a bad story or when you give me an inaccurate story… I have a method of fighting back,” said Trump, who will take the oath of office on Jan. 20.

But the social space has been more than just a venue for President-elect Trump to rally supporters, call for corrections or seek vengeance, it’s a place where he can turn negative energy into positive.


A review of ZEFR data on YouTube trends during the 2016 election cycle shows that Trump-related views didn’t just rise when he said or did something newsworthy. They spiked when the Republican candidate was attacked, and they spiked when the mainstream media was focused on his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

In late February, after Trump won several primaries, comedian John Oliver delivered a scathing monolog on his HBO show “Last Week with John Oliver.” That week, Trump’s YouTube views soared to over 80 million, double what they were just two weeks previous. A large portion of those were for the official clip of Oliver’s rant, which has racked up more than 30 million views to date.

Trump-related YouTube views soared into the 80 million range again during the week of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in late April, where President Obama mocked Trump for not being in attendance, and later in his speech added, “Next year at this time, someone else will be standing here in this very spot. And it’s anyone’s guess who she will be.” (Trump was the target of repeated barbs from the president when he attended the correspondents’ dinner in 2011, which many have speculated spurred him to run for president.)

The most dramatic jump in Trump-related views came in the wake of a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Aug 9, where the candidate told the crowd, “If she gets to pick her judges ― nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people, maybe there is,” which suggested to some that he was calling for assassination.

While his true intent may be debatable, the affect on viewer interest was clear – views of Trump-related videos on YouTube rose by some 70 million over the previous week, hitting the 150 million range, an all-time high up to that point in the election cycle. At the same time, the popularity of Clinton-related YouTube videos also spiked, hitting about 80 million weekly views.

Two weeks earlier, Clinton scored a then-high number of weekly views, in the 95 million range, during the Democratic National Convention (DNC). That bested the 80 million-plus views Trump got during the Republican National Convention (RNC), but he outperformed her during the DNC, racking up some 100 million YouTube views, suggesting the attention paid his opponent only drove more interest in him.


In October, the final full month of the campaign, Clinton briefly pulled ahead of Trump in YouTube views the week of their third presidential debate. But in the last week of the month – when FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to congress stating it could be reopening its probe of Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State – Trump and Clinton were neck and neck, with about 220 million weekly views apiece.

But from election day, Nov. 8, through the following Friday, Trump was back to his winning ways on YouTube, with 176.2 million views, up 34.3% over the previous week, to Clinton’s 106.9 million, which were down 40.7%.

The pollsters and pundits who were picking Clinton to win as election day loomed would’ve benefited from examining ZEFR’s sentiment analysis of the candidates’ YouTube views for October. Clinton’s negative views were 35%, while Trump’s were at 33%. Perhaps more tellingly, only 8% of Clinton’s views were deemed to be positive, while Trump’s positives were at 17%. But it was in overall view count where Trump truly demonstrated his supremacy, averaging 75.2 million views a week since Jan. 4, compared to Clinton’s 54.36 million a week during the same period.



Ironically, YouTube viewers were less interested in Trump’s win than they were in Clinton’s loss. Trump’s victory speech (12 million-plus views for 229 videos) was edged out by Clinton’s concession speech (13.7 million-plus views for 371 videos).

This suggests two interesting possibilities: It’s not very satisfying to hate watch a victory, and even Trump supporters might be a little less passionate about their choice now that the race is run and the Washington outsider they rooted for is poised to become a Washington insider.


The link between content alignment and success on YouTube

The kind of content an ad runs against has a huge impact on the way a person reacts to it. It’s true on television, in magazines, and now – more than ever – online.

With more than 400 hours of video added to YouTube every minute, there’s an incredible breadth of content for brands to advertise against. But how are they to know what to advertise against? With so many videos to choose from, how does anyone know who’s watching what? Historically, there’s been no way to determine what types of video content brands should align with – until now.

At ZEFR, we have unique video technology that allows us to understand the content of every video uploaded to YouTube. We organize YouTube by content segments – over 13,000. This allows brands to align their ads with the specific type of content a person is seeking out. Pairing ads with relevant content delivers a better experience for users and brands, and for the first time, we’ve mined the data to discover what content works best for various brand verticals to advertise against. The idea is to align ads with the right content, hence the name of the project – The Alignment Effect.

What we discovered was an interesting blend of results of what works. Some content area/brand matches you might expect, and some that were surprising. For example, segments like food challenges and 4th of July Parties worked well for CPG brands. That was expected.  But premium entertainment content – like Aziz Ansari and Swedish House Mafia – also delivered strong results. Within the entertainment vertical, we saw both traditional entertainment content and content unique to YouTube perform equally well. Traditional stars like George Clooney and Adam Sandler appear alongside personalities that were born on YouTube – Miranda Sings and Sam Tsui. The traditional definition of “entertainment” has broadened, and brands can (and should) take advantage of the content emerging in the category.

CPG example

Great content is everywhere on YouTube, and audiences go where the content is. By showcasing what types of content work best for brands, we can create better outcomes for advertisers and a better experience for consumers – helping to drive optimum success on the platform.

Click here to download The Alignment Effect for a deeper look at what kind of content works for brands.

Danielle DePalma, Lionsgate


Cultural TrendsThought Leadership

This month, Instagram celebrates its fifth anniversary. To mark the occasion, Instagram announced (for the first time) the platform’s top five accounts. The names on the short list will not be surprising to anyone familiar with the current state of pop culture. Taylor Swift claimed the top spot (49.6 million followers), with the remaining four rounded out by Kim Kardashian (48.1 million), Beyoncé (47.2 million), Selena Gomez (45.9 million), and Ariana Grande (44.6 million).

What might surprise you is they are not the top five stars based on fan interest right now. Some are still in the top 10, but in a different order. In fact, Beyoncé doesn’t even crack the top 25. (See chart below.) We know this because ZEFR’s technology is able to go a level deeper than follower counts—which are a measure of historical activity—and analyze which influencers command the most fan attention today. When we talk about who is most relevant and influential in social media today, we want to rank people based on the here-and-now, not a wave of interest that may have crested eight months ago.

Think of how weird it would be to rank performers based on historical totals in other contexts. We wouldn’t name a US Open tennis champion based on total points won during the entire year. And we wouldn’t assess the trendiest restaurant based on the total stars accrued on their Yelp profile. Imagine if we measured TV by the total ratings points accumulated over the life of the show; we’d still be talking about M*A*S*H* and Cheers as must-buy hits at the top of the dial.

At first glance, these examples may sound comical, but that’s exactly the trap we’re falling into if we use subscriber and follower counts as our guideposts for who matters in social media. A follow is a one-time action that persists for a very long time. The engagements that ZEFR’s technology measures—and that we use to recommend the best talent to our brand clients—are real-time signals, indicating what talent fans still care about now. Using follower counts to identify what influencers are most significant is gravely misleading, and if you’re a brand investing in influencer marketing, it will result in wasted money and disappointing results.

With this in mind, ZEFR offers an alternative, more accurate ranking that we refer to as trending engagement. This is a proprietary projection of how much fan interaction an influencer will drive on future posts, which we derive from a recency-weighted average engagement on each channel, corrected for outlier posts and adjusted for the upward or downward trend of engagement on the channel.

Sorry Taylor, we have to award you the bronze medal for now. But if there’s one thing we know about social stardom, it’s that status can change in the blink of an eye. Maybe next month…

Click on image above to enlarge.

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Cultural Trends

This is a series that spotlights culturally significant and popular uploads to YouTube, curated monthly by ZEFR Insights.

1. Mean Tweets Live

In the latest segment of “Mean Tweets” on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, celebrities read mean tweets
about themselves, this time in front of a live studio audience. This week-long segment included
A-list celebrities such as Kristen Bell, George Clooney, Bette Midler, and Halle Berry. The
best part was seeing the variety of reactions from each celebrity as they emerged from the curtains, phone in hand, to read the mean tweet directed at themselves. Some took the meanness with good humor, while others walked off looking sad and defeated. A few highlights include Andrew Garfield who burst into uncontrollable laughter and Benedict Cumberbatch who had a quick comeback to a tweet that involved a “cat’s anus.” In an age where it only takes a few seconds and less than 140 characters (for now) to tweet something hurtful, it’s important to remember that celebrities have
feelings too.

2. “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch”

Yes, you read that correctly. But can you say it? Liam Dutton can. Channel 4 News weatherman impressively pronounced the 58-letter word with ease during the news broadcast. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is a large village in Wales and has the longest place name in the UK. Today, the village is also known as Llanfair or Llanfair PG. The long-form of the village’s name was invented for promotional purposes in the 1860s. Clearly it’s working! The viral video now has over 12 million views.

3. Ryan Adams, “Shake It Off” (from Taylor Swift’s 1989)

Ryan Adams released a song-for-song cover of Taylor Swift’s multi-platinum album, 1989. Critics and fans have already compared the album to having similar vibes as Bruce Springsteen and The Smiths. The album debuted in the top ten of the Billboard 200, selling 56,000 units during its first week. Adams’ album is also available on Spotify and YouTube. By making the entire album available on YouTube, it allows fans to easily share and listen to their favorite songs over and over again. In fact, cover songs on YouTube are a giant trend.

4. Michelle Obama’s Post-White House Plans

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is off to a running start this month. In his interview with
First Lady Michelle Obama, he asks her about her post-White House plans. Her answer turns out
to be surprisingly simple. In addition to continuing efforts in girl’s education, she wants to “open
windows.” She also told Colbert that she wants to do little things like “go to Target! I want to
drive!” Over the weekend, Obama announced the #62MillionGirls campaign—the number of girls
around the world who are not in school—as part of her “Let Girls Learn” initiative. The program was created to help young girls overcome barriers to complete their education.

Cultural Trends

Any music fan who flocks to YouTube to watch videos of their favorite artists has likely discovered the vast universe that exists on the platform devoted to cover songs. Before we delve any further into what this universe looks like and what it might mean for fans, artists, and music publishers, let’s ask the simplest question first: What is a cover song?

A cover song is any music performed or recorded by someone other than the artist who originally recorded, performed, or composed it. (There are legal nuances too complex to explore here, but quite simply, if you didn’t write the song, and you are performing the song, you are covering the song.)

For example, Taylor Swift’s most recent album, 1989, is a multi-platinum phenomenon that has remained pinned atop the Billboard album sales chart for nearly a year. Ryan Adams, a singer and songwriter—also popular, but not nearly in the same stratosphere as Swift—made news recently by releasing a song-for-song cover of Swift’s 1989. In other words, Adams’ version of 1989 is classified as an album comprised entirely of cover songs.

ZEFR Insights has often written about how fans drive the most-viewed content on the platform. Normally, we highlight this essential fact as a roadmap for brands to maximize the potential of earned media to help shape and disseminate their message. But early on in the first decade of YouTube’s existence, the platform was initially known as a place where recent major pop stars first got their start. Fast forward to the 2.4 billion-view (and still growing) sensation that is Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” and you can now find countless examples of music icons using YouTube to their advantage. (See also: Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey, Gotye, etc.) Justin Bieber, in particular, launched into the mainstream on the power of a cover song he uploaded back in 2007 that caught the attention of label executives and landed him a recording contract.

YouTube as a Jukebox

It is not an overstatement to credit YouTube with the resurgence of music videos in the past decade. With the creation of networks such as Vevo, YouTube has turned into a go-to destination for young music fans to discover new artists, while creating a much-desired new revenue stream for music labels and artists. YouTube has become a preferred method for listening to music for millions of millennials, resulting in huge view counts as fans return again and again to hear a favorite song.

YouTube is, of course, also known for its user-generated content. A lot has been written about the rise of the YouTube star—the personalities that make original content and the lucky few whose homemade clips propel them into a new kind of celebrity—but the cover-song culture is thriving more than ever, years after it gifted us with Beliebers. Record executives, managers, and music publishers take heed: YouTube is perhaps the most unique music platform, where unknowns and Taylor Swift mingle as equals until some surprising cover by a stranger begins to pile up the views and another new star is born (while also amplifying the presence of the artist being covered).

To illustrate the power of cover songs on YouTube, ZEFR explored popular subsections of the cover-song universe on the platform, defining genres that grab the most views, while unearthing some surprising data about five of the top Billboard-charting “summer songs.”


Acoustic Covers

This genre of covers is fairly self-explanatory. The song is recorded with acoustic instruments (i.e., acoustic guitar, ukulele, drums, flute, violin, etc). Many of these songs feature the creators singing as well, as the covers usually provide a perfect combination of familiarity along with a way to showcase the vocal talents of a possibly emerging talent.

Ryan Adams isn’t the only one giving his spin on Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” Covers uploaded by virtual unknowns drive most of the cover-song traffic on YouTube. If you look at the chart below, ZEFR found that the covers uploaded by “famous” (or, established) musicians, such as Ryan Adams, are not driving the view traffic as much as “unknowns.” The cover-song community on YouTube, in fact, accounts for 15 times more views than those performed by well-known artists.


This is good news for music publishers, and young artists such as Tiffany Alvord, who has attracted over 2.5 million subscribers to her channel along with nearly half-a-billion views across all of her videos. The success of her channel is a result of the insatiable appetite of Swift’s fans, even for virtual unknowns covering her songs. This is a perfect example of how one artist can draw attention to her own talents while amplifying the popularity of a celebrity such as Swift. Alvord, via the music of Swift, has managed to boost her own profile as she extends the shelf-life of an already bona fide hit.

Again, looking at the same chart above, Alvord’s cover would be classified as a “fan/influencer” upload, while the Adams version (below) of the same Swift song would be considered a cover performed by a “famous musician.”

Kids Covers

This genre of cover music is distinct from content originally composed for kids, in that it normally features “clean” versions of popular songs, covered by children. For example, if Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” isn’t exactly explicit, its themes might be more suited to adults. This is what makes MattyB’s cover version so endearing. With 28 million views so far, it’s not just a cover, it’s a hit too.

Vocal Covers

As distinct from a cappella covers, a vocal cover features a creator singing over the original track (or a nearly indistinguishable version of it). No instruments are played by the creator, but this covers subset isn’t to be confused with conventional karaoke, since the level of performance goes well beyond what you might expect to see in your local dive bar. Take this version of Jason Derulo’s hit “Want to Want Me” as interpreted by the group Cimorelli.

Genre-Bending Covers

This sub-section of covers on YouTube is exactly as its name suggests: A creator covers a song but changes the style (genre) of music. Why? Well, let’s say you’re don’t actively dislike the Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars smash “Uptown Funk,” but you love heavy metal. Norwegian musician Leo Moracchioli might have a solution.


A Cappella Covers

If you’ve seen either Pitch Perfect or Pitch Perfect 2, you’re already an a cappella expert (of sorts). An a cappella cover is a song performed by an individual or a group using only voice. A cappella derives its signature sound from the the layering of vocal harmonies. Even “individual” a cappella videos often feature multiple tracks of the same singer blended together to achieve harmony.

Walk the Moon’s runaway hit, “Shut Up and Dance,” has racked up over 100 million views on YouTube, thus fueling the million-plus tally for this rendition uploaded by a cappella producer Mike Tompkins.


As we move boldly into fall, ZEFR shares the results of our summer cover-song battle below. This, of course, is subject to change especially if musicians continue to keep covering Ms. Swift’s “Bad Blood.”


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Cultural Trends

When David Letterman relinquished his chair as host of The Late Show back on May 20th, 2015, he did more than just retire. Letterman’s farewell to late-night television represented a cultural shift, from the old guard to the new. The landscape of late night is a brand new playing field where the bevvy of new (and not-as-new) hosts not only do battle nightly for TV ratings, but also all day long as reuploads of clips, sketches, and online extras to YouTube are fast becoming the new barometer by which to determine the ultimate leader of late night.

With the debut of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert this week, the wee-hours talk show circuit appears to be set, for the time being, and the battle for ratings primacy is officially a younger person’s game. As he told Rolling Stone on the eve of his retirement, Letterman conceded it was a “weakness of our show” to not be able to figure out YouTube as well as some of his competitors. He added, “I hear about things going viral, and I think, ‘How do you do that?’ I think I’m the blockage in the plumbing.”

With the fall television season still galloping out of the starting gate, ZEFR Insights decided to look at the success of late-night television shows using YouTube popularity as a metric. What exactly is the role of “late night” television when the viewing public has become empowered by the sophistication of social media platforms and can view clips (and full episodes) at any time of day? What does the success of, say, Jimmy Fallon’s YouTube channel say about the health of his broadcast show and vice versa?

One thing is clear: TV ratings now have a complex relationship with how well a show can also attract viewers through all of the available social media platforms that are not TV. Once upon a time, the show was the show, an hour per weeknight that you stayed up for or missed. Now, the phrase “late night” itself is a relic of the past.

Thanks to YouTube, “late night” is a 24-hour social media cycle that is global and no longer tethered by a determined broadcast hour. Competition is multi-platform and fever-pitched. Who are the winners so far?


The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

A full three months before the first episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert even aired, the show was already up and running on YouTube. If there had been any doubt as to the fevered anticipation of the beloved Comedy Central star moving over to CBS to occupy the Ed Sullivan Theater and the chair once reserved for David Letterman, these fears were put to rest by the Colbeard.

Yes, with the late-night wars being fiercely fought on multiple media battlegrounds, Stephen Colbert saw the importance of getting new content out to his adoring public as soon as humanly possible. If the growing of a beard in the off-season can garner over 2 million views, this bodes well for Letterman’s legacy property and the future of Stephen Colbert, who has already learned that his YouTube fanbase deserves a studio tour just as much as those who dutifully tuned in to the official 11:35pm broadcast debut.

Soon after the show aired, he posted his first YouTube “bonus clip” featuring GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, and Colbert’s fans were already begging for more.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 12.58.09 PM

The Late Late Show with James Corden

What do you do when you’re the least-known amidst a small, elite crowd of well-known funnymen? You go to where your target audience lives. Trying to get a step ahead of the competition, The Late Late Show with James Corden recently filmed the first-ever late night television broadcast from YouTube Space LA. Featuring interviews with beloved YouTube personalities and opening the broadcast with a popular YouTube staple (a musical number, including artists who got their big break on the platform), Corden takes the idea of a well-run late-night YouTube channel one step further, by being YouTube.

The episode was clearly an attempt to pull some of the enormous viewership from these YouTube stars back to broadcast television while giving Corden credibility among the millennial audience necessary to make his own show a success. As some YouTube stars struggle to make the transition to television, some television stars have struggled to find a way to attract viewers from YouTube. Will booking YouTube stars such as Jenna Marbles and Tyler Oakley and interviewing them on their home turf do the trick? Only time will tell, but Corden appears to be invested in the strategy for now.

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon

If there is a pioneer in this still-evolving relationship between YouTube and late night television, it is Jimmy Fallon. Perhaps owing to his background in sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live, a format perfectly suited for the bite-sized entertainment that thrives on YouTube, Fallon towers over the competition in terms of online footprint. His sketches are practically reverse-engineered, with the broadcast being only a preview of what will be uploaded the following day. Take this game-show sketch featuring Kevin Spacey that aired recently and immediately surpassed the million-view threshold soon after its upload.

Some have argued that his content is a little bit more than just influenced by YouTube creators, but straight-up lifted and without giving due credit. Hence this trial by jury of YouTubers reacting to some of Fallon’s most popular clips.

Whatever the case may be, Fallon and his writing staff have smartly courted his target audience by watching YouTube trends closely and speaking in their language, sometimes literally.

Whether it’s views, engagement, or fan uploads, Fallon has the competition playing catch up. If anyone has the late-night/YouTube relationship figured out, at this point, it appears Fallon has stumbled upon the right balance, with each broadcast outlet feeding the success of the other.


Late Night with Seth Meyers

Another former Saturday Night Live alumn, Seth Meyers has learned a few tricks from Fallon, his nightly lead-in. With his part-time band leader and “curator” Fred Armisen (another SNL alum and current Portlandia star) on the road, Meyers’ popular “FredEx” segment is perfect fodder for the YouTube crowd.

While Meyers struggles to keep pace with the rest of the late night hosts on the platform (he ranks second-to-last overall in most categories) and with Colbert already hot on his heels with only a handful of shows under his belt, Meyers might want to revisit the recipe that made his Jon Snow Dinner Party a viral hit. It is just this type of content that thrives on YouTube, further proof that sketch comedy enjoys a seamless transition to the platform, better than interview segments or even monologues.

Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Fallon’s toughest competitor in terms of YouTube audience is Jimmy Kimmel. With 3 million subscribers and just over 2 billion views, Kimmel has struck a chord with the younger crowd that flocks to YouTube, but doesn’t necessarily tune in to network television on weeknights. Kimmel has been extra aggressive in courting an audience to view his official channel. From online-only segments and extra songs from musical guests, to actual YouTube challenges and social-media inspired skits, Kimmel knows his audience well.

In particular, his “Mean Tweets” segment has become a YouTube staple. A sort of mashup of Twitter and YouTube-ready sketch comedy, the first of (so far) 10 editions is still attracting views (42 million and counting) because who doesn’t want to watch overly celebrated celebrities brought down a peg by a single, short, and not-so-sweet tweet?

The normally astute Kimmel found out the hard way that what YouTube giveth it can also taketh, especially when you poke fun at a passionate online community, such as gaming. By poking fun at the YouTube trend of video games as a spectator sport, social media can roar right back like a lion.

But if Kimmel doesn’t understand exactly why certain trends appear on YouTube (unboxings, for example) he’s happy to indulge his viewers by subjecting Mike Tyson to the trend.

Where Kimmel really shines is in engagement. His YouTube fans are not only legion, they are participatory, heeding the host’s challenge in unexpected ways, such as in this viral hit where Kimmel asked his fans to tell their kids that all the Halloween candy had been eaten. Over 34 million views later, it’s apparent that the two Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel) are currently kings of the “late night” YouTube-sphere.



By nearly every metric (views, videos, and engagements), Conan O’Brien’s eponymous late-night program on TNT finishes third behind the Fallon and Kimmel. This is no small feat, considering Jay Leno ducked back into The Tonight Show chair a mere seven months after Conan’s debut, leaving O’Brien essentially adrift without a show or a network. Social media came to the affable redhead’s rescue and the grassroots #TeamCoco Twitter meme was born. This morphed into a brand, eventually landing O’Brien a slot on cable channel TNT where he has flourished for the past five years. TeamCoco, the show’s official YouTube channel, boasts 3 million subscribers and over 1.5 billion views.

The host has recently introduced a new segment where guests reveal what’s in their YouTube watch history, appealing directly to his online fans, including interactive features that bring you directly to the videos being discussed.

Unlike Kimmel, O’Brien was ahead of the video game curve, uploading his own reviews as the “Clueless Gamer,” a perfect recurring bit, undoubtedly aimed right at his online audience.

Sometimes it’s pure luck, as in this viral hit featuring Louis C.K. ranting about cell phones.

Or, it’s O’Brien’s ability to tap into the digital media onslaught we all try to navigate, sometimes literally, as the host takes Dave Franco on a Tinder-fueled hunt for dates.

Conan O’Brien, along with his late night peers, are tirelessly in pursuit of engaging and keeping that important demographic that is increasingly choosing social, bite-sized media over traditional broadcast television. As O’Brien’s impressive YouTube numbers can attest, he’s not necessarily found the super-secret ingredient, but he’s close.

Tune in Tomorrow

It wasn’t long ago when the ratings wars for late night primacy included the staid ABC News program Nightline, hosted by Ted Koppel. When any of the reigning comedians of the era were surpassed by the stoic newsman in viewership, that story itself made news as evidence that the popularity of late-night talk programs was in decline. Broadcast ratings are no longer the most important metric as the fractured media landscape requires a multi-tiered strategy, gathering viewers anywhere they can be found. Of course, getting the most people to tune in during showtime is still the ultimate goal, but as this new generation of late-night hosts is proving, success on YouTube directly translates to success on network television (and vice versa).

The science is murky, the numbers are not. Maybe it’s because sketch comedy is perfectly sized for uploading to YouTube, or maybe it’s just 9 to 5 office workers catching up the day after instead of waiting up and avoiding the risk of sleeping on the job. But whatever the exact recipe is, to judge a late-night host’s success based on ratings alone is to miss the bigger picture: The late-night war is happening during the day on YouTube.

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