A Conversation on YouTube Marketing With Brendan Gahan

ZEFR’s Erik Weber and Meredith Levine recently sat down with YouTube expert Brendan Gahan to chat about the current state of video marketing, particularly with respect to the rise of influencers and how brands have yet to fully take advantage of the opportunities that the platform provides. Brendan was named Forbes 30 Under 30 in Marketing & Advertising, and was named one of the 25 Top YouTube Business Power Players for 2013.

Erik Weber: What do you think about the state of influencer marketing in 2014 when you look at YouTube?

Brendan Gahan: I still think, as a whole, it’s largely untapped. Certainly, there is a lot of excitement about the space, and more and more brands are participating. But, if you verticalized all of the influencer categories, like beauty, videos games, and so on, it’s still at this point where the people who have gotten that first bit of cross-over press are taking up a disproportionate amount of the influencer marketing budgets within each category.

I think its worth it for us in the ad industry to be asking ourselves how we’re selecting who to work with. A handful of influencers have garnered recognition among their business side of their verticals, and as a result are appearing in a lot of campaigns or pitches. In those scenarios, is that innovative anymore? As a marketer, are you moving the needle if you’re working with, or trying to work with, the same creators as everyone else?

There are so many different creators out there to collaborate with – in fact, there are over 10,000 creators that have at least 50K subscribers. And so, it’s like we are still dipping our toes in the water.

EW: It’s interesting because anyone can be a creator, so anyone could become the next Michelle Phan, for example, so if you are looking only at the top, you’re missing the next big thing.

Meredith Levine: And, I think it’s also missing the point if you’re going after the same people. Michelle Phan might have 26 million subscribers, and she might be able to get people to show up to a convention, but you’re not going to get the same kind of trust levels as a result of her size. The bigger somebody is, the less you’re going to trust them as a spokesperson. The smaller channels, say, if you have 100K subscribers, it’s going to feel more intimate, the community is going to feel like they matter more, and they are valued more. And so, I think for brands that are only going after the very top, they are missing a lot of the point of YouTube as a social network.

BG: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a big opportunity to tap into these communities of lesser known creators. It’s almost like this counter-intuitive sort of thing, where people get caught up in the numbers, and it’s so easy to be like, “well that’s a bigger number, so I’m gonna go that way.” But, to your point, 9 times out of 10, engagement is going to be higher with the niche people, and they are so untapped, and often times are hungrier and more willing to collaborate. The smaller channels will have more community driven channels, and they are also less expensive to work with.

Consider Pareto’s law – how can you get the most for the least. I think big numbers or the well known name can be seductive. Advertisers and press put a disproportionate emphasis on the top tier people, who are still great, but demand is higher for them, or they’re over saturated with brand deals, versus going for the right communities for your audience and tapping into niches which typically drive more engagement.

EW: When it comes to convincing clients to spend on YouTube, how much has changed from when you first started pitching ideas to now?

BG: That’s a great question. I feel like it was two years ago it started to like really gain a level of credibility that it didn’t necessarily have before.

EW: Why didn’t it have that credibility before when you started out? What were the brands saying? Why were they hesitant?

BG: I think there were a few things. For a long time, there was this question, “what’s the difference between doing this and working with bloggers?” Because to a certain extent, influencer marketing had just been about blogging, and that was the big hot thing for so long. And yes, while it’s totally relevant, and just like anything else it’s all in the execution, 99 times out of a 100 if you put a YouTuber up against a blogger, the YouTuber is gonna blow ‘em out of the water in terms of overall engagement. Now, as time has gone on, more advertisers are beginning to understand the nuances of the platform and explore new ways to collaborate with creators.

I think the other thing was often times not knowing who had ownership over it. Was it the media agency, or PR, or the creative agency? I think that’s still a battle, but now people know they need to place it somewhere, so at least brands are making decisions, whereas before it was pretty nebulous. There were so many obstacles to making it happen that I imagine a lot of the brands just didn’t want to make that decision.

And so, each year there were incrementally bigger budgets. And then, obviously, with the Disney Maker deal, everybody talks about it now. What’s that one saying… success has many fathers? Suddenly, everybody’s been doing it forever. And, a lot of people have, but, now that it’s got this stamp of credibility, I think there is a lot more momentum than there was even just 6 months ago.

EW: How are brands dealing with the shift from traditional TV advertising to the video and social media landscape? How are they shifting their dollars?

BG: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s interesting though… we talked about this idea of influencer marketing, and how blogging almost dominated that narrative. I think for a long time when looking at social media, Twitter and Facebook dominated that narrative, while YouTube was just a place to house content that you distributed across these other platforms. And, I think now there’s the understanding that there is a community here on YouTube as well, and so advertisers are starting to explore the nuances of the platform.

And, I think YouTube has probably done a good job pushing that as well. You know that hub, hero, hygiene strategy they always talk about. The tweaks they made, to things such as the subscribe button a year and a half ago, I think they kind of adopted a lot of the strategies that were working for other social networks to get brands to continue to invest money. They kinda drafted off those lessons learned to a certain extent, and tried to apply them to YouTube.

Now, with Google preferred, they are doing everything they can to package everything in a way that says, “ok, you wanna be in YouTube – we’re gonna make it so it’s very turnkey to work within your existing process.”

ML: So, you’ve mentioned to us before about how hard it is to get an end card on a branded video. And, that’s something that seems obvious to people who work in the space everyday, but, I’m wondering if you could speak to why it’s so difficult, and how we might be able to move it forward? 

BG: Yeah, it kinda goes back to how brands have got their PR agency, their media agency, and their creative agency, and defining where things go is often times half the battle. And so, with something like end cards, as an example, I think it’s introducing a new idea into this pre-existing framework. And, it’s not a clearly defined bucket. Who owns it? Is it the company that is doing the production? Is is the responsibility of the creative agency? Is it the social media agency? Now, more and more companies have the social media agency over here, and then there’s also a YouTube agency over here.

So, this is a new framework, and there’s a lot of other groups that could technically be handling it. So yeah, it’s tough. And, you realize in a massive organization that communicating all that and keeping everyone on board can be an uphill battle for sure.

I think it’s also a matter of priorities. Within a lot of companies, this is new to them. They’re still feeling it out. Where do they want to dedicate time and resources? For Facebook and Twitter, there are established processes and infrastructure in place for those. YouTube is next to be sorted out.

EW: How do you see the infrastructure for YouTube marketing being formed? What should it look like?

BG: I think with YouTube, and with most things really, hard work can beat out intelligence over time, especially within digital. lf you work hard enough at something and are passionate about it, you will figure it out. It’s a given. And I think, with YouTube, it’s very easy, because it’s video, to tap it into your existing TV based infrastructure. But, the mediums are very different. TV is not YouTube. Yes, they are both video, but beyond that, there’s not an overlap in terms of expertise. It’s a very different skill set. On YouTube, you don’t really even have to edit to be successful at it.

ML: To a certain extent, YouTube is where TV was 50 years ago, with single sponsor episodes, like Texaco Star Theater, where you watch the episode, and at the end it just says “brought to you by…”.

BG: Yeah, and to that point, its like adopting the infrastructure, but not necessarily what works for TV right now. Carrying it over to YouTube doesn’t necessarily translate. If you look at the more successful brands on YouTube, they definitely have dedicated teams and resources specifically for the platform, and I think to be great at anything you need that level of focus.

And, if you think about the evolution in terms of a successful brand channel, you can start with “what does our brand stand for,” and obviously to a certain extent they should understand that already, and then begin to create content, singular content. Find a piece of content that represents that brand narrative, and iterate on that, instead of trying to do 20 different things over the course of the year. If you look at a lot of the successful channels, they started with a basic idea, this is what we represent. Then, to grow the channel, they basically iterated on that basic idea and tested different variables to see what people responded to.

So, if you look at Epic Meal Time’s first video compared to now, you can kinda see how they almost optimized the production of their content, ya know, by how much bacon to include, because everybody loves bacon. Certain elements, you gotta throttle up and down over time. So, it’s understanding what your brand is, creating a singular voice, but optimizing the specific execution of that.

EW: What advice can you give to brands who are just starting out?

When starting out, at least, it’s understanding where you are in the lifecycle of a community. When you are starting out, you need to have a singular voice, because you don’t have the equity or the mindshare for people to hold more than one thought as it relates to you. But, once you begin to get massive, then you can start to come up with sub-brands. I think that’s a big mistake that a lot of brands make, or that anybody makes, online. The best piece of advice I ever got was to zero in on that thing that nobody else is doing, find that niche that is at least relatively unexplored and start there. Because, if you’re saying stuff that other people are already saying, the difference is they’ve got an audience and they’ve got credibility, and you don’t. So, right off the bat you lose.


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