Going Beyond View Obsession

Why many brands aren’t getting the full picture of their YouTube viewership

Guest post by Dane Golden

beyond view obsession
Stats from YouTube’s highest viewed video, Gangnam Style

You have a problem, but you don’t know about it yet. You are your company’s Chief Marketing Officer, and you’ve been rating your YouTube success by looking at a single number. And it’s the wrong number – or, at least, one that can be very misleading. Unfortunately, you have been praying to a false god, and its name, simply put, is “Views.” Yes, many CMOs still gauge campaign success with this single metric in mind. But when is a view not a view? Are some views worth more than others? And what other numbers should you be looking for?

Subscribers, not Views, are the Holy Grail for Marketers

The most important number for a YouTube channel is not views. It’s subscribers. While views are one of several important factors, it is the YouTube subscriber count, not an individual video’s views, that is the indicator most analogous to the Facebook page Like or the Twitter Follower. Because like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others, YouTube is a social media platform – the second most popular social media network, in fact, after Facebook. The brands making best use of YouTube today understand this, and act accordingly. The others, unfortunately, see YouTube as just another broadcast distribution network. Each social media platform has its own advantages and idiosyncrasies, and there’s never a one-to one relationship between community size and community engagement. On YouTube, it’s clear that Viewcount is the best indicator of past views. But subscriber count is the best indicator of future views. And subscriber growth is absolutely essential for a brand that wants repeat organic viewership. So, how do you get more subscribers for your channel? The answer is simple – have an engaging channel. Easier said than done, perhaps, but there are a number of key factors in engagement, and we’ll emphasize three of them: audience retention, comments, and engaging with your superfans, or as YouTube calls them, “Top Fans.”

1) Audience Retention Reality

YouTube video views are an interesting and important number, but they don’t come close to telling the full story about a video’s effectiveness in marketing your brand. Audience retention, for one, is a great way to bring this point home. Many brands run targeted YouTube TrueView campaigns. TrueView is a version of Google AdWords that serves YouTube videos as various types of ads on the YouTube platform (and the primary way most YouTube entertainment channels – aka YouTubers – make revenue). But in many cases, the video content itself is not engaging to the viewers. It doesn’t resonate with viewers, and it’s not prompting them to have a conversation about the topic. So viewers are not watching the video all the way through. It isn’t surprising, or shouldn’t be, that all viewers are not watching every YouTube ad to the end. If we DVR a video at home, we skip through the ads if they don’t interest us. That same behavior applies to YouTube as well. But the surprise is that we, as marketers, often confuse a “view” with a “completed view.” Far from it. While YouTube doesn’t publicize how much of a video someone has to watch for it to count as a view, experts agree that it’s just a few seconds.

Try this: When logged in to your YouTube account, click on this link, which takes you to your channel’s audience retention numbers. Then, go to the search box and search for the title of your latest video. What comes up may surprise you. Below is a graph of a YouTube Analytics audience retention report for a video that ran some paid views through YouTube’s TrueView. Even if you have seen these audience retention reports before, you may not have seen this newer version, released in the past few weeks, which breaks out paid and organic views for videos viewed after Sept. 25, 2013. (Find out more about the new features here).

Audience retention Disregarding the “Average view duration” numbers at the top, which can be deceptive if you’ve run paid promotion, what we’re seeing above is a video that had good organic audience retention. But, this may have been a much smaller number of viewers who were searching on the specific topic, or had subscribed to the channel. And we see, importantly, that most of the viewers who saw the video as a pre-roll (aka in-stream) video ad only viewed up to about six seconds. Why six seconds? Because after five seconds they have an option to click off of the ad, and it takes an extra second to press the “Skip Ad” link. And while advertisers don’t pay for people who click off early, the evidence is clear: Your high viewcount may be lulling you into a false sense of security about your YouTube channel.

And if you see an audience retention level that sinks like this after just a few seconds, either your video doesn’t resonate with the YouTube audience or you aren’t targeting the right audience within YouTube. But assuming targeting is done correctly on a campaign like this, your video itself is just not working for one reason or another. This analysis in no way denigrates the value of YouTube TrueView. TrueView is a valuable way of bringing your message to viewers who may want to know about you, but don’t yet. And of course in all promotion, however targeted, there will be some that is ineffective or reaches someone who isn’t interested. The challenge is that it’s very easy for a marketing department to just see a high viewcount standing by itself and say: “Boom, we made our numbers!” However, they don’t realize that those viewcounts, driven in campaigns via YouTube TrueView or other means, may have very little audience retention. The majority of paid views only get a fraction of viewers watching all the way to the very end of the videos.

And while there is a strong case to be made for campaigns which cast a wide net in hopes of finding an audience that connects with their videos, these campaigns are most effective using a wide-eyed approach with an understanding of the deeper analytics. Since TrueView only charges the advertiser for videos after the viewer watches more than 29 seconds, an effective marketer, if the data were available, should really break out a third category of views (in addition to paid views and organic views) called “Campaign-Driven Free Views.” This category is for anything less than 30 seconds, where the campaign didn’t have to pay for the view, but viewers only watched partial videos. Ideally, the TrueView analytics shouldn’t break out viewership by 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% of the video viewed, but rather break it out by 5 seconds, 15 seconds, 30 seconds, and 100%. Depending on your budget, you may want to test your next promotional video with focus groups before the next release.

Alternately, you can produce a number of videos and just see which one works best. And there are a number of lessons to be learned from the content programming strategies of content creators, aka YouTubers, and from brands like GoPro, RedBull, Zagg, and Orabrush. Given a large enough budget, you can always equal the view count of a previous TrueView campaign. Which is fine – it’s your job to get attention to your brand, and TrueView is an incredible tool for jumpstarting a campaign. But rather than using YouTube simply to distribute videos many people don’t want to see, why not instead use TrueView to prime the pump of engaging videos that will have greater shareability, and build upon that success further by engaging the viewers through all social media means necessary? On YouTube, engagement means having a conversation. And to have a conversation, you need to make good use of the YouTube comments section.

2) Comments Are The New Likes

One need only look at the uproar about the recent Google+ integration to understand how important comments are to top YouTube channels. There’s been such an outcry that, in the end, the needs of YouTube channels may very well soon be driving Google+ features, instead of the other way around. So comments on YouTube are extremely important, and often overlooked in the marketer’s YouTube strategy. Since subscriber numbers are the best indicator of future views, and viewer engagement is the No. 1 way to build that subscriber base, then the YouTube comment field is the best place to build that engagement. Congratulations – you, the marketer, are no longer just distributing videos, but you are now moderating conversations about your videos, and about your brand. Because while television is about communication of one to many, YouTube is about two-way conversation.

This means both conversations with your brand and conversations about your brand. And while you, the moderator, are a large voice, in the end you are just one of many. You can only moderate the conversation, not control it. And that’s frightening to those who’ve cut their teeth on TV commercials and more traditional branding. But, of course, these conversations about your brand are happening already, on your Facebook and Twitter and Instagram accounts. And while these platforms are each important in their way, only conversations on the YouTube platform will help build your YouTube engagement and subscriber base. So YouTube comments are the best way to continue discussions about your videos when seeking to build YouTube channel engagement. Basically, if you’re not having a conversation with your YouTube viewers, your video is just having a conversation with itself. YouTube Likes (aka “Thumbs Ups”), while a key metric, pale in comparison to the value of comments from an engaged user. This goes for positive or negative feedback. That’s why moderating, and encouraging dialog, on your YouTube channel is equally as important as moderating on your Twitter and Facebook channels. YouTube moderation will only increase in value as the integration with Google+ continues. Because, the current outrage of YouTubers aside, Google+ commenting integration is surely here to stay.  

3) Top Fans

Wouldn’t it be great if you could find out who the top 500 fans were of your brand’s TV commercials? Well with YouTube, you can. This past summer, Google introduced a feature called “Top Fans,” which, not surprisingly, also heavily integrates Google+. Initially rolled out only for channels with more than 5,000 subscribers, the Top Fans feature has been gradually opening up to members with over 2,000 subscribers. To find out if you currently have access to Top Fans, visit YouTube.com/audience. The Top Fans feature enables you to rank your channel’s most engaged and influential viewers. You can sort the table by the viewer’s engagement level or number of subscribers. After connecting your channel to Google+, you can group top fans into circles, which could be helpful when targeting a particular message to them, as you can by sending them a Google+ message. Additionally, you may chose to invite your fans to a Google Hangout or sign up for your newsletter. Or you may want to reward top fans with a gift certificate. Whatever your chosen engagement strategy, the Top Fans feature opens up a variety of opportunities for engaging your fans via both YouTube and the now-mind-melded Google+. Again, there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the painful Google+/YouTube integration, but it’s going to happen one way or another, so best to get on board with Google+ earlier than the competition so you have it figured out before they do.

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Dane Golden is an independent YouTube brand strategist and audience growth consultant, and the founder of Hey.com. He co-hosts the weekly YouTube marketing podcast TubeTalk.

Want to guest write for the ZEFR Blog? Details here.


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  • Thanks to Zefr for having me guest post on the blog! I welcome your feedback or questions here in the comments section.

    • tsheng

      Dane what I loved about your piece is the advocacy for finding the metrics that matter for any given user of YouTube. It might be subscribers or comments or retention or something else completely, but going beyond views to find the metrics that best align with your business objectives is something digital marketers have gotten wise to on other platforms but have just started to push for on YouTube.

      Have you read Lean Analytics?


      • Thanks very much Tony for the great comments. Yes, I think of YouTube Analytics as sort of Moneyball for video. To paraphrase the movie: “Using the stats the way we read them, we’ll find value in [video viewer engagement] that no one else can see… I believe that there is a championship [video engagement strategy] that we can afford, because everyone else in [marketing] undervalues them.” No I have not read Lean Analytics but it looks to be my kind of thing. I’ll be reading it soon! Thanks!

  • While I agree that views are not the Holy Grail for marketers I will argue with you (just for the sake of controversy) as I feel Subscribers are not the Holy Grail for marketers either. Getting permission based customer contact info that leads to a sale that can be tracked to a specific YouTube video is the Holy Grail for marketers.

    • Thanks Tim, and you’re absolutely correct. I should have said “within the context of YouTube.” Overall, contact info such an email addresses from fans who opt-in are of the highest value in connecting with customers. And brands can further grow the virtuous circle of audience engagement by also emailing customers links to their latest videos (along with other info).

      • Meredith Gene Levine

        I also tend to agree that Subscribers are not the holy grail of YouTube. I think that an e-mail address or alternate form of contact off of YouTube is increasingly valuable, but I think that success metrics trump views and subs in terms of doing YouTube well.

        The comment to view ratio is important as well as the % of audience members that watch the whole video, which I think is a great point seeing as though not all views are engaged, or engaged positively.

        • Thanks Meredith – good points! Which “success metrics” are you referring to on YouTube? On the comments-to-views front, I do have something I call the Golden Engagement Quotient for YouTube (or Golden EQ), which ranks comments and likes as a ratio to views. Here’s the formula:

          [Cx3+(L+D)]/Vx1000 = “Golden EQ”
          C = Comments
          L = Likes
          D = Dislikes
          V = Views

          The ideal Golden EQ number for a video is 100 (which is extremely difficult to get). Thanks!

  • Mark Malkoff

    Great insight, Dane!

  • “Comments are the new likes” — well said, Dane. A dialogue about one’s content is becoming a must in this new world of content marketing/strategy.

  • Meredith Gene Levine

    Thanks for a great guest post Dane! I found it to be thought provoking and in the right direction.

  • idavidbw

    Great point about views vs. retention. In fact, I believe YouTube changed their algorithm last year to really favor retention metrics in the wake of people using misleading thumbnails and metadata to drive views and hence discovery (I’m looking at you Vlog Girls). So strong retention really helps a video gain traction in search results and recommended videos too.

    • Yes that’s exactly right David, and thanks for the comment! YouTube has lowered the value of views in their algorithm and given more weight to “watch time,” the average length of time people watch a specific video, and “session time,” which is (as I understand it) the average length of time a viewer watches multiple videos continuously in a session, with at least one of those videos being yours.

  • Eric F

    great article, dane! really in-depth market research and no fluff. i plan to re-read it and supply more feedback.

  • Yafate Beyene

    Nice article Dane! This piece was Golden!

  • Jake

    Great article Dane. It’s super relevant and corrects a lot of
    misconceptions that people have about measuring the effectiveness of
    video. To add to the list of undervalued metrics would be the minutes
    watched metric, which also effects your ranks on YouTube as well.

    I do agree with @1timstreet:disqus as well. The best value and metric are gathering
    names and emails. You need to get people off of YouTube and onto your

    • Thanks very much Jake for these insights! And for bringing up the minutes watched metric, which is great. I have learned much from your Video Marketing Power series and the great work you’ve done helping Zagg with conversion, using more of a direct marketing methodology. And yet in many cases, I’m still of the belief that for many channels with goals less immediately transactional, the goal should be keeping viewers within the YouTube environment for multiple videos as long as possible, building their engagement in your brand and building an allegiance to it. They will be more likely to buy later on, and more likely to be advocates for the brand, non-profit, or entertainment property.

  • Great article Dane!
    I think subscriber count is and will continue to be important, but I’d say the true Holy Grail is audience data. Thanks to Indiana Jones, I think we all know the dangers of picking the wrong grail.

    • Thanks very much vidiSEO! I’ll “choose wisely”!

  • Veronica Reynolds

    Some interesting points here Dane, thanks for sending my way.

  • Thanks for this article Dane. There’s an over abundance of numeric addiction in the marketplace, and it’s nice to see that quality still has its place and value. Look forward to chatting more about this on Behind the Video!

  • Dustin DeRolph

    Great article Dane. It’s spurring alot of thought. I think one reason views have been front and center for MCN’s is that views hint at revenue (since rev is a function of views and CPM). But CMO’s have different goals really than MCN’s and for audience building per se I think you hit the nail on the head.