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How to Win at YouTube

Some programming tactics starting to emerge

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Google has allocated $200 million to promote its emerging lineup of original channels. But given that there are close to 100 channels to promote, that works out to about $2 million per channel. And some of those channels have 20 plus shows. It's fair to say $2 million in display advertising isn’t about to win you an election, let alone allow too many brands to break through the culture.

Besides, marketing shows on YouTube is a relatively new discipline, one that requires pulling way different levers than reminding the world to tune into the latest version of NCIS (Chattanooga?). In fact, in some circles, sharing is considered far more powerful than marketing can every could be. Think of the power behind the various Call Me Maybe knockoffs, or Kony 2012. Or Charlie Bit My Finger. Not a single ad was every bought for each of these worldwide phenomenon.

The big question is, can content creators ever recreate such a viral phenomenon with their shows? Not likely, unless someone is able to craft a show that blends cats, babies, Carly Rae Jepsen and Angelina Jolie. But roughly six months into YouTube’s channel rollout, some lessons are emerging, along with something of a Web series playbook. In fact, YouTube is keen on speading this information by launching a series of instructional videos aimed at helping the community of creators share success stories and tactics. “We want to learn together,”  said YouTube’s vp of marketing Danielle Tiedt.

"There’s always going to be examples of people that put up videos and find magic," Tiedt added. "There’s always going to be a Justin Bieber. But if it was easy, everyone would have a viral video. For most people, there’s just too much video out there. You need to lean into the audience more."

But how to lean in? Rule number one: stars help. You're better off getting people who know what they are doing, though. Take the YOMYOMF Network, which made its debut on YouTube about a month ago. YOMYOMF (based on the blog You Offend Me, You Offend My Family) already has 409,917 subscribers and has generated 15.3 million views. The network’s debut video, a funny sort of tour of YOMYOMF, featured cameos by Jessica Alba and Wayne Brady.

But more importantly, the network is backed by Ryan Higa, he of the 5.4 million pre-existing YouTube subscribers. And that debut clip was hosted by Kev Jumba, who has generated almost 300 million views. 

“He has more subscribers than some channels,” said Abdul Khan, a YOMYOMF co-founder. “It’s hard to get that discoverability. These guys are in demand. I’m not sure if the offline world has realized that.”

Khan said that YOMYOMF was testing whether the combination of offline stars and online talent combines for something bigger, acknowledging that both are limited on their own. He doubts that anybody can engineer a video that explodes like JK Wedding Dance. But talent like Higa, who has built a community and continuously engages with fans, has clearly figured something out. “One thing you’ll notice about YouTubers is that they have a very consistent number of views. A million to 2 million views—you can call that viral.”

That online/offline combo was definitely part of the thinking behind AwesomenessTV, a teen/tween-aimed YouTube channel that has logged almost 10 million views since June. One of Awesomeness’ signature shows is IMO, a View-esque teen talk show hosted by the likes of Gracie Dzienny, a Nickelodeon star tapped in part because of her 21,000-plus Twitter followers.

"For years I’ve made shows for cable networks, and you always have this huge marketing spend behind them,” said Awesomeness co-founder Brian Robbins, a veteran TV director and producer. “We’re not counting on that. We knew we had to have a self-starter. And I knew I wanted some old talent, but it is just as important to use new YouTube talent. It's important to bring those worlds together."

Still, while Awesomeness seems to be clicking, IMO has been averaging around 50,000 to 100,000 views. Solid, but hardly viral just yet. Of course, viewers are still likely finding out that Awesomeness exists and that it has a consistent schedule (the networks prominently posts its broadcast-esque lineup on the channel’s homepage). Somewhat counterintuitively, schedules are crucial in building a consistently audience, say many producers.

Beside schedules, and talent that tweets a lot, YouTube programmers can and should look to incite sharing, and even better, responses—whether they take the form of tweets, IMs or even mock videos along the lines of Call Me Maybe—say programmers.Take the new Bryan Singer-backed series H+, the centerpiece of a new channel geared around a futuristic sci-fi series.

H+ allows—actually encourages—users to watch the shows 48 episodes in random order, creating and publicizing their own playlists. Plus, the show’s creators are overtly encouraging users to share, create, vent and debate. According to co-creator John Cabrera, that means linking to videos within an episode, annotating videos and urging people to jump from video to video. “YouTube’s audience is very specific," Cabrera said. "They are ready for great content. But you have to engage with the audience in a very direct fashion. We see our viewers as a channel of social distribution. You have to encourage that distribution platform."

Thus, H+ is continually providing calls to action, even urging people to produce their own confession-style videos. "I wouldn’t say you can engineer viral," said Cabrera. "But there is viral content that comes from dense communities."

Margaret Laney, head of digital marketing at Awesomeness TV, tends to agree, particularly on the importance of directly engaging with fans on YouTube on comment boards. ‘"That’s a huge tactic for us." Awesomeness is experimenting with featuring comments within episodes of shows like IMO, letting viewers introduce specific series, posting video fan letters, and even rewarding the most frequent commenters in some episodes. "You have to do more than make good content today,” added Robbins.

The team behind Wigs might be hoping Robbins is wrong, for at least a little while. That female-targeted YouTube network, which Google showcased at its upfront-esque Brandcast back in May, shares far more DNA with TV and movies than, say, YOMYOMF.

Launched in May, Wigs features a growing collection of short form, art-film-meets-Lifetime mini series starring big-name actresses like Virginia Madsen, Julia Stiles, Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Beals. The team behind Wigs, Rodrigo Garcia (HBO’s In Treatment) and Jon Avnet (Black Swan), are known for chasing Emmys and Oscars, not for video shares. "We are not experts on YouTube programming or sharing," said Avnet. "We didn’t come to this from a marketing backgrounf or Web background. Our hope was, because it was unique content, that would engender interest. I don’t know if I would ever use the word virality, but our hope was that Wigs would build over time."

So far, Wigs has only 75,000 or so subscribers, but has generated close to 15 million views—about what YOMYOMF has done in a month. "If you compare it to the Machinima, it's the sun versus the moon," said Avnet.

Wigs stars are no guarantee of social media power either. While Madsen has over 40,000 followers on Twitter and America Ferrera has close to 19,000, Stiles famously avoids Twitter entirely.

To be fair, Wigs is trying to pull off a much tougher trick than the likes of Machinima, which is a huge gaming network, or YOMYOMF, which is focused on comedy and pop culture, or Awesomeness, which is grabbing a demographic that practically lives online. Women are drawn to scripted drama, but few turn to YouTube for such fair—yet. Avnet said he’s encouraged by the frequency of and passion behind the show’s commenters, who are continually asking for more. And the nice thing is, Garcia joked, “The numbers don’t go down every week. Life goes on.”

Might Wigs? Avnet says, yes, probably. Actors are actually coming to him and Garcia with ideas for scripts. The pitch won’t be as challenging now that the two have something to point to. “We’re maybe cooler than we thought," said Avnet.

Still Next time around, the pair may tap more social media experts. And maybe a Wigs staring cats, babies, gamers and Bieber?