Inside the Promise and Peril of YouTube

NEW YORK It is an unerring tenet of social media: After decades of delivering monologues to captive consumers, advertisers need to join the conversation. But early results of advertising on social media wunderkind YouTube have been mixed, as some users take the invitation to engage as an opportunity to lambaste brands.

Dove felt the backlash from an ad posted this month, as did Burger King and Atlantic Records with the fall launch of DiddyTV, a channel on YouTube that elicited scathing comments and a popular video spoof for what many saw as clumsy celebrity marketing. Such stumbles, executives say, are inevitable in new media terrain like YouTube, which is trying to balance its community-driven roots with a workable ad model.

Dove in recent months has acutely felt both the promise and peril of YouTube as an ad medium. As part of its “Real Beauty” campaign, the Unilever brand banked a certified YouTube hit with “The Evolution of Real Beauty” uploaded to YouTube in October, which has since drawn 1.8 million views and gotten four of five stars from users, making it the 31st most favorite YouTube video of all time. But the site has a fickle audience, as evidenced by a follow-up effort for Dove Cream Oil Body Wash that launched earlier this month. In a 20-second video shown on the site’s front page, Grey’s Anatomy star Sara Ramirez invites viewers to help Dove make a TV commercial to air during next month’s Academy Awards. The reaction was not positive, judging from the one star the video has received.

Figuring out an acceptable method for advertising on YouTube is of critical importance to both its owner, Google, which paid $1.65 billion for the site in October, and advertisers, who are eager to tap into the video-sharing phenomenon by crafting ads people elect to watch. That’s the idea behind YouTube’s two main ad products: “participatory video ads” that run on its front page, and the “brand channels” it sets up for advertisers. Like other videos, ad spots can be commented upon and shared.

“The users who come to YouTube are coming to engage with content,” said Jamie Byrne, director of advertising strategy at YouTube. “The same principles hold true when you look at advertising on YouTube.”

Yet the nature of the environment makes hits and misses inevitable. Mike Hemingway, global managing director on the Dove account at WPP Group’s Ogilvy & Mather, said for brands to stand out with consumers, they need to stake out ground that will sometimes cause negative reactions. The “Real Beauty” push is designed to provoke just those sorts of reactions, he said, and the totality of the effort shows how well it’s working. “You have to have an edge to get people to notice you,” he said.

Sometimes that notice can get extreme. The Cream Oil spot highlights the power of placement on YouTube’s front page. The video attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers, eventually reaching 2.9 million streams-enough to qualify it as the most popular video on the site of the month.

But all that attention came with a price in the form of scathing feedback that led Dove to shut off the comments on the video, a move that further stoked the ire of several YouTube users as inconsistent with the communal nature of the site. Without comments on the video page, several moved to the Dove channel page to voice their complaints.

“OK, you have money, so you bought your add[sic] on front page,” said one. “But it ruins the meaning of YouTube-sharing videos and commenting [on] them.”

One user even made a video monologue pointing to the spot as a prime example of how marketers and their agencies still don’t understand how to market on sites like YouTube, running typical TV commercials with calls to action that do not resonate. “People are obviously trying to send you a message,” he advised.

Byrne said YouTube encourages brands to keep comments open and learn from them. Hemingway, however, said brands still needed to keep the boundaries on discussions it provokes. “The debate there was more unexpected,” he said. “It’s curious that people care so much.”

Sometimes that means a brand cutting its losses. In October, Burger King loudly trumpeted its partnership with Sean Combs for DiddyTV. But the intro video showing Diddy ordering food at Burger King and talking about “buying” a YouTube channel engendered such a backlash that it has since been removed entirely from the site, although DiddyTV is still running. A Burger King rep said Diddy’s label was responsible for all content. A Diddy spokeswoman did not respond to messages.

The Dove and Burger King examples show the conundrum faced by YouTube advertisers in the crosshairs: How do they police their brand images without coming off as inauthentic members of the community? A promotion on YouTube of the Superman Returns DVD late this fall elicited chatter that Warner Home Video and its ad agency were creating fake profiles so they could subscribe to the channel and bump up its popularity ranking-in effect, gaming the system. Real Branding, the San Francisco independent behind the campaign, denied this and tracked down the source of the rumor, then had YouTube explain to him he was mistaken in his belief that Warner was cheating to raise its ranking.

“You have a vocal minority online of people who will assume the worst,” said Cory Treffiletti, vp of media services at Real Branding. More than just accepting criticism, brands should in some way learn from it and respond when appropriate, he added. “Negative feedback is fine, just don’t ignore it,” he said.

The uneven results highlight the fact that the hurly-burly of social media sites like YouTube are not for every brand, said Greg Verdino, director of emerging channels at Digitas. While it is easy for outsiders to pontificate that brands need to give up control, many have invested literally billions in building up their brand equity-making them understandably wary of putting it on the line. “These types of viral distribution opportunities can go very wrong very fast,” he said.