Why YouTube Needs to Formulate a Clear Identity for Its Originals

It's focusing too much on advertisers rather than creators and community

YouTube videos need to keep creators, users and advertisers in mind with all video projects. Getty Images
Headshot of Aditi Rajvanshi

For the longest time YouTube has called itself a video platform that gives users access to the world’s largest content library. That started changing a couple years ago when they first began collaborating with creators to make content for the platform. Since then, we’ve seen several iterations of their content strategy, from scale of funding to the nature of content, it’s been a constantly changing vision. The launch of YouTube Red and YouTube Originals in October 2015 marked a public shift of YouTube’s narrative, moving it closer to that of a media company, and we’ve been witnessing an evolution ever since. The platform’s success in its 10-plus years of existence can be summed up in its ability to reach the largest online audience with the widest range of content. From platform pioneers John and Hank Green to comedic powerhouses Rhett and Link to prolific gamer Markiplier to inclusivity advocate Hannah Hart, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that there’s something for everyone on YouTube.

Given their growing focus on “premium” content, more akin to TV-style productions, YouTube’s Brandcast, it’s Newfront event, has become a larger-than-life showcase of YouTube’s influence and reach. Brandcast, like most Newfronts, is designed to wow both digital and traditional brand marketers, agencies and content makers of all shapes and sizes. At Brandcast 2018, YouTube announced its plans to double down on traditional celebrity-led content from the likes of Will Smith, Priyanka Chopra, Lebron James and Kevin Hart, with just one native creator, The Slow Mo guys, on the slate. The conspicuous absence of YouTube creators in the Originals lineup was met with skepticism and concern by many creators and users in the community. It has triggered discussions across creators about YouTube’s changing focus and how it impacts them.

Today, the highly competitive streaming arena is led by Netflix, followed by Hulu and Amazon, and YouTube is primed to become the next big player, as far as viewership goes.

YouTube has three main stakeholders to cater to: users, creators and advertisers. To understand YouTube’s approach toward Originals, it is essential to see what works for this initiative. YouTube Originals plays well to what advertisers gravitate toward traditionally: top names, big budget productions and unique viewership. Celebrities like Demi Lovato and Kevin Hart are likely to attract light TV viewers/cord cutters, a sizeable and growing audience segment, hence bringing in newer audiences. This content slate is also better designed to assuage advertiser concerns around brand safety. YouTube had a tumultuous 2017, with brand safety issues lingering into 2018, so going with traditional heavy programming is a safer bet. The lineup is a strong bid to attract more TV dollars, as the content consumption landscape continues to skew digital. With Originals, YouTube’s making a bid for a piece of the streaming content pie, both in terms of users and advertiser interest. Today, the highly competitive streaming arena is led by Netflix, followed by Hulu and Amazon, and YouTube is primed to become the next big player, as far as viewership goes.

The primary challenge with YouTube Originals is the inability to reconcile advertiser demand with user and creator interests. Reactions from users and creators across social media are reflective of this discord. YouTube’s success is built on a vibrant creator ecosystem, sharing their authentic voices with an engaged audience. This two-way street is at the core of the YouTube experience for users, creators and brands alike.

Brands like Squarespace, Audible, Sephora and Target have collaborated with creators to make effective campaigns that feel more personal and real than traditional celebrity endorsements. These collaborations have resulted in real upticks in brand awareness, recognition and ultimately sales. With Originals, brands are assured the comfort of familiarity, but it moves away from what makes YouTube standout in a busy content ecosystem. Originals does not play to YouTube’s core strengths of organically grown communities and that unique relationship between creators and their audiences that drove users, creators and brands to YouTube in the first place.

With Originals, the connection between the audience and the celebrity is a tenuous one, based solely on their off-platform presence. For Originals to become sustainable and succeed in line with YouTube’s unique value proposition, they need to incorporate audience engagement and community building into the very fabric of the program. The next thing would be to experiment with innovative formats that do not exist on linear programming today. Seeing familiar faces in unusual narratives could offer the differential Originals desperately needs to stand out from TV content. The Karate Kid spinoff Cobra Kai, the latest series from YouTube Red Originals, is a good example of innovation within a well-established genre. The series has received great reviews across Rotten Tomatoes, viewer reactions and industry ratings, making it a much-needed success story for Originals.

YouTube at its best is an open platform with no gatekeepers where a creator could make content, engage with fans and build communities. That ability for anyone to find their tribe has been at the heart of creator and community experiences for over a decade. I don’t fully understand the vision for YouTube Originals today. And I don’t think YouTube understands it either, yet. The program is geared to grow YouTube’s already massive audience and its share of ad dollars. It’s meant to compete with Netflix, Hulu and Amazon in an exploding streaming business. But let’s be clear: It’s not a program designed to support and grow the creator ecosystem. Creators are the backbone of YouTube, and the company has yet to commit to programs that help them undertake more ambitious projects that require YouTube’s scale and resources to create.

The real question is: What is YouTube’s editorial voice? YouTube today is more of a media company than ever before, and it’s essential they define their creative voice and identify what their content platform stands for. In this exploding era of content and access, YouTube needs to invest in strong ideas that echo its editorial beliefs. It’s ironic that YouTube Originals is not quite original to YouTube. With 1.8 billion logged-in users, YouTube has unmatched reach and can truly shape the future of content at a global scale. But as Spider-Man would say, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” And I hope for the sake of all my favorite creators that YouTube has its head in the game.

@YTAditi Aditi Rajvanshi is the founder of Brewing Awesome.