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6 lessons in launching a branded YouTube channel

6 lessons in launching a branded YouTube channel Michael Estrin

Everywhere you turn it's hard to escape the idea these days that brands are becoming publishers. Or at least, it's hard to escape the idea that brands are trying to become publishers.

Only time will tell whether this is a new paradigm or a passing trend. But whether we're talking about Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, or even a plain vanilla website -- how old fashioned! -- the conversation has shifted toward a heavy emphasis on content that brands either produce or curate and then distribute on their very own platform, bypassing a media intermediary.

6 lessons in launching a branded YouTube channel

The idea, in a nutshell, is that brands of all categories must adapt to the new publishing model and morph into something akin to their entertainment cousins if they are to survive and thrive in a media environment where it gets harder everyday to capture a consumer's attention. Brands that had their own YouTube channels were viewed as cutting edge 18 months ago -- or maybe even a little beyond the cutting edge. Today, few people ask whether a brand should have a YouTube channel. Instead, the question is, what should a brand do with its YouTube channel?

While that's ultimately a question for each brand (and the agencies that handle their business) to answer, there are several larger questions brands should be asking about their YouTube channels. After all, a handful of brands are clearly engaging as if they've been in the content business for years, but many more are quite obviously stuck in neutral. So to help your brand take a look at its YouTube channel with fresh eyes, I've asked several agencies to share what they believe are some of the fundamental concerns to focus on when planning a YouTube channel.

Start with the basics

In a lot of ways, there's nothing quite like YouTube. But from a marketing perspective, it's important to approach YouTube as you would any other campaign, explains John Montgomery, CEO of Threshold.

Montgomery advocates approaching the idea of a branded YouTube channel with the following fundamental questions: "Who is your target audience, and what types of content do they seek out? What does your brand stand for, and what content is a natural extension of your brand's DNA? What are your overall marketing goals, and what do you hope a YouTube strategy will accomplish for you?"

Often times, the answers to these questions will dictate strategy. But just as important, they can help focus your team around a larger question: Should we have a YouTube channel?

That question may seem like heresy in a world where it's now assumed that all brands are -- or should be -- content producers, but the truth is a little more nuanced, and what works for one brand may not work for another. Or, put another way: It may be true that all brands need to think like publishers, but not all publishers produce the same material on the same platforms.

"With the various types of content that you can produce, and that are invariably popular on YouTube (short-form humor, episodic webisodes, TV ads, DIY videos, product tutorials, kitties doing pretty much anything, etc.), it is key to establish a long-term plan for the type of voice, tone, and purpose that your brand will commit to," Montgomery says. "Purpose is one of the most important filters, because you will need to decide if you are trying to entertain, inform, educate, or inspire your budding audience." 

Have a strategy, make a plan

It may sound surprising, but many brands still use their YouTube channel as a holding place for repurposed television spots and one-off videos that may or may not have earned the brand much attention. But while it's nice to see the brands on YouTube, Christopher Kingsley, CEO of 42, says brands need to do more than just put their content on YouTube.

"Individual or one-off videos produced for YouTube can be great, but having a comprehensive content strategy that covers how YouTube and video will be used to achieve your brand's overall communication goals is essential," says Kingsley. "Develop a general calendar that governs how content and interactions will flow throughout the next week, month, quarter, and beyond."

To do that, Kingsley advises brands to ask how their strategy plays to their relative strengths as well as the strengths of the YouTube platform. But above all, Kingsley insists that consistency in execution will determine the impact of any branded YouTube channel. Which means that no matter how good your idea is for content, your brand won't get very far if it isn't able to replicate its output with the kind of consistency an audience needs.

Know the platform, know the audience

By now, everyone has seen a YouTube video. But watching the occasional video that finds its way into your inbox or floats through your Facebook feed is a far cry from really knowing YouTube.

So before your brand launches a YouTube channel, you need to ask if you and your team really understand how users interact on the YouTube platform, explains Kendra Campbell-Milburn, senior director of social at The Visionaire Group.

"If [you don't know YouTube], you should set aside blocks of time to dive into the community and become a part of it," says Campbell-Milburn.

But for Campbell-Milburn, it isn't just about watching and learning; it's about becoming a part of the YouTube community before you speak. So how do you know when you've really become a part of the community?

As Campbell-Milburn answers, "Once you find yourself highly distressed after a five-second wait for a video hook to grab you, welcome, friend, you have arrived."

Where does the content come from, and where is it going?

While it should be obvious that brands must produce or curate content that compliments their DNA, there's actually a second step marketers need to consider if they're really going to make their YouTube channel work on an ongoing basis.

Brands that thrive on YouTube do so because they think long and hard about the source of their content, explains Steve Kerho, SVP of strategy, media analytics at Organic, an Omnicom digital agency.

"Populating your YouTube channel only with your broadcast content is a misunderstanding of this channel," says Kerho. "Custom content to fit the format is essential. And user-generated content should also be a key element. Your metrics should be focused on overall audience growth, repeat visits, and, of course, engagement. As your content library grows, so should your promoting of it through channels such as search, email, branded websites, and Facebook."

Those are all considerations that might fall under the category of publishing 101. But brands that skip the basic questions surrounding the sourcing and promotion of their content won't have much luck remaking themselves into publishers, no matter how compelling their content is.

Find the right person in your organization

While the strategy specifics are going to vary from one brand to the next, one key commonality is that each brand will likely need a designated team member to manage and take responsibility for its YouTube channel. At an entertainment brand, for example, there are probably already a number of really good candidates. But other types of brands may not have the in-house resources just yet to really run their own YouTube channel.

"It's a new profile and a new role," says Michael Smit, managing director of Academy, a division of Blast Radius. "You need somebody who has a developed and proven competency in understanding how to tell a great story, but also how to identify the difference between what you can comfortably put in front of a relatively captive audience (i.e. paid media and commercials), and how to attract an audience with the content itself."

That's a tall order, according to Smit, who likens the challenges of publishing a YouTube channel to running a Super Bowl campaign -- every day.

"The magic is in figuring out how to do this without Super Bowl-sized production budgets for every piece of creative," says Smit, who adds that the "ideal candidate is someone with an in-depth understanding of the nuances of film production and content development."

It worked! Now what?

Reaching a significant audience (and engaging with them) isn't easy by any measure. But in a lot of ways, the real hard work comes after you've had some initial success. Because once you breakthrough, your brand is going to be faced with an even tougher question: How do you keep the audience coming back again and again?

"Keeping an audience engaged over the long haul is a challenge that requires significant in-house and agency resources," says Steve Slivka, SVP, director of digital innovation at Mullen North Carolina. But in terms of creating a winning, long-term audience strategy, Slivka explains that the best thing you can do is to check out the competition, see what they're doing, and ask yourself how and why it's working. Those questions will help you identify traits of successful YouTube channels, and they should also help you spot trends that can lead to audience insights. "But," says Slivka, "there are already some tried-and-true tactics that are easily adapted to each brand's voice and goals."

"One overarching trait is that many video bloggers talk directly to their audience," says Slivka. "They respond to emails and reward their most loyal followers with mentions in the videos. This method of cultivating is successful in the long term. This is good, old-fashioned loyalty building. It takes time, but it can be a successful approach."

An alternative strategy is one Slivka calls the "top this" method.

"Every video posted pushes the envelope that much farther in spectacular ways," says Slivka, who adds that "this [means producing] great content that provides pretty amazing viewership, but calls for absolute commitment on the brand's part."

But he cautions that you really need to think long and hard about whether your brand is capable of pulling off a "top this" strategy.

"You have to ask, 'are you up for it?'" says Slivka. "[Because if you] do anything less than the extreme, be prepared to be ignored. So get ready to pull out all of the creative stops when taking this approach."

But if the "top this" approach isn't right for your brand, Slivka says that's fine. You don't need to have the most extreme content to have a winning YouTube channel.   

"It's really about picking what is achievable for your brand and matching realistic key performance indicators to them," he says. 

Michael Estrin is a Freelance Writer.

On Twitter? Follow Estrin at @mestrin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Yellow sun on white," "Vector illustration of modem," "Launch button. Vector" images via Shutterstock.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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