You don't need a spending forecast to tell you that online video is gobbling up an increasingly larger share of today's advertising dollars. More advertisers are spending more money on video -- whether we're talking about pre-roll, branded YouTube channels, or integrations with existing content producers. But more money doesn't necessarily mean smart spending.
Right now, YouTube has two strong opportunities for brand advertisers. They can either partner with established YouTube stars, or they can go their own way and launch a brand channel. (Obviously, the two aren't mutually exclusive.)
But while most of us are familiar with the opportunities and challenges of those two options, we're less conversant with the nuances of YouTube's culture. In the face of that knowledge gap, only a handful of brands have truly prospered with video. Many brands, perhaps even the majority of brands, haven't had much success with video, and frankly, a lot of brands simply misunderstand platforms like YouTube, their audience, and the acts that have used YouTube to launch their careers.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend VidCon in Anaheim, California. While there were some good breakout sessions that were clearly aimed at marketing types, the real action was down on the floor, where fans lined up seeking autographs from their favorite YouTube stars.
Of course, "star" is a funny word in this context. Being big on YouTube doesn't make you a household name. For every pack of teenagers I saw gushing over their favorite YouTube star, there was a somewhat bewildered adult chaperon who would say things like, "Whose autograph do you want, and why are they famous?"
As a category, it's easy to dismiss YouTube stars as flukes -- amateurs who got lucky early with a weird gimmick or a cheap stunt. But YouTube stars have something all brands crave -- an audience. And they also have something else -- a solid understanding of what will and won't work on YouTube.
Watching the frenzy on the VidCon floor, as diehard fans rushed from one booth to the next, I couldn't help but think that the marketers in their breakout sessions upstairs were missing the real lesson. Yes, in some cases, these YouTube stars present a huge -- and relatively untapped -- opportunity for branded integrations. That's important for some advertisers. But let's put sponsorship opportunities aside for the moment, because there's something more fundamental that all marketers can learn from these YouTube stars. Each of them, in their own way, has broken some important ground in the Wild West that is YouTube. And if you're looking to take your brand's YouTube channel to the next level, it's worth studying the people who've already blazed that trail.