The challenge of marketing YouTube

CMO Danielle Tiedt believes her job involves “reflecting” the site rather than shaping its direction and that YouTube has a role to play in inspiring marketers

YouTube’s CMO Danielle Tiedt

Video is fast becoming the default medium for content. Twitter says views are up by 220 times over the past year, time spent watching video on Instagram is up 40% and Facebook’s EMEA vice-president Nicola Mendelsohn believes the social network will be “all video” in five years’ time.

This should be music to the ears of YouTube. Started 11 years ago, it is now the biggest video network in the world with more than 1 billion unique monthly users and 500 hours of content uploaded to the site every minute in 2015.

Read more: YouTube at 10: YouTube’s EMEA boss on its plans for marketers

Yet back in 2012 YouTube identified a problem. It had huge brand awareness and usage numbers but most people associated it with grainy user-generated content showing dogs on skateboards. Enter Danielle Tiedt, its first CMO, tasked with explaining to users and brands how YouTube was changing.

That change, she says, can be put down to one main thing: the rise of YouTube stars. Vloggers such as PewDiePie and Zoella now attract millions of followers but four years ago this was still a nascent space.

“When I started, I remember we had long debates around ‘are our stars, stars?’. Are they names people will recognise and how do we build that? Back then, no one had heard of PewDiePie. And we had no specialised apps. It was one user interface that probably hadn’t been updated since we started and it was a category of videos. But a category that a few creators were starting to figure out how to use,” she explains.

“That is now at a totally different level of sophistication. Now we almost have to remind people that ‘dogs on skateboards’ are still there.”

“When you think YouTube, you definitely think creators now.”

Danielle Tiedt, CMO, YouTube

That transition is what Tiedt was brought on board to drive, but she is reluctant to take much credit for it. She believes her job is less about driving the site’s direction than observing what is happening and reflecting it.

That, she suggests, is a key trait of any marketer at a “hyper-growth business”.

“I’ve never been in a job before where I always feel like I’m literally trying to keep up. But I had never been part of such a hyper-growth business. I was more used to businesses where you are planning the next four years and investing to try to get that next 2% or 3% of growth. I didn’t understand what being part of a hyper-growth business was and the role of marketing,” she says.

Tiedt is a veteran of the internet industry. She started her career at Microsoft almost 20 years ago, initially taking on responsibility for marketing Macintosh Office and Internet Explorer. She worked her way up over the next 15 years, most recently managing consumer marketing for Bing and MSN worldwide.

Bouncing back from failure

She joined YouTube at a time it was making a big investment in original channels. Google was rumoured to have invested £100m in the channels themselves, as well as £200m in original content with the aim of kickstarting its Google TV initiative.

It signed up a range of celebrities including Madonna, comedian Amy Poehler and NBA star Shaquille O’Neal. Yet it failed to gain mass appeal and a year later, it was quietly shelved.

Tiedt admits that YouTube had “the right idea” but the wrong implementation. It thought bringing traditional stars onto YouTube would be key to success but instead found it was vloggers that users wanted.

“People weren’t looking for traditional TV online. There are examples of where that works – James Corden and The Late Show – but actually what we needed to do was double down on this whole new category that was uniquely YouTube,” she says.

Building a relationship

YouTube was at Cannes Lions 2016, where we met Tiedt, to push the idea of its content community even further. It unveiled an online curriculum for agencies aimed at training them in how to produce content for YouTube and work with vloggers, both in terms of learning best practice and directly working with them to create videos.

Tiedt believes brands need to start acting more like “friends”, suggesting this has been key to YouTube’s brand success.

“If you ask people how they feel about YouTube, it is 100% a friend to them. But you don’t get that from traditional advertising. You aren’t going to become someone’s friend because you saw their face on billboards and TV. You become someone’s friend because you have conversations with them, you feel like they know you and you can talk back to them.

“That is what the curriculum is about. You have to go about marketing in a really different way to do that. It is not about reach and frequency points but about engagement, building a real relationship.”

Read more: Meet the new generation of online celebrities

YouTube versus TV

YouTube has been very vocal in its belief that brands should be shifting money away from more traditional formats such as TV and into YouTube. At its recent Brandcast event in the US, it claimed YouTube reaches more 18- to 49-year-olds than any TV network, though it didn’t give any exact figures.

And it has also previously claimed that brands should allocate 24% of their TV budgets to YouTube to “optimise spend”.

Yet YouTube itself has used TV advertising to promote its vloggers and Tiedt says it would do it again. And she believes it isn’t about YouTube stealing budget from TV but about marketers understanding their customers.

“With any great marketing plan you need a 360 approach where you are touching everyone. It comes back to knowing your user.”

Danielle Tiedt, CMO, YouTube

“If you know where your user is, you are able to get them engaged. I would not just buy any TV but I would advertise around TV shows I know our audience cares about. I think the same about outdoor, radio. It is about thinking where your user is,” she explains.

But as more and more brands head to YouTube and use vloggers, there is a concern among brands that the market might become saturated.

“That would be a wonderful problem to have but we are nowhere near that point. If we had 10 top creators all pitching brands, that would not feel authentic. But in the last year alone we have 70% more creators with more than 1 million subscribers,” she says.

“That may have been a challenge two years ago when there weren’t as many big creators but now there are thousands of creators and they are much more savvy about how they do deals [with brands]. Also, back when this was new brand would just pick the creator with the highest subscriber number. They were thinking about it like a traditional reach model and going where the most eyeballs were without thinking about what that actually meant.”

The changing role of marketing

Tiedt believes this shift is reflective of the changing role of marketing and marketers. She says compared to 20 years ago marketing is now “not in the same realm” because the tools have changed, as have consumers, so radically.

“The tools you have to understand your user, how your marketing is working and where you can reach them – the most fundamental parts of marketing – look entirely different. It is not even the same job anymore. Twenty years ago you were the one defining your brand; that is not the case anymore. At the most fundamental level, the people who use your product are  the people defining your brand because they can talk about it, read about it,” she explains.

“It used to be that a CMO knew everything. Now it is barely managed chaos!”

Danielle Tiedt, CMO, YouTube

Yet there is one thing that remains the same, she says, and that is knowing your customer. “Marketers must over-invest in knowing their user. That is the key to success,” she adds.

As for her role going forward, Tiedt sees it as making sure the tools for brands to be innovative on the YouTube platform are widely available – whether 360-video or virtual reality. And trying to make sure she continues inspiring marketers.

She concludes: “We want to make sure we are highlighting examples that inspire people and showcase example of people doing this really well. This is what Cannes is supposed to be about – inspiring us all to invest more in being forward-thinking in how we do marketing. My role in running a media platform is do that exact thing. Constantly inspiring people to do more.”

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