Product thoughts for YouTube as viewing habits change

Over the weekend I read Ms. Wojcicki’s, the head of YouTube, profile in the New York Times and came away with some insight into her product philosophy: try lots of things, some will succeed, some will fail, learn from both. “Whenever we launch a product, there’s always something we didn’t expect,” she said. “Things are always changing. Part of being successful here is being comfortable with not knowing what’s going to happen.” This is exactly what I like most about this industry: the constant change and the continuous cycle of development. But I digress.

Ms. Wojcicki talked about some of the challenges that YouTube faces. The first is to attract and nurture the stars on this new medium. These are people that are adept at getting a specific audience’s attention and keeping it. I wrote about this trend on Halloween, when I noticed that kids in my neighborhood were dressing up as their YouTube idols. The second is the need to figure out (read: experiment) with different advertising models because for content creators to continue using YouTube, it will need a way to find a way to pay them in more than adoration.

I see these two challenges as part of a larger picture: the change in viewing habits. Where YouTube is finding a way to offer alternatives and meet the varying needs of an extremely diverse audience, the broadcast industry has been trying to adapt to this changing world for years, with some success and, more often, a steady decline in viewership. Here are a few of the trends I’ve noticed and what features they might inspire.

  1. Screen fragmentation. Families and friends are still sitting in the same room to watch TV but where before we would all watch one show on a big screen. today we’re all deeply absorbed in watching video on personal devices. Everyone is watching their own content, in their own bubble. I like what YouTube did with Chromecast to get back that sense of community that we get when watching video together as a group. Chromecast allows every mobile device paired it to add videos to be watched on the TV its connected to. Viewers can take turns adding their video and the entire audience is both entertained and no longer isolated. Can YouTube gamify this and revive communal watching?

    A cameraman at the Detroit-Philadelphia game last season.

    A cameraman at the Detroit-Philadelphia game last season.

  2. Content licensing. As more viewers switch to on-demand viewing, watching what they want when they want it, some broadcast categories have managed to create a “must see live” attitude. The leading, and obvious, one is sports. With so many outlets ready to spoil the results, sports have become a watch-it-live-or-don’t-watch-it-at-all type of event. This is why big games garner high ratings (even if that metric is a bit obsolete by now.) In the context of YouTube, it may be wise to leave these “prestigious” events to the networks and focus on smaller productions. There is a benefit in repackaging some of these events for different audiences and to make that repackaging easier to do. For example, let’s take the NFL. From a casual search it seems that the league does not allow the use of their content in unlicensed videos. But could a split revenue model allow commentators such as SportsNewsAnalysis to add snippets? Yes, especially when doing so doesn’t diminish the need to watch the NFL’s content at all. There is no need to look far: the music industry allows fans to take snippets of songs and videos and to remix them, such as Daniel Kim’s annual Popdanthology mashups.
  3. Video length: One of the ways I try to get product inspiration is to look at what other services are doing and adapt their successful features to the product I am working on. In social publishing, there are different platforms for different lengths of content: there are tweets for short updates, status updates for under a paragraph content, blog posts for a few paragraphs and long-form articles. It doesn’t seem that YouTube currently pays attention to lengths, treating each video the same, with most videos equivalent to about a blog post in length. Vines, for example, are limited to 6 seconds are the video equivalent of tweets with an entirely different sharing model. Should YouTube look at length as a way to differentiate videos?

Just as viewing habits are constantly changing, with the leaps in technology that can put a screen into everyone’s hands and the power to deliver content to that screen, thus will the video industry be constantly changing. YouTube did not exist 10 years ago and when it was created, it offered a vastly different viewing option. Can it keep up with the changes that will happen in the next 10 years? My bet is yes.

Update: On December 23 Facebook announced a partnership with the NFL to show clips on the social network, followed by ads for Verizon. This is a great way to repackage sports content that viewers want to see without hurting game viewing on other channels. As CNET says: “The partnership with the NFL could be a boon for Facebook, which continues to grow as a popular destination for video content.” In this case, a win for Facebook is a loss for YouTube.

Update: On January 26 Google announced a partnership with the NFL to bring content to YouTube. Just in time for the Superbowl!

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