The EPA is trying.  I have to give them that.  With the best of intentions, the Environmental Protection Agency has launched one of the least exciting government-run online promotions in recent memory, namely this new YouTube contest their running.  The winner gets a whopping $2,500. The aim of the contest?  To find a way to better explain why government regulations are important.

Wow.  I am not sure this will rank very well on the list of most exciting YouTube contests ever.

So let me see if I have this straight… the EPA can’t find a way to explain government regulations that is informative and entertaining.  That actually makes sense.  I get that.  They live in the world of environmental regulations every day, which means the complexity of what they do is lost on them.  It’s foreign to us, but old hat for them.

The obvious solution, then, is a YouTube contest.  Wait… really?  We’re trying to take a highly complicated subject and turn it into something bite-sized and relatable, right? Have the EPA folks spent much time on YouTube?  Have they read even one video’s comment string?  As much as I love YouTube—and it’s an awful lot—it’s not exactly a hotbed of intellectual thinking.  I think if the EPA was mandated to provide beauty tips and covers of popular songs, then maybe YouTube would be the ideal staging ground for their promotion.  But explaining how regulation works and why it’s necessary?  Not sure they’ll find many takers or viewers who are interested in the resulting projects.

Well, I guess we can cut them some slack.  In their defense… everyone is doing it.  And I guess that’s my problem with it.  It feels… bureaucratic, like a committee somewhere looked at the daily unique visitor numbers for YouTube and concluded that this was the avenue to publicity.  It’s the America’s Funniest Home Video strategy:  send us our content please.  I can just hear the boardroom discussion now.

“How can we make this information more accessible?”
“Well, the kids all keep talking about that YouTube.”
(Bonus points if you read that exchange in the voice of the guys from the Guinness commercials).

Simply taking your issue to YouTube in the form of a contest is not cutting edge… it’s not forward thinking.  It is, in fact, so very 2006.  It’s not even anything new for the EPA—they’ve hosted YouTube contests before.  And yet the contest itself seems to be the single element of the campaign.

So what’s the end game?  What’s the conversion?  If it’s simply views of the videos, I have this sinking feeling they won’t get very many.  Do they hope the winning video will be so great that they can use and reuse it in a bunch of different ways?  Again, I have my doubts.  The odds of seducing the best online talent with an obscure contest and a negligible prize are slim to none (the EPA’s own contest last year on Water Quality only received 250 submissions).

I want to applaud the U.S. government whenever they embrace some new online technology or trend, but they make it so hard when their efforts are so mundane.  Maybe they just read this report, which shows that 10% of business Internet traffic is going to YouTube?  But as anyone who has ever uploaded content to YouTube will tell you, simply being on YouTube is not enough.

I could probably have spent an entire article on the prize money–$2,500—and why it’s not likely to inspire too many people to participate who aren’t already passionate about EPA regulations.  There are nonprofits in my local market offering contest prizes larger than this.  I’m not sure if the EPA is low on funding, or if they are simply misguided at the dollar amount that is likely to spur interest, but either way their sum feels way off to me.  Imagine the kind of video quality you might see if that number were quadrupled, or if there were some creative incentive beyond a cash sum.

If we’re trying to explain how regulations work and why they are vital, then the contest’s intended audience is clear:  the general public.  But expecting the general public to care about your issue simply because there are videos dedicated to it is like your ugly neighbor assuming you’ll marry her solely because of her close proximity.  It’s not logical.  How can you reach an untapped audience without appealing to what they enjoy?  It’s almost like they haven’t given much thought to the kinds of things YouTube viewers are looking for.

Quick, name the current number one star in the world that started on YouTube.  Answer?  Justin Beiber, who shot to fame with his articulate views on why government regulation is so necessary—wait… nevermind… he sings about being in love with girls.

Now I’m sure that there are some people out there who will participate.  I’m sure there are some YouTube filmmakers who are excited about politics or the environment (or both) who will jump in with both feet.  And I’m sure some of the entries will be well-made.  But what are the odds that the contest will produce a video that will have mass appeal outside of the crowd that’s already plugged in to this stuff?

Let’s compare and contrast this effort with another YouTube contest, this one from a Miami-area nonprofit called Drug Free Youth In Town (DFYIT).  The organization’s sole purpose is substance-abuse prevention among kids and teenagers.

They also launched a new YouTube contest asking users to explain one of their main issues (binge drinking in this case) in a video, in exchange for a small prize.  The winning video will be aired on the DFYIT website as well as promoted via social networks.

On the surface… the two contests are similar.  Dig deeper, though, and you’ll see the subtle differences that make them as opposite as night and day.  And it’s all about the demographics.

First, the DFYIT contest has a firmer grasp on their target audience, which is teenagers.  They serve teens with their daily mission, they want teens to see this video, so they’ve asked teens to create videos.  Miami-area teens.  Not all of YouTube, and not even all teenagers on YouTube.  Miami teens on YouTube.  A microcosm.

The focus of your demographic is just as important as its size.  The teens who participate are far more likely to be deeply invested in the outcome of the contest, their video, and the nonprofit itself.  Similarly, the intended audience for the eventual winning video will be the creator’s peers, again forming more of a connection.  And don’t forget that teenagers are one of the largest age groups in number of online video producers… and YouTube contests are in their wheelhouse. Those teens spurred to create a video have also very likely been personally affected by the issue at hand, and would therefore have an extra motivation to produce something memorable and effective.

The second key difference is the prize.  The prize is not money.  It’s fame—or a local community version of it.  It’s views.  A chance to show off your work.  To have your peers recognize you for your talent—something that speaks straight to the heart of pretty much any teenager alive.  It is a much larger prize than the EPA’s, when taken in context.

If you’re going to use a YouTube contest to promote your entity, it’s crucial to first stop and make sure that it’s even an appropriate fit.  If it is, then consider your target audience for the contest participants.  Do they use YouTube?  Are they passionate about your cause?  Will they create something of quality?  Finally, consider your prize carefully.  For the right audience, a pat on the back is all the motivation they need to get involved… when your audience is the entire country, however, something more than a small cash prize is probably needed.

I do wish both the DFYIT and the EPA the best of luck with their contests, and I hope each ends up with a bunch of great entries to choose from.  But I humbly suggest that the days of simply offering an open call to YouTube filmmakers for a contest are long over.  It’s time we started targeting these contests… getting creative with them… and offering something of real value to the actual intended participants.