Memo to Big Brands: Declare Victory and Advertise on YouTube Again

Memo to Big Brands: Declare Victory and Advertise on YouTube Again

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I don’t need to tell you about the brouhaha created when AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, and other big brands announced that they were boycotting YouTube because they didn’t want their TrueView in-stream ads running on “hateful, offensive and derogatory content” served on YouTube or on a collection of sites and apps in the Google Display Network (GDN). And, if they used TrueView video discovery ads, I’m sure they would be shocked, shocked to find them running on the search results and watch pages alongside alt-right Pepe frogs or other objectionable videos. Heck, at last count, there were 536 articles in Google News on this topic from a wide variety of news sources, including: BBC News, The Guardian, Financial Times, Marketplace, NBC News, The New York Times, Recode, Reuters UK, USA Today, The Verge, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. So, you don’t me to rehash last week’s news.

Instead, you want me focusing on delivering strategic insights, critical data, tactical advice, and trends in the digital video marketing business. Why? Because video marketers have decisions to make, pitfalls to avoid, jobs to do, and opportunities to seize.

YouTube Ads and Brand KPIs

So, let’s start by re-reading The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t. As Nate Silver observed back in 2013, “Companies that really get Big Data, like Google, aren’t spending a lot of time in model land. They’re running thousands of experiments every year and testing their ideas on real customers.” Now, that’s a strategic insight that we can still take to the bank today. This brings me to the need for critical data. Is it smart to jump on the boycott bandwagon – as Verizon, Holden, and Kia have recently done – and pull your ads from YouTube, too? Or, will this have a negative impact on your key performance indicators (KIPs) just as the first quarter of fiscal 2017 is about to close?

Well, before you make a career-damaging move (CDM), wouldn’t it be smarter to run some small experiments first? For example, what happens if you stop all of your TrueView in-stream ads from running in one of the 88 countries where YouTube is available? Say, one of the smaller ones. Or, what happens if you narrow the targeting for a particular brand by cutting out a demographic group, keyword, interest, topic, or placement? Hey, start with a niche segment. Wouldn’t you want some critical data on the impact of not reaching one of these target audiences for a brief period before you decide to go cold turkey and boycott YouTube, which has over a billion users – almost one-third of all people on the Internet?

Now, if your KPI is brand lift, then you already know what happens if you don’t advertise on YouTube. It’s the score that you get from the holdback group – the randomized control group that is not shown your YouTube ad. Normally, we focus on the exposed group that did see your ad. But, we can always compare the two groups to get an idea of what impact boycotting YouTube might have.

YouTube Ads = Brand Awareness

In April 2015, after analyzing around 50 campaigns from Fortune 100 brands and category leaders running on Google Preferred, which aggregates YouTube’s top content, Google found that 65% of Google Preferred ads saw an increase in brand awareness, with an average lift of 17%. This was particularly impressive considering that the brands in the study were already well-known. So, if you advise your company or client to stop advertising on YouTube, then the odds that you’re making a CDM are almost two-to-one.

And if you are a performance marketer, then consider this: When Sridhar Ramaswamy, the Senior Vice President of Ads & Commerce at Google, announced TrueView for action at dmexco in September 2016, he shared a recent study, which found that 47% of U.S. adults aged 18 to 54 said that YouTube had helped them at least once a month when they were making a decision about buying something. If you do the math, that’s an estimated 70 million people who were going to YouTube every month for help with a purchase. So, if your company or client stops advertising on YouTube, then they shouldn’t be shocked, shocked to find that other brands start stepping in to connect with consumers during these intent-rich moments. Hey, can you really protest if a competitor is less interested in making a statement and more interested in making it easier for consumers to move from consideration to purchase?

This brings me to the tactical advice that I’d like to offer to big brands. Philipp Schindler, Google’s Chief Business Officer, has already apologized for “a number of cases where brands’ ads appeared on content that was not aligned with their values.” And he’s announced that Google has been conducting “an extensive review of our advertising policies and tools” and has made “a public commitment last week to put in place changes that would give brands more control over where their ads appear.”

This includes removing ads “from content that is attacking or harassing people based on their race, religion, gender or similar categories.” Google is also tightening its safeguards “to ensure that ads show up only against legitimate creators in our YouTube Partner Program – as opposed to those who impersonate other channels or violate our community guidelines.” Finally, the YouTube team is “taking a hard look at our existing community guidelines to determine what content is allowed on the platform—not just what content can be monetized.”

New Google Rules for Advertisers

In the near future, Google plans to introduce a number of “new tools for advertisers to more easily and consistently manage where their ads appear across YouTube and the web.” This includes:

  • Changing the default settings for ads so they only show on content that meets “a higher level of brand safety” and excludes potentially objectionable content that advertisers may not want to advertise against – unless brands choose to opt in to advertise on broader types of content.
  • Introducing new account-level controls to make it easier for advertisers to exclude specific sites and channels from all of their AdWords for Video and GDN campaigns. These new controls will also manage brand safety settings across all of their campaigns with “a push of a button.”
  • Introducing new controls so brands can exclude higher risk content (as Karen Nelson Field observed, “not all fart jokes are funny”) and fine-tune where they want their ads to appear.

But wait, there’s more! Ramaswamy also said Google will “expand availability of video-level reporting to all advertisers” in the coming months. Google will be hiring “significant numbers of people” and developing new tools “powered by our latest advancements in AI and machine learning” to increase YouTube’s capacity to review questionable content more quickly.

So, my advice to big brands is to consider adopting the “Aiken formula.” It’s named after George Aiken, a long-time Senator and GOP maverick from Vermont, who said back during the Vietnam War that the U.S. should declare victory and bring the troops home. So, memo to big brands: Declare victory and start advertising on YouTube again.

Long Term Trends: Video Marketing

Finally, this brings me to the long-term trends in the digital video marketing business. As I’ve already noted, one of the three big YouTube numbers that video marketers need to care about was revealed last month: “People around the world are now watching a billion hours of YouTube’s incredible content every single day!” This major milestone was passed sometime “last year.” Since YouTube’s watch time hit 100 million hours of video a day at the end of 2012, that’s a 10-fold increase in just four years.

And according to Tubular Labs, 25.7 million accounts uploaded 203 million videos to YouTube in the last 90 days. These videos got 473 billion (with a “b”) views and 10.4 billion (with a “b”) engagements during that period. So, deciding where to advertise isn’t as simple as it was back in the “Mad Men” era, when a brand’s only choices were a significantly smaller number of TV shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC.

So, which metrics should video marketers and advertisers focus on when they’re trying to separate the wheat from the chaff? Well, a week ago – at roughly the same time that the brand safety story broke – YouTube made an announcement at Advertising Week Europe 2017 in London that I think will have a more significant impact on video marketers than the less significant YouTube boycott brouhaha. What is the long-term signal that’s been drowned out by the short-term noise?

One of the few stories about YouTube’s announcement was written by Garett Sloane of, who reported that three new metrics – unique reach, watch time, and audibility – will become standard in your analytics dashboard. As Debbie Weinstein, global managing director for YouTube and video solutions, told Sloane, “These are the core things marketers really need to focus on.”

Okay, but let’s define our terms before we rush out to adopt these new metrics as KPIs. Well, “unique reach” is the number of individuals who saw an ad. Okay, that’s a good KPI. And when it comes to AdWords for video, “watch time” is how many seconds are spent with an ad in total and on average. Hey, video marketers already know that “watch time” is YouTube’s most important ranking factor, so it will be helpful if it becomes a KPI for advertisers, too.

And “audibility” is how often a video plays with sound. Now, that’s a competitive shot across Facebook’s bow. Or, as Sloane objectively reported, “Sound has become an important sticking point for brands that are dealing with mobile consumption, which often occurs with sound off depending on the platform. YouTube says that 60% of its videos are viewed on mobile devices and 95% are audible. YouTube says that the mobile experience helps lead to a 93% viewability rate for video ads.”

So, that’s the big story – at least from my perspective. Yes, the mainstream media seems more interested in the tempest in a teapot that’s only significant if you’re a day trader. Now, Alphabet won’t announce its first quarter 2017 financial results until Thursday, April 27, 2017. So, in the short-term, speculation is likely to run wild until financial analysts have some hard numbers to analyze.

But, video marketers aren’t day traders. That’s why video marketers should focus on the long-term trends. And YouTube still has over a billion users, who now watch a billion hours of YouTube’s content every single day, which is a 10-fold increase in just four years. Yes, some of the more than 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute attack or harass people based on their race, religion, gender, or other categories. But, Google has apologized for not flagging content that crosses the line faster or raising the bar on brand safety sooner. And Google has announced that it will act swiftly to put new policies and processes in place across its ad network as well as YouTube. Meanwhile, YouTube has taken the lead in defining the metrics that matter when evaluating the performance of TrueView in-stream ads and TrueView video discovery ads with other video platforms. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that’s the signal that’s hidden in the noise.


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