Advertisers Go to Brand Camp With YouTube Stars

Ford, Visa, Taco Bell Learn YouTube 'Hygiene'

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So you want to be a YouTube star?

The Google-owned video service put that question to seven brands who attended YouTube's second-ever Brand Partner Program in March. Over three days at the company's Los Angeles production facility YouTube Space LA, marketers from Ford, Visa, Samsung, Taco Bell, Anheuser-Busch InBev's Shock Top brand, AT&T and Pantene received a crash course on making a name in the new Hollywood.

YouTube organized the boot camp to "treat advertisers like content creators," said YouTube's director of content strategy Jamie Byrne, who oversees the Brand Partner Program.

There's more to it than that. The Brand Partner Program is a big part of Google's push for the $68 billion U.S. advertisers spend on TV.

Unlike TV — and like Facebook and Twitter — YouTube can pitch marketers on the social effect: brands can pay for distribution, but if their content is good, users will share it and that's free.

The hope is that if brands can up their content game, YouTube will be able to up its revenues from the estimated $5.6 billion it annually reaps. "We think the better [brands] can understand YouTube, the better they can engage over time and that can lead to more spending," Mr. Byrne said.

YouTube's Los Angeles production studio
YouTube's Los Angeles production studio

Brand camp
YouTube plans to run 100 brands through the Brand Partner Program this year, starting with the seven hand-picked by YouTube's sales teams to congregate last month. "We try to ID advertisers who have some engagement with YouTube. They're spending some money and have some content they've worked on…Some sales teams may ask clients to meet a spending threshold, but there's no requirement," Mr. Byrne said.

The three-day Brand Partner Program kicked off with a "state of the union"-style address on the TV and online video landscape and culminated in actual content creation using YouTube's airplane hangar-sized studio and TV-quality equipment. But the highlights for many marketers in attendance were the opportunities to hear from YouTube stars and online video network execs about how they program for their audiences.

YouTube star iJustine and representatives from YouTube network Collective Digital Studio joined a panel Monday night to discuss how creators collaborate one another to combine audiences. On Tuesday BuzzFeed video execs detailed their business and content strategies, and that night the marketers partied at YouTube network Tastemade's Santa Monica studio. Then on Wednesday AwesomenessTV CEO Brian Robbins took the stage with Mr. Byrne to talk about how the DreamWorks Animation-owned YouTube network programs for teens and tweens and informally pitched Pantene on a social-good campaign.

"It was really refreshing to hear from the creators. Where we want to hone our skills is becoming more relevant with the audiences we want to speak to, and that's what they're king and queen at," said Ford's digital marketing manager Thomais Zaremba.

'Genius' marketers
Marketers do have one natural advantage on YouTube: the budgets to buy eyeballs. But just because a brand can force someone to stare at their video ad doesn't mean that person will enjoy or share it with their friends. On the flip side, YouTube's homegrown stars typically have zero funds with which to buy views and rely instead on their savvy and knowledge of their audience.

"They're genius marketers," said Visa's senior VP-global brand and marketing transformation Shiv Singh, of YouTube creators. "They understand concepts like how to do product placement and co-op marketing, how to build their own brands. There's a lot marketers can learn from them."

But first marketers had to learn about the digital video landscape. USC professor Jeff Cole kicked off Day 1 of the Brand Partner Program with a wide-ranging overview of the TV and online video realm. Pointing to the rising number of people cutting off their cable TV subscriptions and the upsurge of TV-quality shows online, his talk boiled down to the fact that "the only thing that matters anymore is content."

YouTube BrandLab head Kim Larson boiled a successful YouTube strategy into three categories of content:

YouTube 'hygiene'
"Hero" marks the large-scale, big-budget work that typically coincides with a product launch. "Hub" are the videos created for a specific segment of a brand's audience as a way to reinforce affinity. And "Hygiene" is the always-on content that is regularly posted and aimed at a brand's core audience in order to keep in touch.

"Hygiene" resonated with Ford, which has made a point in recent years of investing in tentpole content and sponsoring shows aimed at specific audiences. "We're at a point where we're evaluating how do we take a less marketer-centric point of view," said Ms. Zaremba. Historically Ford has organized itself around product launches, rather than gearing its programming around when people want to hear from the brand. "I think we still have a lot of work left to do."

To get started on that work, YouTube scheduled breakout sessions for each of the three days intended to put things into practice. On the first day, marketers were asked to outline their "hero, hub and hygiene" content strategy. On the second day, they mapped out a programming strategy for their channels. And on the third day, the marketers were actually creating content.

Visa used the final day workshop to get different ways to put together an officially project using the YouTube ecosystem, Mr. Singh said. He declined to discuss specifics because the work will eventually see the light of day.

The Brand Partner Program complements YouTube's BrandLabs, which are one-day affairs held at the site's San Bruno, CA, headquarters. While serving as Anheuser-Busch InBev's VP-digital marketing, Lucas Herscovici has been to both workshops, shepherding Budweiser to BrandLab and Shock Top to the Brand Partner Program.

The partner program "goes deeper into content creators [than BrandLab]. BrandLab is showing you more in general how brands have been successful and goes beyond video. This is much more focused on YouTube and content creators and the partnerships you can do as a brand," said Mr. Herscovici, who now heads A-B InBev's consumer connections group.

But the Brand Partner Program extends well beyond the three-day workshop. Each brand that participates gets so-called partner managers to help figure out how they want to program that content and the YouTube stars they want to collaborate with.

As a follow-up the Brand Partner Program, YouTube holds condensed versions at a brand's headquarters in order to get c-level decision makers to buy into the strategy. "Brand folks may be all-in and get it, but the COO or CEO doesn't understand YouTube. So how do we convince them to increase their commitments?" Mr. Byrne said.

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