ADC: Audience Defined Content
Are we ready?
The year is 2020 and much has changed. I can't say we'll be living like the Jetsons or if 50% of the workforce will be replaced by AI robots. What I predict is the emergence of a new form of interactive media. One of many micro-genres of content that will evolve over the next 4 years.
When I began working for YouTube in San Mateo, CA in 2006, 3 months prior to Google's acquisition of the 50 person company, our homepage featured categories.
These categories attempted to guide users to video Watch Pages based on interest, specifically thumbnail image or title. They made sense for the time: a surging startup trying to harness the unfathomable interest/energy/need of the online world for this accessibility to video. It was the beginning and it started broad.
Looking at where we are now, it's comical to think that YouTube's (an even all online video) could be associated categorically with titles such as 'Pets' or 'News and Politics' or 'Comedy'. Not that those titles are no longer relevant but rather that the billions of people who watch video everyday would not start there to find what they want. Welcome the heart of the matter: What do they want!? Discoverability.
With music like Pandora, sure, one may start with Jazz and work their way down to Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain over a period of time, jumping to back to him specifically each time they come to Pandora. Since that time in San Mateo, video has evolved differently in regards to audience selection. We've all heard that 'Content is King'. Maybe so. What I'm focused on is the Queen behind the King. Behind every good man is a good woman.
Before joining YouTube, my background was my personality. I joined the company's small sales team to hock banner ads to the Fortune 500's who'd begun hearing about this 'dogs on skateboards' website. Where all the cool kids were hanging out. It was like a modern day black and white TV just turned color. Holy shit! I knew nothing about video production, which if we want to break it down, is film production. Film preceded TV which preceded online video. We're talking about a century of evolution. Writers write. Producers produce. Directors direct. Actors act. Something is filmed. The something is edited. That something is distributed. From my view, not much had changed foundationally, up until this point in the process. I see it as a line between this process and the audience's eyeballs. The silver screen to 100 people in cushy seats at a $.15 matinee. The boob tube to a family with microwave dinners on TV tables. And now a Mac or iPhone to one person.
A few obvious differences of now is that anyone can create. The bar to act or produce or write has been incredibly lowered because the audience no longer relies on a cinema or TV network to lower it. It's a free for all. Bandwidth withstanding, we can create anything in terms of visual content. The only cost is time. Do the writers and videographers have the time to create this 'anything'? And if I hit the video function on my iPhone, can I add 'videographer' to the skills or jobs section on my LinkedIn profile? What are the rules?
Being part of the early YouTube team was incredibly special to me, but maybe not for the reasons one might think. Yes, we had brilliant people. Yes, we had a good culture. Yes, it was mind blowing to walk out of the office and see our name on the front pages of USA Today and The Times. I've accepted that won't happen to me again, at that point in my life, when starting the job I didn't actually know what an 'acquisition' was.
The mind blowing element was having a front row seat to watch how we were affecting humanity. At scale. I can remember our PR team pushing us not to respond to a term that had emerged called 'viral'. That's not what we do. We don't control it. No one does. It was a force of the universe we were enabling. Just writing that makes my head explode. What I'm getting at is the most important piece of this whole story: people. Humans. You and I. Us. The same people who started with grunts and scribblings and likely fought big beasts in do or die situations. The dawn of YouTube birthed a new form of connection, the value of which seems to have been missed by many in the content space.
Quote from Mia. (What made the community so special?)
Before YouTube became TV, or it's replacement, and struck deals with every studio and network to gain revenue to attain profitability, it was just a website. Anyone could upload anything to be shown to anyone. Incredibly simple. Then 'viral' happened, which was mixed with CPM based advertising, sprinkled in a few partnership deals, baked at 400 for 65 minutes and BOOM, we had stardom! YouTube celebrities. Teenage millionaires who rarely left their webcams in their rooms. Massive brands with no clue what to do with video being told 'fish where the fish are.' Throw money at the new writers, actors, and producers because people are watching. Those people could be your customers! Find a relevant match and go make out over a sponsorship deal! You know what I'm talking about.
This mentality is still very alive. Startups are building around it. Some brands are actually still just getting word about it, as if they've been sitting with Pauly Shore in Bio Dome for 10 years waiting for the messenger to come deliver word that the future has arrived, and here's a step by step process to guaranteed success with online video.
But that island is floating off, further away. There will never be another dawn of YT with the same lighting in a bottle situation for the creators from the site's first 5 years who got a head start on audience development.
Before all of this, there was a raw sense of connection on YouTube. Before we outgrew our britches, there was an actual community. A tribe of millions who shared a sense of passionate ownership of the site. The first explorers who had discovered a rare purity in their online journey. One they fiercely protected. Now, we didn't have users standing outside the office with torches demanding we not advertise certain ways or sign deals with CBS. (Actually, there may have been a few.) Hell, there was backlash when Google bought us, as the community feared that this once in a lifetime authenticity would soon be darkened by new corporate neon lights. Thankfully, Google became an awesome parent, giving us the time, space, and resources to adapt somewhat organically.
But the rawness would not exist without the content. Without the 'Where the Hell is Matt's' or "Evolution of Dance's", there wouldn't have been feelings to bond and connect over. This bond was unique for a few reasons. Matt Harding and Judson Laipply did not make these out of a drive to take in a piece of a rev share. That was not even in the back of their minds (I don't think), however Harding was sponsored by Stride gum. They were just making cool shit and taking advantage of this lowered bar of creation and distribution. Another factor was the element of trust. The audience experience was less clouded. The creator was in it for the art. The purity was still there. There wasn't a skippable ad. The overall online user had more energy and attention to give. Now, we're more distracted and a bit jaded. Is that real? Is this sponsored? Can I trust the feeling that this content is making me feel? Because if I find out this is another Kimmel prank, I'm going to be PISSED! Maybe this is subconscious in today's viewer. Maybe I'm way off in my assessment, making too broad of strokes, but coming from where I have, this is what I've seen.
Regardless, the early days of YouTube ignited a passionate fire in people. Although online communities were nothing new, one built around this medium of digital sight/sound/motion felt like a stronger power. I know this because I was one of them. I was the kid who grew up loving the camera, wanting to be a ham whenever I could and being embarrassed when others would shame me (subtly) for trying to draw attention and entertain others on a broader scale. What can I say? I'm an only child.
So when I found myself on the corporate side of this revolution, I had a vested interest in not only the company, but in the community as well. It felt a little like being on the sidelines (board room) while watching all of these newcomers define what YouTube was........
Since then, the closest online community I've been a part of that feels this way is Imgur. I was even lucky enough to consult for them for a few months in their earlier days.
This community I felt so closely tied to eventually was given the name 'audience.' The process of connecting to these people through video has been given the marketing lingo term 'audience development.'
The power they had seems to have shifted into financially minded, irresponsible hands, and spun a bit out of control. Content is going to evolve as it will. But the gates are still wide open to create something completely different. Thing is, you can't do much without an audience. Those eyeballs!
So, back to the teaser of what an audience actually wants. This does NOT mean to guess or infer what they want based on trends or hashtags. It means asking them, eye to eye, what do you want to watch?! with the expectation that we're eager to try and create it.
The real question is, can we create what they want? Can our writers, directors, and videographers take their orders? And more importantly, do they want to? It goes back to how brands are trying to get these YT celebs to create their content. Product placement and money don't make content relevant. There needs to be more done. The audience needs to be given some of that power. Real power. Not a retweet with their name. Not a regrammed selfie. Whatever it takes to involved them. Really. Not fake involvement. Risks need to be taken.
My theory on audience defined content became more than an idea when I decided to resign from my job at YouTube in 2013.
After sitting in countless meetings with brands and agencies, throwing out concepts on how to more creatively and deeply engage audiences, I'd had enough. In this age of innovation, where the payoff for risk can be huge, I saw these titans taking baby steps. And it pissed me off. Especially when I saw the positive potential their reach could have on this community of humanity. Red tape, aged executives, and budget constraints were holding back potential. While I didn't have the marketing budgets of a Walmart, I had more than enough vision and knowledge to be dangerous.
Sitting in a bar on January 23 that year, watching the 49ers in a wildcard play off with 5 friends, the question came up of what I planned to do next with my career. With my life, really. The plan had been to not think about an immediate one just yet and see what came. Let the dust settle a bit. The topic of time came up. What was I going to do with my time? That was immediate enough. And the only real answer I had was to not waste it. Deep in my gut, this era of innovation felt too precious. Of course, sitting in that bar that wasn't top of mind yet. I also knew I wanted to give back. After years of Jesuit education and having had a good run at such a young age, it wasn't lost on me. I also had just returned from a few weeks of travel, having filmed much of my daily doings simply because I wanted to have those files to some day look back upon. No real production plans.
Insert Vimeo (This was the result)
This was where I learned the value of actual video production. This process took me from one side of YouTube to the other. From corporate to creator. By this point in the second half of the game, we had an equation. Spend time wisely/intentionally + give back + experiment with video. The answer: Ask an audience what they would do if they were in my shoes in San Francisco on that given day and go film the experience as best I could on their behalf. Create a webisode for them to live vicariously through and draw them deeper. In exchange, they donate to my friend's school in downtown SF. What would we call this experiment with myself as the creator/host vessel? RyCareyously had been born.
One welcome video, intake form and online donation mechanism later, the idea was functional. From there, it was onto man power, an original GoPro and countless hours of editing. The result was something different. Amateur storytelling through video that served to blow one person's mind and act as an invitation for the broader viewing audience. Friends started to catch on, cautiously yet optimistically asking for more intimate videos, like visiting family members they were unable to. I had begun fulfilling a need people were unaware they had. Like handing someone a magic wand that actually worked. The requests started as a mix of FOMO, envy, and then nostalgia.
- I used to live in SF, Go to this place for me and show me around.
- Have a coffee at Blue Bottle. That's what I'd do right now.
- I've never been to SF. Take me through 3 of your favorite things since you seem to love it so much.
Those requests were simple enough and a fun challenge that forced me to try and meet each audience member in the middle. They weren't writing a script to follow, line by line, but more the idea I had to wrap my creativity around. Like commissioning art. It became a win-win. People loved the sentiment of the project and I loved spending hours crafting these personalized 1 to 1 videos.
Once the broader audience began to 'get it', the requests shifted. Once they got to know me through the camera and see I wasn't an axe murderer, there was a bit more trust.
- Could you go visit my grandmother for me? No one in my family goes and sees her that much anymore.
- My friend is a teacher and has had a really tough year. She isn't feeling very appreciated, although she's amazing, and she could use a video that tells her she's great.
- My husband and I miss my sister's kids in SF. Could you go hang out with them and film it?
Remember, these are not orders to follow, but more ideas for a one man show to try and match.
This project brought the 'what ifs'.
A network of videographers?
A network to digital series play?
A digital to network series play?
A startup platform?
Back to 2020, when the 'Netflix' of then has whatever the 'channels' of then look like. ADC has become standard and gathered millions of a certain audience member because an effect was triggered in 2017 and carried forward, when people were given the choice to do more than just watch.
I did RyCareyously. Here's why. Here's what I see.
Tie it all together with 2020 and creators emerging only to make this sort of content. IMO - tradition backgrounds in production need to be forgotten. The new amateur who decides to learn now, has the best shot at success.