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Will Brands or Creators Decide the Future of YouTube?

Margot Gerould

Tensions between YouTube’s management team and the platform’s creators are symptomatic of the platform’s greater identity crisis. Can the company create more commercial opportunities without losing itself in the process?

YouTube holds a unique place in the social media and content creation landscape. It’s by far the largest open content platform on the internet, with 1.8 billion logged-in users and a #1 ranking among teens over other social media platforms. At the same time, the company is trying to court larger advertising partners, which requires asserting a higher level of control over the platform and its users.

YouTube is caught between a rock and a hard place; to keep the advertisers it has and continually attract more, the platform has to evolve. But this evolution may compromise the very principles on which it was founded. How can YouTube retain what makes it so popular with its viewer base — namely, high-quality content from its creators — while increasing its commercial appeal?

A Need for Control

It’s safe to say that YouTube is in the midst of an identity crisis. The company was founded as an open platform for creators to express themselves without being beholden to anyone. This freedom, in part, is why viewers flock to the platform. But the very thing that makes YouTube successful — unfiltered commentary within a close-knit community — makes it a minefield for advertisers trying to protect their brands’ reputations.

In the past year alone, YouTube has been plagued by PR nightmares, ranging from ads showing up on ISIS recruitment videos to reports of disturbing content targeted at children. YouTube has even faced controversies surrounding some of its most popular creators, including Logan Paul and PewDiePie, both of whom attract millions of views every month.

Many prominent advertisers have dropped the platform from their media mixes altogether, while others have significantly scaled back their contracts. To win these partners back, YouTube has been forced to implement stricter policies around user-generated content — arguably at the expense of the creators themselves.

But What About the Creators?

YouTube has rolled out changes that increase the subscriber and viewership threshold a channel must achieve to be monetized (i.e. eligible for ads), and videos are now subject to stricter review and automated flagging. In theory, this is a good thing — why wouldn’t creators want a safer, friendlier YouTube?

The problem comes with implementation. On a platform as large as YouTube, it’s nearly impossible to create an algorithm that accurately flags problematic content. Smaller creators are being shut out from monetization altogether by long review times, while established YouTube celebrities contend with inexplicable demonetization of their content. News shows, LGBTQ+ content, and educational videos about women’s health have all been flagged and demonetized, often with little explanation or recourse for the creators.

To make things worse, YouTube is also experimenting with personalized algorithmic feeds (the way that Facebook and Instagram currently organize posts) to replace the chronological home page. Creators worry that subscribers won’t see new videos as a result of this change, making it even harder to maintain a steady stream of revenue.

Most creators will admit that nobody is guaranteed ad revenue. But because YouTube’s success is almost entirely attributable to the time, energy, and creativity of its users, creators expect to be consulted when the company makes major changes to monetization or payout structures.

By all accounts, that expectation has not been met. Major creators including Philip DeFranco and Casey Neistat have been outspoken about the lack of communication from YouTube management. Many are seeking out alternative revenue streams, including sites like Patreon and Twitch. Some are leaving YouTube altogether, and creator burnout is at an all-time high.

Creators Left in the Dust

Sure, the changes to monetization are frustrating. But creators have a bigger fear: that YouTube will turn away from them altogether.

For YouTube, which hasn’t been shy about its ambitions to become more like a television network, courting advertisers has become a priority. At this year’s Brandcast, the company’s yearly conference for advertisers, YouTube announced several new initiatives: the option to run ads on YouTube TV, the introduction of human reviewers for the Google Preferred advertising network, and an expansion of its music offerings.

Notably absent from the Brandcast announcement was a call to invest in the platform’s most popular creators, including people like Neistat and DeFranco.  While some of the planned developments feature creators on- and off-camera, several do not, leading creators to wonder whether YouTube will deliver on its promise to increase transparency and opportunities for engagement.

There’s also the question of how users will respond to the changes. Can YouTube convince its users to pay for a TV streaming or music service? Those offerings are certainly more advertiser-friendly, but they aren’t necessarily the reason that users visit YouTube in the first place. If updates to the platform favor advertisers too heavily, YouTube risks losing the two things that catapulted it to greatness: strong user communities and original, organic content.

How Do We Move Forward?

It’s clear that YouTube has reached a tipping point. Will it be able to grow and offer advertisers new opportunities while maintaining the “DIY” organic feel of its platform?

A few takeaways stand out:

  • Brand partnerships with individual creators still work. Though they can be time-consuming, they’re brand-safe, allow creators to parlay the brand to their audiences in a meaningful way, and generate great returns.
  • Creators need to be front-and-center as YouTube makes changes. Otherwise, they’ll leave the platform — and take their audiences with them. Reversing the slow death of creator networks may open lines of communication between YouTube management and individual users.
  • YouTube must continue to refine its algorithms and invest in human reviewers to perfect its flagging system, weeding out problematic content without damaging legitimate channels.
  • For brands that cannot accept risk, the new corporate partnerships on YouTube TV and the nascent streaming music service might be the best options. These channels allow cautious brands to advertise on YouTube without compromising the integrity of their platform.

What YouTube is trying to do is really hard, and they’re not going to get it right the first time. But hopefully — with trial and error and lots of input from creators — the company can reach an equilibrium that keeps brands interested and its users happy.

Margot Gerould

Director of Brand Strategy

Account manager and strategist for healthcare, B2B tech, and services clients. Plant mom, amateur chef, and college a cappella survivor.

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