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The Art And Science Of YouTube Networks

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Over the last several years, we’ve seen a growing proliferation of multichannel networks (MCNs) pop up on YouTube, all of which are seeking to aggregate channels and audience in an effort to boost viewership and better monetize the videos that creators make. While the end goal — more viewers, more money — is the same for each of them, how they get to that place can differ significantly.

I spent the last week meeting with many of these networks in L.A., touring the offices of companies like Big Frame, Fullscreen, Machinima, Maker Studios, Tastemade, and ZEFR to get a taste for how they differentiate themselves, and what each brings to the table for creators that become a part of their networks.

Collaboration and Coordination

For many YouTubers, collaboration can be the first step toward growing one’s audience. The idea is to get two popular creators in a room (or a video) together, and to share the collaboration with their respective audiences. Viewers who aren’t already aware of and subscribed to the channels of those creators are much more likely to do so, if they like a collaboration that they’ve just watched on a channel that they already know and love.

Networks like Big Frame and Maker Studios have benefitted greatly from videos of high-profile creators in their network working together to build collaborative content together. It often means greater visibility and more subscribers for everyone involved, and in the end, that translates to more video views.

It’s not just the MCNs that are preaching creative collaboration. YouTube itself is working to bring creators closer together with the opening of its YouTube Space LA — a vast production facility that enables creators to use studio space and shooting and post-production equipment to improve the quality of their videos. But the space is also being used as a sort of community center, bringing various creators together through social events and training workshops throughout the year.

Good Old Fashioned Hollywood Production

It wouldn’t be Hollywood without Hollywood-style ambitions for original content. More than just providing tools for collaborating and giving creators a playlist of best practices, MCNs are realizing the value of creating high-value original content for viewers.

Whereas the strategy on YouTube used to be to keep videos short, due to the expected short attention spans of viewers tuning in, many networks are finding their audiences watching more videos for longer periods of time per session. With that in mind, many are increasing the length of the videos that appear and investing ever more in long-form productions.

Screen Shot 2013-07-14 at 1.15.12 PMMachinima might be the most ambitious in that regard. It’s put money into productions like Mortal Kombat: Legacy (now up for a second season) and Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome that are testing the limits of YouTube production and audience attention spans. And what it’s finding is that viewers are becoming increasingly more engaged with its network as a result.

While maybe not producing the same type of episodic, story-driven content that Machinima is pushing, companies like Maker and Tastemade are putting a lot of effort into improving the production of the videos their creators make. Both have dedicated studio space for creators, where they can host their own shows. For Maker, its creators can build and re-use sets in its studios, while Tastemade has built out a series of traditional cooking sets that can be used by those on its network.

Focusing on The Verticals

Increasingly, businesses are being built around specific niches or verticals that attract a certain audience or demographic. Machinima pioneered this strategy, going after the so-called “fanboy” demographic — mostly young, mostly male viewers who really like video games. But we’re seeing more networks go this way over recent years.

Take Tastemade, for instance. One of the newest MCNs, it was formed to go after an audience of “food lovers” in the highly monetizable lifestyle vertical. But it’s not the only one: Another example is DanceOn, which is a network going after dance aficionados.

Even networks that don’t have a singular audience they’re going after are thinking about vertical strategies. Big Frame has rolled up a lot of its content into verticals focused on urban audiences (Forefront), fashion and beauty (Polished), female creators (Wonderly), and the LGBT community (Outlandish).

Technical Gurus

There’s a lot creators and content owners can do to improve their videos, from a production standpoint. But there’s even more they can do to maximize the amount of views and revenues they can get through managing their channels with technology. That’s where companies like Fullscreen and ZEFR come in. Both companies have built dashboards for better understanding the way that viewers are finding their content and increase viewership and monetization.

On Fullscreen’s side, its recently released Creator Platform was built to give users within its network tools to bulk manage their video channels. While it started out with analytics and revenue dashboards, the company also has built new ways for creators to improve their channels.

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As for ZEFR, its technology is all about quickly identifying and monetizing videos whose copyrights are owned by major media but might have been uploaded by typical YouTube users. Once upon a time, those videos might have been taken down, but now the content owners can make money off of content that has been put up by their fans. ZEFR is now extending those tools for brands, to help identify videos spoofs and those posted in response to the brands’ and advertisers’ own messages.

In both cases, Fullscreen and ZEFR aren’t necessarily producing their own content, just getting the most out of the content of their partners and people in their networks.

The Next Wave Of Media Companies

We’re at an inflection point in the future of video, in which the next generation of big media companies are being born on YouTube. Through a combination of technology and good old fashioned video production, we’ll likely see those companies emerge as competitors and partners for some of today’s major media conglomerates. But how they get there will be some mix of art, science, production, content strategy, and a little bit of luck.

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