YouTube just held its annual Brandcast event in Madison Square Garden, where it trotted out online video stars for an audience of advertisers.
The big message was that YouTube stars are huge celebrities, attracting lots of passionate fans — so advertisers should spend their money on, you guessed it, YouTube. Tonight there was an emphasis on mobile, with YouTube’s head of content and business operations Robert Kyncl predicting that within five years, the majority of ad-supported videos will be watched on mobile devices.
But things got darker near the event’s end, when John Green, author of The Fault In Our Stars, took the stage. Green talked about how he and his brother Hank built a devoted following of “nerdfighters” on YouTube, contributing to the enormous success of his book. In fact, they’ve built an online video business with 30 employees. But Green’s ad revenue is outweighed by things like crowdfunding and merchandise — and that ad revenue is falling by 5 percent every year. [Update: To clarify, ad revenue is falling as a percentage of their total revenue by 5 percent every year.]
He acknowledged that’s not true for everyone on YouTube. Nonetheless, he argued, “Many of the strongest communities are dramatically undervalued by advertisers, forcing YouTubers to find other paths.”
To a certain extent, this was just a roundabout sales pitch: Advertisers are missing out because they don’t value YouTubers enough. But Green was also suggesting there’s something fundamentally different about many of YouTube’s popular personalities and shows.
“Here’s the truth: Way down deep in what Robert Penn Warren called ‘the darkness which is you,’ there’s a great and terrible feeling that our life and work is meaningless, this clawing fear that everything we do will be for nothing — and CSI Miami is incredibly good for distracting us from that fear,” Green said.
And sure, distraction is fine, but Green doesn’t see himself and other “passionate YouTubers” as being in “the distraction business.” Instead, the best shows are in “the community business,” and he watches them because they help him “grapple with and consider the problems and questions way down deep there in the darkness.”
That’s why he said focusing on eyeballs is a crummy way to measure the success and value of many YouTube shows: “I don’t care how many people watch or read something I make; I care about how many people love something I make.”
Green concluded with a bit of carrot and stick. Sure, he said, “If you want to stay in the eyeballs business, I think that’s cool. It is a good business, albeit a shrinking one — but you risk losing relevance to an entire generation of viewers.”
On the other hand, if advertisers support YouTube, they won’t just be supporting worthwhile content: “If you help us do that, our viewers will notice and they will care, and you will win over this generation just as you have won over generations in the past.”