Google recently announced it will no longer support custom brand channel “gadgets,” on YouTube. This is a huge change for brand marketers, so huge that Google is giving them a full year to adjust their strategies.
Obviously, video remains a critical element of digital marketing, and YouTube remains the most important player in the video ecosystem. But the demise of the custom brand channel forces marketers to face a stark reality: to make video an element of their digital brand presence, versus an end unto itself, they will have to establish their own video hubs in the one place they can control their own destiny: The Web.
To understand where we are today and the opportunity we’re headed towards tomorrow, we must first understand where we came from.
The birth of the YouTube brand channel
Upon their introduction in the late 2000s, custom YouTube brand channels quickly established themselves as the pinnacle of brand marketing in the Google ecosystem.
Anyone could buy a banner, or a keyword, but with a custom brand channel, you could create a brand experience. You could organize your content exactly the way you wanted, control every element of look and feel, and highlight more than just video content through modules and apps. You could keep “related” competition out, and instead of dumping users into a plain vanilla “watch page” you could keep them within your branded environment for an entire session.
You could even create a unified global channel capable of delivering the right content in the right language to any viewer in the world, automatically.
Over the past few years, brands that embraced brand channels experienced a duality of change and evolution. On one hand, the YouTube gadget experience and the support offered changed, and on the other hand, macro trends of online video and business evolved.
Changes to the YouTube brand channel experience: As with all social networks, YouTube evolved rapidly over the past several years, and this produced a constantly evolving environment for brands to navigate.
For example, one the main appeals of the brand channel was to increase the level of branding via “gutters” and background images. Over time, this creative canvas was steadily diminished, until at first glance, most custom channels looked like standard ones. What didn’t change was the limited discoverability of the channels, and the restrictions on functionality which reduced their impact (no email collection, no commerce, etc.), all of which reduced ROI.
Despite all of this, hundreds of brands continued to maintain their custom channels. They still do, even to this day.
Because, brands must differentiate to exist, and custom brand channels on YouTube offer the ability to do that. Furthermore, every brand wants to have some level of control over the customer journey, so the content organization and categorization remain valuable. And who could (or can?) argue with the idea that delivering a consistent video experience across brands, regions, and markets isn’t a huge benefit to global marketers?
Macro online video and business trends evolve: Marketers also faced a significant consumer shift towards mobile dominance, and the rise of “pull vs. push” strategies on social media, YouTube included.
Simply put, today more and more consumers are viewing video on mobile devices than ever before, and brand channels are not supported on mobile. And, more and more brands are recognizing that they need to “own the channel” rather than re-creating brand experiences off of their own websites. Of course this includes video.
Over time these two forces combined to bring about the ultimate demise of the brand channel.
Which brings us to today and the future
The time allotted for these tools is now fleeting, and beginning in 2016, brands will have to make their mark on YouTube using their videos and playlists alone.
Today I offer good news. There is a path to success. A way to stay committed to YouTube as a video hosting service, while at the same time achieving the brand differentiation, coherent customer journeys, and global controls that marketers so desperately need their video assets to deliver.
The days of driving traffic to a third party platform — one in which you have little to no control — are coming to the end. Brands today need to think about driving traffic to owned channels. This is not to say that the days of videos are over. Far from it. Nor should brands stop using YouTube. What’s changing is the brand channel strategy — it’s shifting towards placing more focus on YouTube as a means of content distribution than a means to maintain a brand presence.
As such, with this change, brands have the opportunity to own the channel. Rather than recreating website branding on borrowed space, marketers should be thinking about how they can use social media (including YouTube) to drive traffic to a video and content environment without specific platform restrictions and arbitrary timetables. The video hub will live on, but it will, and should, live on brand owned channels.
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