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YouTube channels and the art of discoverability

Interview with YouTube's Alex Carloss

Last December, YouTube underwent a redesign that wasn’t merely about changing the look of the YouTube website, but about changing how viewers conceive of the video sharing service. YouTube had grown to be a dizzying maze of videos that seemed unhinged from context or connection. You went to YouTube because someone had sent you there, emailing you a link to a funny video of a kid singing or an animal acting cute. YouTube wasn’t necessarily a website you perused to uncover interesting or relevant content.

The redesign has changed that. Shifting away from a site that focused on individual videos, YouTube is now organized around channels, an attempt to help viewers cut through the noise of the millions of existing YouTube videos and discover the most relevant ones. Yet, some have argued that the free-for-all nature of YouTube was what made it so great in the first place. I recently spoke with Alex Carloss, YouTube’s global head of entertainment, to learn more about the redesign and how print publishers could take advantage of it. 

How is YouTube keeping up with the multitude of platforms on which to view video, such as a desktop PC, iPad, smartphone?

The many different platforms and devices are absolutely key to the central promise of YouTube: to access and delight in the video that you care about, wherever you happen to be in the world. We have a platforms team that manages YouTube implementations across all devices – mobile, tablet, plasma, iOS, Android. Currently, we have 350 million devices with YouTube implementation across all of the different platforms.

How does YouTube capture people’s attention? How do you stay relevant?

The key is to ensure that there is great content constantly flowing onto the platform. And great content is in the eyes of the viewer, whether it’s relevant breaking news or great cutting-edge entertainment. It’s really all about serving up the content people are looking for, and then making it as easy as possible to watch on whatever device they choose.

One of the things we did in December was launch the largest redesign of the YouTube platform to date. We essentially channelized the viewer experience. The reason we switched was to help drive discoverability, to help people get to the videos they were looking for. Channels can serve as container for people to find videos on their specific interests. When they find them and subscribe to them, our platform can surface those channels and whenever they go to back to YouTube on whatever device.

The YouTube homepage is basically now a personalized channel guide. As you subscribe to more and more channels, those become your personalized channel experiences. Our subscriber counts have increased by 50% since we changed to this channel experience.

My view when I log-in to YouTube. You can see the channels I subscribe to on the left.

Can you explain some more about the discoverability process on YouTube? How do people find great videos?

We recognize that with the kind of scale that YouTube has become as a platform, discoverability becomes the biggest need. On our 7th birthday, we reported that we’re now seeing 72 hours video being uploaded every 60 seconds. So it’s clear that discoverability is crucial, and that’s really why we went through this channel metamorphosis. The personal channel guide helps solve those issues.

Audience development is a key component to our content partners’ success on YouTube. It’s terribly important for our channels and partners to use all of the smart tools that exist in the Facebook social graph and elsewhere to help drive consumers to discover what’s on their channel. And then have that person subscribe. These new tools can help the audience go from being a taste tester to being a devoted subscriber.

Why did YouTube recently decide to fund channels that provide original content?

We felt that the time was absolutely right to both broaden the conversation about the possibility of YouTube, as well as to expose what we felt great channels could look like in the future. From our perspective, we saw YouTube as a platform for the next generation of platforms.

The next generation of YouTube will have a different cadence than channels on the cable dial. YouTube channels can be much more niche. Just as cable brought niche options to consumers in the form of channels devoted to music (MTV), to sports (ESPN) or to news (CNN), the web can deliver great niche entertainment that’s even more narrow than these cable channels. And YouTube can bring these channels to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The ability to showcase a yoga channel, a cycling channel, a vegan cooking channel – that is truly the promise of YouTube. When you remove the borders that govern an audience, you then have the opportunity to speak to a global diaspora or demographic, or to speak to people who are interested in exactly the same thing.

I would like to note, though, that everything we’ve been doing over the last year, it’s not just about the 100 original channels. It’s about supercharging the whole YouTube ecosystem. We are incredibly proud of the base of YouTube pioneers,  the stars who emerged and built incredible fan bases and communities of passion. For us, everything we’re doing –  from the channelization to the distribution across all connected devices – it’s generally intended to raise all boats.

How might traditionally text-focused publishers use YouTube more effectively?

We have many partners from the print publishing space who have started to build a presence on YouTube. It comes down to the power and value of video to any given brand. Clearly, video delivers the magic of sight, sound and motion to bring a story to life. For a publication as prestigious as The Economist, video can bring those words to life. In doing so, you can create a channel that builds a loyal audience that returns and engages again and again.

Using YouTube can also help publishers get closer to the global audience, an audience that can expose issues and stories from around the world. Then, the publisher can curate those audience videos into channels, and complement the videos with insights and analysis. It’s very powerful. News organizations like the Wall Street Journal and Reuters were part of our original programming lineup. They launched their respective networks as part of this roll out, and they’re doing quite well. The Wall Street Journal channel has almost 20 million views – and they only launched a few months ago.

The point is that there is an opportunity for publishers to gain a huge following. Creating a cable channel on the basis of one of your single brands is complicated and expensive. But in the online video space, there is a far lower barrier to entry and greater opportunity to reach that global community.