How professional services can thrive with social video

Viral videos are hardly Oscar material and even less Nobel Prize material. There is a belief that to spread, your ideas need to stay as simple as possible and that complexity will harm your online popularity.
It’s about finding the lowest common denominator. If everybody “gets it” then more people can share it. The trending and most popular videos on YouTube are unsurprisingly mainly “entertainment”. Entertaining doesn’t mean dumb of course. However, it does not appeal to the part of the brain that you think analytically with.
Data shows that overall businesses that rely on their research and thought leadership struggle with the medium.
On the other hand, individual Creators publishing intellectual content are booming on YouTube.
The formats and techniques they use are a useful lesson for organizations with a complex message or for brands for which entertainment is not an option.

L2Inc video thumbnail

L2Inc: A rare example of YouTube success for a consultancy firm

Should you bother with smart video content?

Some online platforms are tailored for smart response and complex views, like Quora and Medium. To some extent platforms where you can display specific skills, Github (coding) or Behance (design) serve a similar purpose.
If there was an overall ranking of medium classified by IQ, books would most likely be on top, short-form videos at the bottom.
Yet the fact that its growth is outpacing the overall internet usage makes it impossible to ignore:

Globally, IP video traffic will be 82 percent of all consumer Internet traffic by 2021, up from 73 percent in 2016. Internet video traffic will grow fourfold from 2016 to 2021, a CAGR of 31 percent. (Cisco)

This should be a concern for any business that relies on thought leadership and research for its marketing. That is the case of financial institutions, consultants, universities or professional services in general. There is a risk that their share of voice will be increasingly squeezed by this ongoing trend.
Far from avoiding the challenge, it seems these industries are embracing video content and YouTube as a medium with a 100% adoption rate for the top consultancies, banks, and fund managers. They also post regularly, 1.2 times a month on average.
However, their audience on the platform is not encouraging.

The smart and the beautiful

The social following of brands is a combination of the impact of their content and their actual popularity. This popularity itself is due to an infinite number of factors: love for the product, interesting offers, recruitment opportunities to name just a few.
This rule applies to most platforms but not on YouTube where success is overwhelmingly content based.
Views will vary greatly depending on the amount of advertising spend on the platform. Subscribers, however, are a good benchmark for the appreciation of the content. People subscribe to your YouTube channel as they want to see more from you, similar to a magazine subscription.
Take Chanel, the most “social” luxury brand. It gained over 50 thousand followers on Instagram before posting anything, just by being Chanel. On YouTube, however, they had less than 100 until they began to post. Since then, they have become a video publishing powerhouse, and have recently become one of the few businesses that can boast over a million subscribers. They have published over 700 pieces of regular, entertaining and beautiful content.

The challenge for thought leadership content

Brands whose business is expertise and research generally encounter a different fate despite the vast amount of quality content published.
McKinsey, a leading consulting firm, with over 800 videos published has around 40 thousand subscribers. A number similar to that of Goldman Sachs, a leading bank (588 videos). Universities fare a little better (LSE: 100 thousand).

These numbers should be disappointing for marketers at global brands. Especially those that are are not new to content marketing. They have been publishing research and insights before it was called content marketing and have had years to adapt to the medium.

Linkedin and Twitter are the platforms where professional service brands typically thrive and both have enabled native video, however, the impact of moving images is still not clear.
On the other hand a new breed of creators who are wowing large audiences by addressing topics which sometimes seem to come straight from textbooks, such as maths, economics, languages.

Creators as the new thought leaders?

Although they don’t belong to an official YouTube category, it’s easy to regroup creators of smart content by the topics they cover. They seem to come straight from a school program: languages, economics, maths, art, finance…

Here are just a selected few:

  • Languages (Langfocus: 500K subscribers, in 3 years)
  • Construction (B1M: 71K in 1 year)
  • Finance (Heureka: 85K in 2 years in French)
  • Economics (Stupid Economic: 80K in 1 year in French)
  • International Relationships (Visual Politik: 600k in Spanish)
  • Maths (Numberphile: 2.4M)
  • Philosophy (School of Life: 2M)
  • Art, Politics (Nerdwriter: 2M)
  • Transport (Wendover Productions: 2M)

How are Creators succeeding on topics where brands fail?

How does a one-man-show talking about serious financial issues with a low budget set up can attract a captive audience that is twice that of Goldman Sachs with 10 times less content?
Or why is “The School of Life” and “Numberphile” topping any of the world’s leading university.

The answer lies in the format and the strategy, not the content itself.

In terms of strategy, popular YouTube channel make it very clear what they are about, what you can expect from them and how often new content will be published.

Corporate channels typically use YouTube as a “dumping ground” to post the video content for free.
Typically channels are not fully optimized. Even those who are applying the best practices too often fail to develop “shows” that will become regular encounters with their audience. The approach feels quite opportunistic, rather than strategic.

The formats vary greatly, ranging from animation (School of Life) to speaking to the camera in typical YouTube fashion (Visual Politik). Yet the most popular format seems to be the “Video essay”.

Video essays: an ancient practice fit for the 21st century

According to Wikipedia:

A video essay is a piece of video content that, much like a written essay, advances an argument. Video essays take advantage of the structure and language of film to advance their arguments.
“YouTube video essays are long-form (relative to many other internet videos) critical videos that make arguments about media and culture. They’re usually meticulously narrated and edited, juxtaposing video footage, images, audio, and text to make an argument much like a writer would do in a traditional essay”

Video essays were originally mainly about films but have emerged as a powerful way of storytelling, adapted to complex issues on any topic.
They are not new but they have seen a tremendous growth in the last few years. Unlike vloggers, the creators of this type content do not require to post frequently. Instead, quality primes over quantity.  Large audiences can be built with few outstanding pieces of content. Tony Zhou from Every Frame a Painting gained 1.4M subscribers with 28 videos, then quit the channel.

This genre is not exclusive to individual creators, VOX Media has developed and polished the genre to cover a wide range of topic. With 4 million subscribers they are one of the largest media channels behind Vice and Buzzfeed.

The path to video success

L2Inc (recently acquired by Gartner) is one of the few consultancy businesses which thrives on video. They are applying their own advice with great efficiency.

As brands continue to adapt to an increasingly digital-oriented audience, it’s becoming clear that a comprehensive YouTube strategy can far extend the lifetime of TV ads.

This is due in part to the on-screen presence of L2 founder Scott Galloway. A millionaire entrepreneur, NYU professor, in his 50s, and deadpan entertainer who doesn’t mind wearing a wig. Most brands will find it hard to replicate, yet the L2 example shows that developing a distinctive brand personality and style on-screen can go a long way.

There are relatively easy and cost-efficient ways to get started.

  • Build a content plan and make it clear to the viewer. YouTube playlists and the channel trailer are free tools to set this up.
  • Re-purpose and re-format existing content. For example by transforming the content of an interview in a video essay.
  • Align with Creators (AKA influencers) to use their creative flair and existing audience.

As all platforms now offer native video opportunities, YouTube does not need to be the only outlet for video. Professional service brands have a better headstart on Linkedin or Twitter. However, the lessons from YouTube Creators can be transferred to those platforms as well.