Video consumption soared during lockdown, including a notable spike in viewing on connected TV devices. Erica Probst, YouTube’s Head of Sales for UK and Ireland, talks to Alex Brownsell for WARC's Marketer’s Toolkit 2021 about how the platform is targeting both brand and activation ad dollars in 2021 and beyond.

2020 has been a momentous year for all sorts of reasons, with huge changes to brand strategies and media strategies. What trends are you seeing from a client perspective at the moment?

When COVID hit, we saw marketers throwing the rulebook out the window. Suddenly there was so much change and such acceleration. We started getting calls from advertisers and brands wanting to re-plan everything, the entire year of campaigns. [Marketers] recognised that there was so much change in viewing behaviour and consumption patterns in such a short space of time, and a lot of people were starting to think, ‘Are my media strategies changing fast enough to keep up with this?’ As part of that, we've definitely seen brands consider YouTube in ways that they hadn't considered it before, and in some cases really see us more as an AV partner that can help them reach their audiences in these times.

What are the headlines that we can take from this year in terms of audience behaviour?

Key insights

  • YouTube has seen a ‘huge acceleration’ in the number of users watching content on its platform on a connected TV, creating an opportunity for the platform to win spend from advertisers that usually build brands via TV media.
  • To capitalise on the return to prominence of context in media planning, the platform has launched YouTube Select, a suite of tools enabling brands to curate their own sponsorship packages of relevant content.
  • YouTube is becoming a place of discovery for consumers, with increasing evidence of audiences seeing products on YouTube and then searching for those brands on Google.

For us, a really key thing is the change in behaviour in watching YouTube on your connected TV. That's definitely something that is happening globally. In the UK, we have a really high percentage of smart TV adoption, so what particularly stood out [in lockdown] was this huge acceleration of people suddenly watching on their TV and enjoying [content] in their living room. And that brought back a new way of thinking about YouTube viewing. A lot of times people think about [YouTube] audiences [as] really engaged and really lean-in, and that's true. But now, if you think about this idea of viewing YouTube on your TV set in your living room, I think that brings back all these ideas around entertainment and mass reach. That's really exciting for us to see. We [recently] published a stat, which is that 20 million people watch YouTube on their TV screens every month in the UK. And that's something we continue to see accelerate.

Are you seeing brands starting to respond to the growth of the connected TV market?

Yeah, we are. I think that's one of the reasons why we're so excited to launch YouTube Select. We are so proud of the diverse, multi-dimensional content that's on YouTube. Bringing this product to market was, in a way, us wanting to do justice to the creativity of the creators on the platform. Yes, of course, we want to help brands really align with consumers in those moments where they can build audiences, build brand awareness, increase consideration. But we also want to provide them the opportunity to tap into this amazing cultural experience we see happening on the platform day in, day out.

Erica Probst, Head of Sales for UK and Ireland, YouTube

What was the rationale behind launching YouTube Select?

We recognise that YouTube has huge reach, [and a] really engaged audience. We want to enable brands to help build those connections with their audience by aligning to some of the most exciting and popular content in the UK on the platform.

In terms of then how that breaks down from a product perspective, there are three product solutions. The first one is ‘Line-ups’, pre-packaged solutions based on genres audiences. For example, it could be a food line-up or a sports line-up. Or in terms of audiences, it could be a classic ABC1 audience or women's audience. How do we pre-package those hotspots for advertisers to be able to tap into that really quickly and easily?

The second offering is our ‘Moments & Programmes’ pillar, which is really about trying to understand the tentpole events and cultural moments that are huge on YouTube. You could take something like the Olympics or Euro 2020, where there's a huge amount of content and audience reach relating to those. How do we let brands get sponsorship of that or higher share voice, and give them more exclusive access and help them build deeper connections? Music is another big area for us. A lot of artists who were not able to do live gigs turned to YouTube as a way of engaging their audience. We're also looking at moments such as Pride or Ramadan, and how we facilitate brands in helping to capture those.

Then the third pillar is something that we're calling ‘Custom’. That's our top-tier solution for brands and agencies that really want to go deep, lift the hood on YouTube's content, and build their own content strategy and curate their own version of YouTube. We've been working with OMG and helping them build packages that are unique to their clients, and we've seen great success with that.

Does this mean that YouTube is really focusing on those brand dollars – something we don’t normally associate with digital media?

Absolutely. It's well-regarded that aligning to content that your audience is care about drives brand metrics. There's lots of third-party studies out there that talk about how you get better awareness or consideration uplifts when your brand is placed in front of the content that your audiences are passionate about. And that is fundamentally what YouTube Select is about.

Is it also true to say that YouTube is rationalising the amount of content it wants to monetise, in an effort to be more relevant to brands?

Yeah, absolutely. Look at our policies. We've done a lot of work over the last four years to make monetisation a reward rather than a given. That has resulted in us being much more specific about the content that we want to place advertising against and should have advertising against. That is almost like a baseline for the platform. What YouTube Select is actually doing is really trying to say, well, what's the best of the best? What's the most engaging? What has the most reach, the most audience engagement? What's most popular in the Zeitgeist of today, and how do we let brands access that?

What about brand safety? Are we getting to the point where brands can have absolute confidence in the content that they are advertising around on YouTube?

We've worked so hard over for several years now to make really significant and positive changes in the way that we think about this. Responsibility remains our number-one priority. You hear our CEO Susan Wojcicki talk about it all the time. The red thread of responsibility absolutely runs through everything that we do in our platform. We’re immediately removing content that doesn't meet those policies, and we're reducing borderline content, which might meet the policies, but potentially shouldn't be monetised, or is content that most brands wouldn't want to be associated with. We've also done a lot of work to raise [the prominence of] authoritative content. News is a really great example, especially during COVID, where, across the board, news viewership went up on every platform. That's not unique to YouTube, but we saw huge increases in news watch time. So how do we raise up the content that is authoritative, and reduce the content which is slightly more borderline, albeit still meeting our policies?

We've also done quite a lot of work to our products. We've put together what we're calling Inventory Modes, which are different settings that advertisers can choose from based on the tone or the level of suitability that they're looking for. We call them ‘Expanded Mode’, ‘Standard Mode’, and ‘Limited Mode’. Expanded Mode is great for a brand looking maybe to target a Gen Z audience, or is in its brand tone or brand identity a little bit more edgy, and is happy to appear against sexual references, or content which is a little bit more racy. Limited Mode, at the other end, pulls out a lot of the content and is a much more restricted view of YouTube. It’s really for those advertisers who want to be a little bit more traditional or considered about the content that they play against.

Do you feel you’ve been able to help brands to avoid the crude keyword blacklisting that has caused problems in recent years?

That's exactly right. It used to be that keywords and exclusion lists or inclusion lists were the best controls that we had. The problem is that they're quickly outdated, they're very manual, they're hard to control. And, particularly with inclusion or exclusion lists, they're very expensive to run. Inventory Mode is a more automated way of providing those inclusions or exclusions for advertisers at scale. They can still run on open option, or they can use our machine learning tools to classify that content for them, and help them appear on the content that they feel is right for them. So far, the tests that we've been running over the last year with a number of advertisers have been very successful.

That blending of e-commerce and media is something that we're seeing as a big trend for next year, including live-streaming. How do you think this is going play out on YouTube?

This is a trend that we've seen building for a long time. A lot of advertisers that have started going more direct-to-consumer, whereas previously maybe they were more retailer-led. We often hear rumbles in the industry questioning brand spend in favour of performance, which drives bottom line metrics, especially at this time. I think we're well attuned to all those trends. On YouTube, we see a really prominent user behaviour of people searching for products and looking for products – 51% of viewers bought something or chose a brand as a result of seeing it on YouTube. That dynamic of discovery on YouTube, whether you're talking about the latest phone launches, or un-boxing, or fashion reviews – a lot of behaviour on YouTube is about discovering things, and that includes products, brands and services.

We've been working hard to make sure that our products work in that way for advertisers as well. We have a product called YouTube for Action, which specifically optimises towards performance metrics like sales, and connects them to Google search, so you can look at the interplay of how people are behaving or discovering your content on YouTube, and then also searching for your brand and potentially purchasing your product later down the line.