In the three years since its launch, Youtube has cemented itself as a pillar of UK culture. From TV highlights to music promos to weird and wonderful amateur clips, Youtube is our default source of bitesize, on-demand video content.
Advertisers and their agencies are still trying to figure out how to exploit this uber-platform; how to grasp - and realise - its potential as a vehicle for brand communication. We've uploaded our ads. We've experimented with risque films and longer forms. Some have 'gone viral', some haven't.
Beyond that, we've thrown making-ofs, out-takes and other video assets into the mix. We've linked episodes and built series. We've urged Diginatives to respond with videos of their own. But no-one has uncovered the magic formula - the formula that guarantees 10m views rather than 10,000. (Let's leave the quality of those views to one side for now - important question as it is).
There is, of course, no magic formula. Even 'be novel with your content' fails as a rule of thumb when parody, remixing and reference litter the most-viewed lists.
That's not to say that Youtube can't be gamed; that there aren't tactics and ploys for success. Two recent news stories might inspire fresh thinking on how to craft a Youtube hit. These stories suggest that novel approaches to the Youtube platform - as opposed to novel Youtube content - can generate the extreme viral effects that advertisers crave.
First up, the mystery surrounding Clauras Bartel's amateur music video for the CSS track Music is My Hot Hot Sex. After its initial upload last year, this relatively uninspiring video garnered a staggering 120m views before being taken down by Youtube moderators (mirror version here). Theories abound, with Bartel himself suggesting that salacious tags and and titles may have contributed to the film's unprecedented view count. Whether or not he's right, the notion that meta data - not merely optimised, but used creatively - can strongly influence a Youtube film's findability and exposure should give advertising people food for thought. With the Youtube Insight audience analysis tool on its way, naive video uploads could soon be a thing of the past.
Less mysterious, but equally inspiring, is the so-called 'Rick Rolling' craze, which has delivered 9m Youtube views for a grainy Rick Astley music promo. Rick Rolling is a playfully subversive meme spread by bloggers and forum users who disguise hyperlinks to the Astley video as links to juicy gossip stories. By thus spurning web e-tiquette, Rick Rollers have delighted their audiences and massively amplified the view count of an otherwise unremarkable video. Rebel brands seeking online engagement should take heed - their Youtube behaviour may look a little square by comparison.
To reiterate, neither of these examples offers a magic formula, or a simple prescription for advertisers. In a media environment where attention is earned, not bought, there can be no certainties of effect. (Translation: we'll still be wrestling with Youtube alchemy in another three years time.)
But what we might learn from Clauras Bartel, the Rick Rollers and other Youtube deviants, is a determination to challenge and repurpose new digital platforms. That's an 'engagement zag', in BBH speak, and it'll get us to fresher, more famous work.
A note of caution: as brand stewards we must be careful not to confuse harmless play and harmful spam. When a video marketer described his cynical ploys for blue-chip clients on TechCrunch, the blog's readers responded angrily.
For me, the acid test is simple. If a brand's tactics are part of the story and part of the fun, then they are fair game - and good game.
First and foremost, Diginatives want to be entertained. Somewhere between straight-laced behaviour and exploitative acts, there's an interesting space where brands can deliver that entertainent.