How video upstarts can thrive in YouTube’s shadow

Talkin' 'bout m-m-my generation.

Talkin’ ’bout my g-g-generation. Photo: Jonas Bengtsson/Flickr CC

When I wanted to learn how to knit, I went to YouTube. Anytime I need to learn a guitar solo for a cover song my band is working on, I head to YouTube. I’m not alone in my use of the video portal, either. According to Nielsen, YouTube reaches more U.S. adults in the 18-34 age range than any cable network.

These types of everyday queries have made YouTube the No. 2 search engine in the world, second only to Google (which just happens to be the video site’s parent company). More than 1 billion unique users head to YouTube every month, and more than 6 billion hours of video — almost an hour of video for each person on the planet — get watched in the same time period.

If you’re a new site, trying to capture enough mind share and traffic to create a successful user-created video content business, how could you ever compete with such a giant?

Michal Ann Strahilevitz, professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, said she thinks going toe-to-toe with such a giant would be misguided.

“Don’t try to topple, find a niche,” she told Cult of Mac. “The key to success in this domain will be to specialize in some aspect of this category that YouTube is not going for. Of course, success at doing that could lead to being bought by Google, but that is what happened to YouTube eight years ago, and it did not exactly hurt them.”

Launched nearly a decade ago in 2005 (and acquired by Google the next year), YouTube has grown from a site for sharing pointless user-generated clips to the world’s foremost searchable repository of video. Filled with videos that range from raw to insanely commercial, it’s the go-to for anybody looking for moving images or even music.

How can smaller players survive and even thrive in the shadow of this video behemoth? The key is differentiation on a variety of fronts, according to indie video producers and upstart services trying to make a name for themselves in a YouTube-dominated world.

One such niche video service, DailyBurn, is doing just that — and finding some pretty good success: DailyBurn subscribers have continued to more than double each year since it launched its fitness video service in 2011.

As a subscription service, DailyBurn has to do everything better than free sites like YouTube: Provide higher-quality videos and better ease-of-use across a diverse group of viewing platforms, like smartphones and tablets.

“You don’t need to ‘beat’ YouTube: YouTube suffers from channel clutter.”

“You don’t need to ‘beat’ YouTube: YouTube suffers from channel clutter,” says Mason Bendewald, DailyBurn’s chief production officer. “Niche markets and channels are finding their audiences by doing things smarter and better.”

There’s probably no beating YouTube as the top user-created video site in the world, but there’s plenty of space in the market for niche producers. (Bendewald cites the makers of fitness videos as a good example.)

Grooveshark, the streaming-music service that must compete with YouTube for listeners’ ears, says YouTube’s size actually can work against it.

“The fact that YouTube has such varied content, functionality and viewership detracts from its ability to be streamlined in servicing one distinct core audience,” says Grooveshark CTO Josh Greenberg. “Most large video services have come to find certain valuable niches in order to distinguish themselves from YouTube…. I believe that as the online video sector evolves, there will continue to be more ‘viewer-driven participation,’ which will allow more than one of these sites to experience exponential growth.”

Others aren’t so hopeful.

“Honestly, I don’t think other sites stand a chance,” says online video developer Lawrence Basso, who works for Internet marketing company Overit. His company uses YouTube and Vimeo to upload videos. (“I prefer Vimeo, because it feels like more of a closed community of creators, rather than a public-access channel,” he says.)

Basso thinks YouTube is too big to fail, and will only lose its prime position if it drives away users with crummy new terms of use or gets rid of the monetary reward it pays producers of well-trafficked videos.

Successful video creator John Z Wetmore said he makes far more ad money per view on YouTube than on other video sites he’s on, like Blip. “I expect to be on YouTube a long time and not have to move my videos again,” he says.

Photo: Rego Korosi/Flickr

Photo: Rego Korosi/Flickr CC

Sure, it’s possible that some unknown technology or service could come along and topple the YouTube giant. Think of MySpace, Napster, IBM and, yes, even Microsoft — each of these companies had what seemed like a lock on the future. But current competitors like Vimeo or Blip wouldn’t be the ones to steal YouTube’s crown, according to digital marketing and social media strategist Brad Hines.

“Much as Facebook was the unknown competition to Friendster and the now-defunct Orkut,” says Hines. “I believe whatever threat to truly topple YouTube will actually be an entirely unknown and/or not-currently-existing app.”

Until somebody comes up with game-changing technology, the key to success outside YouTube’s ecosystem is focusing on distinct content categories that YouTube can’t serve with it’s one-approach-fits-all perspective. If you want to be relevant in a YouTube world, you need to find your niche audience and then serve those customers better than anyone else.

About the author

Rob LeFebvreAnchorage, Alaska-based freelance writer and editor Rob LeFebvre is Cult of Mac's Culture Editor. He has contributed to various tech, gaming and iOS sites, including 148Apps, VentureBeat, and Paste Magazine. Feel free to find Rob on Twitter @roblef

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