YouTube, Algorithms, and Sponsored Content

YouTube Recommendations

YouTube’s algorithm is like a bored dog who knows how to play fetch but brings back a random mix of stuff, only occasionally something you might actually want. Some have mastered that algorithm to attract audiences that were previously unattainable for all but an elite few, and some have used that reach for nefarious, disturbing, and traditional means.

As broadcast and cable TV fragmented into hundreds of channels serving various overlapping demographics in search of the occasional mainstream hit, and streaming competitors leveraged nostalgia and cheap licenses to fund their own original mix of niche and mainstream content, YouTube was quietly “democratizing” video content the same way Blogger and WordPress did years ago, to similar effect.

Excepting the occasional dreaded “viral video,” I mostly ignored YouTube until the combination of Xbox One, Chromecast, and parenting two teenagers forced it onto my radar a few years ago, replacing the increasingly mind-numbing channel surfing of the past with the Russian Roulette of our advertising & algorithm-driven future.

Starting with searches for game reviews, soccer highlights, and movie trailers, I eventually discovered the on-demand joys of SciShow, Defend the House, and Simone Giertz, among several others. Over time, YouTube’s recommendations would improve, although heavily biased towards topics and channels I watched most recently, but with none of the nuance you’d expect from an IRL Skynet that arguably knows more about me and my interests than I do.

Algorithmic Donuts

Recently, my sporadically recurring interest in cars sparked up again, initially driven by an(other) impulsive print subscription to Car & Driver, followed shortly by a return to racing games and the desire to upgrade from a standard controller to an actual driving peripheral. (The hype is real, y’all!)

That interest eventually led me back to YouTube, then to Jalopnik whose online presence is a bit more my speed than C&D, and then… the algorithmic magic happened.

I can’t remember how many times this Donut Media video popped up in my recommendations before I finally watched it, but I initially ignored it as I do most unfamiliar channels because life’s too short to help monetize bad content, and YouTube has arguably done more for terrible niche content than Blogger/WordPress ever did. I periodically prune my recommendations of sketchy channels and awful YouTube “influencers” because the algorithm requires constant care and feeding to be useful, and I assumed Donut Media would be culled in my next pass.

But YouTube and Donut hit the sweet spot, combining a real-world interest (I’ve owned two Subarus in the past) with a video game interest (the WRX is my favorite car to drive in any game that has one), so I clicked and watched and… it was magical!

The video itself is pretty typical for good YouTube content—just polished enough to not feel amateurish, low budget but charmingly so. The host, James Pumphrey, pulls off the mildly obnoxious YouTube personality without ever crossing the line into unbearable territory, and he’s clearly knowledgeable and passionate about cars so the video is both informative and entertaining.

Said No One Ever…

As the video concluded, intrigued enough to watch another, I was pleasantly surprised by the sponsored content integration!

Seriously, watch the video and stick around to the end.

A lot of YouTube creators integrate sponsored content into their videos, some more transparently than others, some more creatively than others. On the transparent side of things, there’s the NPR approach—with the formal, scripted delivery of a promotional message—and the more organic approach Pumphrey uses here to great effect. The segue is natural, the delivery emphatic, and the message is contextual and compelling.

I’ve since watched a bunch more of Pumphrey’s “Up to Speed” videos and while a handful have different sponsored content pitches, none are nailed quite the way he does this one which makes it even more impressive. (The veiled sponsored link in the video description is a bit less impressive, but still on brand.)

As the advertising-driven pivots to video (and the more low-key pivots to audio) hit inevitable speed bumps and ad budgets pivot elsewhere, some will throw the baby out with the bathwater, ignoring the important underlying message of YouTube’s success. Much like blogs and social media were driven by a desire to connect with like-minded people and an interest in authentic, independent voices, the future of online video isn’t terribly different.

Put the audience first and advertisers will follow. Serve that audience really well and advertisers will treat you like a valued partner instead of a dumb pipe. Better yet, you might not need them, or the algorithm, at all.

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