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Youtube Video Technology

What I learned from YouTube’s viewers research

By Craig Mawdsley, joint chief strategy officer

November 15, 2017 | 5 min read

More than a viewer infographic

I’m a professional sceptic.


Youtube app

It’s in my job description.

Or maybe I’m just awkward.

When I read or listen, I wonder about the agenda behind it, and find the flaws.

When it’s media owner research, it’s easier, as it’s obviously going to be partial nonsense.

But something strange happened recently.

Google gave me access to new research about attention and YouTube.

And I think I learned something.

Not just only about YouTube, but about people in our hyper connected age.

Now I’ve recovered from the shock I can share my reflections.

Google did ethnography (filming people in their living rooms, with their permission of course, over a prolonged period), in depth cultural insight (talking with expert commentators and YouTube viewers) and quantitative research (asking people how they use various video platforms). Google gave me a sneak preview of the results, which helped me shape a new set of rules for the attention economy.

There’s no such thing as shrinking attention spans.

Attention is task specific and subtle to understand. If anyone tells you that “we live in a world of shrinking attention spans” then just ignore them. They don’t know what they’re talking about. The Google research showed that, in video, attention is a spectrum, combining intensity and duration. Depending on screen and content people pay a lot, or a little, attention (even though they live in the 21st century and have lots of screens). We’re not more distracted, we just have more choices.

You pay more attention when you deliberately choose to watch something.

If video’s just on in the background or you scroll past it in a feed, you pay less attention. When you search for something, or if it matches your interests, you pay more attention. This is interesting for YouTube where the view tends to be actively chosen. 83% of YouTube viewers are fully or mostly paying attention, compared to only 53% on video across other social platforms.

Smartphones and tablets create an individual ‘viewing bubble’ that intensifies attention.

We often think about the prestige and importance of The Big Screen. But when a smartphone’s six inches away from your face, it’s A Big Screen. It’s your personal screen, which creates a different relationship to it than the box in the corner of the room. You pay more attention. You watch more closely. You remember it afterwards. According to comScore, over 70% of YouTube viewing happens on smartphones or tablets. This may not be coincidence.

We show how much we’re paying attention by what we do.

When we actively decide to watch something, we don’t leave the screen in portrait mode, we watch full screen (so we don’t need to format our films for portrait if we’ve produced something we think people might actually watch). We fiddle with the volume to get it just right. We settle back in our seat a bit. And, if interrupted, we press pause. This doesn’t happen as much for broadcast TV on a shared screen as it does for YouTube, where on smartphones over half of YouTube content is being watched full screen[iii].

When you pay attention, action often follows.

If you want someone to do something, it’s more likely if they’re paying attention. They share, they learn, they move, they buy, they act. This is less likely when they’re not paying attention (that probably creates passive, lower level brand associations, although that wasn’t the focus of these studies). And it appears that the attention paid to YouTube content spills over to ads that surround it. Then things happen in the real world. Which is what we’re all trying to do for brands at some point, right?

So this research helps.

Which is pretty unusual for media owner research.

It makes you think, and raises questions.

I come away with one clear thought - not all video is created equal.

So maybe we shouldn’t just be planning ‘video’ or AV as though it were all the same.

Because YouTube viewers aren’t just viewing.

Craig Mawdsley is the joint chief strategy officer of AMV BBDO

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