Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Neutral, Open, Malleable & Agnostic - Can a strong brand be built on these attributes?

For the past few months, I've been working on a big project at YouTube that I've been very excited about. It's been a hectic few weeks, and it's only now that I'm stopping to reflect on what we've accomplished and how far we've come. I'm very proud of the exciting new thing we've built (I can't tell you yet!), but I can't help but look at it and wonder about what does it mean for content to appear "on YouTube" and how will what I'm building change or shift that perception (if at all)? 

There seem to be generally two camps of "YouTube-as-brand" 

1) YouTube is an extremely strong brand, and it's almost as important (if not as important) that a certain piece of video content "went viral on YouTube" as what's actually contained in the video itself. 

2) YouTube is a neutral platform - a repository for all the world's creativity. That the UI should recede into the background and let the content (and creativity) shine with it's own voice and the voice of the community. 

Unlike most false dichotomies that seem to be presented when talking about UI models, this one actually seems to be legitimately mutually exclusive. How can a property have an extremely strong brand within a UI while still maintaining a neutral voice and canvas for content of all types?

I've been struggling with this split in the path of the YouTube UI for a few weeks now, because I believe that YouTube's core differentiator is ultimately the community (for mostly better and sometimes worse). That YouTube *feels* approachable, *feels* community made and *feels* malleable to it's visitors. Can this DIY feeling, in and of itself, be a strong brand attribute? Maybe even the strongest? Can YouTube's brand simultaneously recede and strengthen? Should we be more heavy handed in the visual design and the UI to strengthen YouTube's brand? Or should "YouTube" remain more of an abstract concept that can be lightly applied to all hosted content, with an open community and a neutral canvas? 

After many weeks of pushing in a certain direction, I feel that YouTube's brand (and market differentiator) is strongest when the community shines the most. When the community takes ownership of the content and the discourse no matter what container it shows up in. The mere fact that YouTube allows (nay, encourages) its UI & content to escape it's main youtube.com container (embeds all over the Internet) is evidence that a strong ecosystem can easily trump a heavy-handed branded UI. The trick now is to discover a UI treatment that uses *clean*, *modern* & *professional* to enhance (not overpower) *neutral*, *open*, *malleable* & *agnostic*. Tricky. 



crwbot said...

Is YouTube really a neutral platform? My initial instinct would be to say no.

You can put your content into YouTube, but it seems hard to get it out. That's a data silo and decidedly non-neutral. Contrast that to Google Docs where your data goes in and can come out in a number of different formats. Also; YouTube has rules about what type of content is allowed. It's not 4chan (though sometimes you might think otherwise based on the comments ;).

Moreover, YouTube is a strong brand despite the fact that its UI seems constantly in flux (is that volume slider gonna go up vertically or out to the right? Who knows? It's an adventure!) - and this should tell you something about the community and what they're willing to cope with design-wise. In that respect I have to agree that YouTube shines the most when the spotlight is on the community.

Jenna said...

Great points, Christopher. I was mainly referring to "neutral" as UI, not data portability.. but this is all fair regardless of the perspective.

B said...

You can download all your videos ; go to http://www.youtube.com/my_videos and beneath each video is a "Download MP4" option to download an MP4.

(Yes, it's not the original version you uploaded; and you can't download the videos in bulk).

Denton Gentry said...

Is it possible there are several, distinct sets of people YouTube caters to and who have different expectations about the YouTube brand. A little noodling:

* Producers for whom "going viral on YouTube" is a part of their strategy. I'd lump real production houses and savvy individuals together in this category.
* People uploading their own videos to share with friends, without publicizing or trying to go viral. (though sometimes they do so anyway).
* People who never upload, just view.

That first group cares about branding: their own. They'll be savvy enough to accept YouTube promoting its own brand as part of the arrangement. I think YouTube already engages with these folks. For them, you'd presumably be focussing on channel pages.

If you're focussing on the home page I guess you're looking more at the other two groups, the more casual users of the site. There are probably a bunch of sub-categories they fit into, but I'm not smart enough to figure out what they might be.

I do wonder whether the site should adjust itself depending on the audience using it.
* should the YouTube branding be more bold around cartoons with bright primary colors, and subdued around more subtle video?
* should the related video selection and search function could be specialized depending on whether it keys off of a wedding video versus LOLcat?

ryto said...

This is definitely a tricky question with lots of complexity, and I one that has been hotly debated at my current work. It is especially tricky since this sense of brand (and the intended sense of brand) needs to permeate several facets of the site, community, and service as a whole; by that I mean, not only does it encompass decisions about the logo design and visual style, but also the user flow, user capabilities and permissions, privacy, tools given to producers and viewers, and even the way that TOS violations are handled. It seems to me to have gotten trickier as YouTube does more and more featured and partnered video experiences, while still supporting LOLcats and honey badgers.

As YouTube moves forward with its live streaming service this becomes I think (from experience) even a little trickier, since we move more from the blogging paradigm and into the paradigm of broadcast production. This turns the concept of community on its head (or maybe vice versa) since we always think TV when we think live broadcasts -- and we see how awkward shoving community into professional broadcast is everytime CNN does a presidential debate show. In addition, you end up providing a slightly different experience for your content producers that goes beyond simple record or upload functionality and into live production; now they might want to cut to other cameras, bring in guests, cut to uploaded youtube video, show captions or provide closed captioning, and do a myriad of other more complex interactions with the service that is hidden from the end viewer. (the broadcast pros will probably end up wanting to just provide a stream, but the prosumer-bloggers might want the production features) Anyway, my point I guess here is that it is hard to balance community with something that we often think of as being more one-way communication, and this extra service adds complexity to how the brand is presented to people. What was "the video site" now becomes "the video and internet TV site".

It is definitely a tough question, I agree that the community aspect is at the core the most important. This is evidenced by corporate entities asking everyone to "like" them and making overtures to communities in an effort to garner concentrated eyeballs. I also think more and more professional service users innately understand community. However, I don't think this precludes the decision to opt out of bright colors and bubble letters; I feel like (generically defined) "clean and modern" often gives the community users more a sense of confidence and peace of mind that even if the community is not totally "safe", it is at least protective of their interests and their safety.