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When Ads on YouTube Aren't Ads at All


When we introduced the skip button on YouTube's TrueView advertising four years ago, I'll admit that I wondered whether people would choose to watch ads. Even though I've been a marketer for more than 20 years, I'm also a consumer. And if an ad isn't relevant or entertaining—fast forward, skip, click, close.

And, as always, brands are stepping up their game. They're making ads so good that people are choosing to watch and share them, and the best ads out there today are also some of the best content.

Brands are making content people want to watch, and consumers are choosing to watch more, dramatically more, every year. Case in point: People watched more than 1 billion minutes of the top 10 videos on the YouTube Ads Leaderboard this year, and the views for those ads are more than double what we saw two years ago when we launched the Ads Leaderboard. This is the new golden age of advertising, and it's unfolding on YouTube.

• Watch: The 10 Most Watched Ads on YouTube in 2014

The question is: What are brands doing differently? How are they capturing our attention? As part of our annual Ads Rewind video, we ranked the top ads of the year using an algorithm based on views, sharing, and watchtime, then took a look to see what the videos had in common. Five themes emerged that show how brands are breaking the traditional ad mold and creating content that people are excited to watch.

From 30 Seconds to 3 Minutes

For decades, advertisers have kept it short. As TV spots shrank from 60 seconds to 30, from 30 seconds to 15, advertisers adapted. In the context of interruption, brands must be brief. But when viewers choose to watch an ad, they'll give brands much more than 30 seconds of their time.

The top 10 videos on the YouTube Ads Leaderboard in 2014 averaged three minutes in length. The Nike Football "Winner Stays" video, which earned the No. 1 spot with nearly 100 million views, clocks in at 4:12. With the advent of consumer choice, brands are getting more time with consumers than ever: more than five times the duration of a typical TV spot.

From One Moment to Many

Brands have always used cultural events to connect with audiences. Now, each of these big moments is split into hundreds of digital moments—and most are happening before and after the event: fans researching players for a fantasy draft, sharing videos to get psyched before a game, seeking out highlight videos after. This opens a bigger window for brands to engage fans around these events.

And brands are taking advantage. The top 10 Super Bowl and World Cup ads featured in the Rewind video this year earned a remarkable 14 million hours of watch time—that's 1,600 years of football content. But more important, fans watched three-quarters of those hours before or after the events themselves, using YouTube to extend the shared experience of the events.

From Reflecting Social Norms to Defining Them

Where yesterday's ads reinforced social norms, today's popular ads challenge them. Some of the most successful ads on YouTube this year weren't afraid to hit a nerve. For example, when Always called out the phrase "Like a Girl" in its 2014 video, it earned 300,000 likes, shares and comments in 30 days on YouTube alone, driving the view count to nearly 60 million in the first month.

Save the Children's "Most Shocking Second a Day" video earned 21 million views on YouTube in just five days. The YouTube audience is eager to engage. If your content echoes their passions or frustrations, they'll take action—share your ad, contribute to your cause, and start a movement around your message.

From Storytelling to Storybuilding

Succeeding on YouTube doesn't require reinventing the wheel with each video. In fact, quite the opposite. Many brands are finding success building on existing, successful storylines. Evian, for example, launched "Baby & Me" in 2013 and it was a top trending ad on YouTube for almost a year. The brand followed it up in 2014 with the Spider-Man-themed "The Amazing Baby & Me," which drove deeper engagement with all of the existing content. In fact, Evian saw a fourfold week-over-week increase in views of the original spot after the sequel was released.

Brands like Evian have created a beloved storyline that fans eagerly tune into. With each new video, it isn't just telling a story, it's building on the "Baby & Me" story. Fans rally behind the stories and characters they know and love, watching and sharing both old favorites and new hits.

And Brands Don't Have to Do It Alone

YouTube has a huge ecosystem of passionate communities built around channels and creators. From BuzzFeed to Bethany Mota, creators know what works on YouTube and, more important, what will resonate with their unique fan bases. Many brands are successfully partnering with these creators to make content that consumers are choosing to watch.

Purina Friskies, for example, saw an opportunity to work with BuzzFeed, known—among other things—as a best-in-class cat video curator and creator. Together, Friskies and Buzzfeed created arguably the best branded cat video of all time, "Dear Kitten." And sure enough, it connected with the BuzzFeed audience; "Dear Kitten" is now the most-watched video on the BuzzFeed channel, which boasts nearly 4 million subscribers.

We created the skip button on YouTube to give consumers a choice. But skip button or not, all ads today are skippable. Users can always change the channel, hit pause, open a new tab, or pick up their smartphones. We live in a world of choice, and 2014's most successful brands respect that.

The YouTube Ads Leaderboard is a great reminder that advertising is a craft, and the goal of both the Leaderboard and the Ads Rewind video is to celebrate those at the top of their craft. I predict that in 2015, the best brands will continue to rise to the top not from market muscle, but because consumers chose to put them there.

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