YouTube is about one month into its most significant design change since launch: Cosmic Panda. I have a feeling I know where they got the “cosmic” and the panda.” Let’s look at the redesign, and overthink what it might tell us about YouTube strategy, and what I believe works and sucks (wins/fails).
As with other redesigns, hardcore YouTubers squealed and the rest of you probably didn’t even notice. We see that across the Interweb with any major design change by a social-media site or publisher. Unlike previous changes focused on the YouTube “homepage,” however, I believe the essence of this redesign (not having read any Google statements) is three-fold:
- Simplified video player: The new design creates what Philip Defranco legitimately calls a “Hulu grey” surrounding a very purist player. The majority of the information (date, comments, view count and related videos) are now almost lost”below the fold,” which has negative and positive implications.
- Preparing for TV/Web Marge: Cosmic Panda appears to be providing a “lean back” experience resembling television, but not too deeply at the expense of a “lean forward” user-driven video session characterized by searches, views of a channel page, comments, selection to view playlist, fast-forward-like options while we view “playlists.” Playlists, by the way, are assembled by creators or users, and are given far more emphasis in Cosmic Panda.
- Major Channel Page Changes: There’s been an odd disconnect between viewing a video on a “channel” page (created by a network, show, vlogger, artist or advertiser) and a regular view you’d experience by finding a video in the typical manner. And Cosmic Panda seems to be bringing these experiences (views on channe page vs. regular “watch” page) closer together. In reality, only a VERY small percent of views take place within a channel page. We advertiser and creators too often forget this. So it’s interesting that Cosmic Panda put so much effort into overhauling the creator “channel” pages. I gather these changes were made to accommodate the complex needs of networks and producers, but in reality the “branding” options have almost entirely vanished.
- Above all, the user comes first. Like Google, simplicity trumps advertisers and content creators.
- This design does suggest to me that YouTube wants to move toward web-TV. I could actually envision binging on YouTube content via my Google TV using this new design (something that was not as easy or fun in the previous one).
- Most importantly, I believe the emphasis on the channel page is the most telling. The channel pages are not frequented relative to views OFF channel, yet this is YouTube’s second major design release that fundamentally changes these channel pages. One could gather that YouTube sees value in these (or else they’d leave them alone, or give channel owners what they wanted). They didn’t. They reduced customization of the channel pages, and that’s consistant with previous reductions of channel owners (who once were permitted a small banner besides every video). So what’s the plan, Stan? Are we going to see a greater emphasis on channel/TV-like consumption instead of the graze & search model that predominates?
- Change is inevitable.
- Change is usually painful in the long term, but beneficial in the long term.
- Change by heavy users of a site is almost always bad (as the VidCon satire with YouTube PD Brian Glick’s shows).
And before I pick my “wins” and “fails,” let me acknowledge the “hats” I can and can’t wear while critiquing it:
- As a 10-year veteren of online marketing and advertising (mostly client side, but also agency) I have some strong POV from a brand/commercial perspective.
- As a creator with 1000 plus videos seen 250 million times, I have pretty strong feelings.
- Finally, as a YouTube extreme “user,” I spend a lot of time on the site (although less in the past year). So I can adjust to design quirks that would send my mom into a tailspin.
- BUT What I CAN’T speak to is what “normal” mainstream viewers feel about the site. I can only hope YouTube recognized that segment as the primary audience for the redesign, and not hard-core users, creators or advertisers.
An important internet meme is “win and fail.” Popularized by Fail Blog, this refers to victories and public mistakes — usually involving someone getting hurt or doing something worthy of a Darwin award (yes they’re still around). Let’s talk wins and fails of Cosmic Panda.
a) Where’s the Creator/Brand Love? The channel page provides reduced customization, and as a creator and marketer (who has worked on brand channels) I’m not digging that. However I do respect that simplicity is good, I resent the limited customization and the horrific minimization of everything “below the fold” (seen without scrolling on most browsers).
b) Wasted Space… New Ads? Biggest fail, which will certainly be remedied, is this horrific waste of precious “above the fold.” I want IAB standards on rich-media ads that can play here. As a viewer, I would hope the advertiser pays more for annoying/busy ads (or I’ll get out my post-it notes and cover the space). But as an advertiser I like the idea that we can use this area to serve ads that are typical online… instead of just annoying prerolls and forgotten banners.
c) Form Over Function: Simplicity triumphed at the expense of some important basics. I need to scroll to see the date of the video! Comments are tucked away in a separate part of the experience, which is fair since most don’t read or write comment. However it’s going to reduce engagement. Furthermore, I was saddened to see how little “love” the related videos get. This is a very important way for a viewer to find content, and a very valuable way for a creator to engage a viewer in a binge. I used Cosmic Panda for weeks before I even noticed these three choices. I don’t think my mom will notice them anymore than the previous convoluted mess that allowed you to sort videos by views, date and ratings.
a) Simpler, Polished User Experience: Panda’s biggest victory is the simplicity and emphasis on the video being viewed… downplaying comments and ratings, and making it easy to toggle to a full-screen view. That’s important in the migration ahead (webTV). We humans have executive brains that ask for loads of functionality, but our limbic systems want fewer choices and eyeball competition.
b) Channel Emphasis: I do fundamentally like the focus on “channels” because I think it’s a deeply engrained mode for us based on television. I was pleased to see how far down you’d have to scroll to get to a “related” video by another creator. Let’s use a TV mindset to predict the future. I find US Network the best at cross-promotion of shows, and now find myself plunging deeper and deeper into its “characters welcome” family of shows. YouTube’s new approach facilitates that type of relationship between a creator/network and its audience. It’s easy to find playlists and view them consecutively with a wonderful thumbnail slider. It’s increasingly rare to binge on a string of videos that other users have found related… although I confess a guilty pleasure of occasionally getting on a binge of a specific topic (usually pets, pranks, babies laughing). In general most of us a) chronically view a creator, b) search out videos, or count on others to help us mine for gold in a river of dung.
c) Mama Might Understand It: While I’m not crazy about the featured/videos/community tab, I do think the channel page is MUCH better at helping my mom find my most recent videos (I used a custom URL to provide that previously), and for friends/colleagues to find specific playlists. The reason that’s so important is that viewers don’t want a lot of choices… they want to either see the most recent video (“new” is almost always preferred to “good” in most mediums), or they want a specific, consistent genre of videos. I’ve always had trouble keeping various audiences pleased: My fart viewers don’t care about my family videos, and my fellow parents may not be interested in sophomoric pranks… they just want to see the family. The relationship between the audience and the creator/network needs to acknowledge that diversity, and Panda is a huge step forward on that important dimension.
AHEAD: The next step is pivotal. We need to see YouTube drive traffic more seamlessly to these channels from the videos that comprise them. It’s far from intuitive, for instance, to move from watching “Farting in Public” to my channel page (subtle icon on bottom) and then subscribe (the button has been muted from its earlier orange). Emphasis on that path (from viewer to subscriber) will help turn grazers into loyal YouTube channel viewers, thus significantly increasing YouTube’s views, average sessions, and advertising revenue. Then YouTube will have to figure out how to let subscribers to a channel “sub” subscribe to specific shows/type of content. That’s not an easy one. But I think Google can figure it out.
What do you think? Did you even read this 1500 word doctrine? Me neither.