Marketing for The Tubes: Improving Your YouTube Video Skip Rate

I’ve had a keen eye for marketing as long as I can remember.  As a child, I reached for the Want Ads before the comics and always paid far more attention to commercials than the programming they were embedded in.  After three and a half decades of watching, it drives me crazy when I see big name advertisers consistently misusing a marketing form.

Skip Ad buttonEverybody, large and small, has seen the little commercials that YouTube forces you to watch before you can click through to get to your video of dancing cats.  They’re the little annoyances that we all wait impatiently through, until the “Skip Ad” button pops up.  According to a TubeMogul report in 2013, up to 85 percent of all those ads are skipped with glee.

So, where does that leave us?  You might as well play the lottery as invest in YouTube ads, it would seem — but I think there’s a lot more to these figures.  I think the blame lies with the marketers and not the click happy consumers who are already proving their potential by seeking novelty in the ‘Tubes.

YouTube Commercials Versus Television Spots

A YouTube Commercial is not the same as a television or radio spot.  You’ve not got a captive audience, so stop thinking you do.  Even though your TV ads might mean a bathroom break for viewers, eventually they’ll be forced to see whatever it is you’ve got to say.  They’ll be forced — even if it’s not meaningful, even if it doesn’t hook all that well, even if the message is buried deep in artsy-fartsy bullshit.

Your average YouTube user could take or leave the video they’re watching.  Have you been to the ‘Tubes?  It’s a useful library, but very little of the content ranks among what’s legit or essential to life as we know it.  Many videos are too short to even function as very serious distractions.  And yet, users are drawn there every single day to learn about whatever they need to know — and they keep coming for those clips.  But if you believe they’re captive, you’re wrong.

Five Seconds to Hook

I’ve watched my share of videos of talking parrots and piano-playing housepets to notice a few things about YouTube Commercials.  The biggest thing — the thing everybody should be noticing — is that you’ve got five seconds to hook.  That’s it.  You can’t simply take your old TV spot and repurpose it — it’s gotta be meat all the way or you’re just another skipped ad.

YouTube Commercials have to be designed differently, with a different way of thinking, in order to succeed.  These are the components that I believe are necessary for success:

Fast hooks.  I already wrote this, but it bears repeating.  You have no time, as in zero seconds, to start setting your hook.  Set it within the first two or three seconds or you’re sunk.  At Second Five, your potential audience is saying good-bye.

Short, targeted messages.  Just because you CAN make a YouTube Commercial that’s 20 or 30 seconds long doesn’t mean that you should.  Keep them short, keep them on-target and you’ll have fewer misses.  That means cutting the fat, mixing your message and your hook and combining elements you might otherwise feel weird about combining.  If you can do it all in five to 10 seconds, you deserve a medal.

Clear calls to action.  OMG.  If there’s one thing I see in YouTube Commercials that bugs the crap outta me, it’s that so many are missing clear calls to action.  It’s a commercial, people — commerce!  If you want someone to click a link to learn more, provide it, if you want them to try your product in stores, say so.  No one is going to bother to Google you, you have to put your message out there.

Make it interesting.  Although I’d much rather watch a short, on-target ad that was dull as dishwater, you’re going to win a lot more flies with witty, clever marketing than the boring stuff.  Think one-liners, think short sight gags, think funny, but simple.  Simple makes the world go round and simple will be what your viewers are willing to tolerate and maybe even absorb.

It’s not rocket science, guys.  It’s a paddling pool that no one seems to have figured out isn’t all that deep, after all.  This is simple stuff if you think about it from the perspective of the average YouTube viewer.  They’re there to look at short instructionals or clips of funny videos.  They’re simple folk with simple tastes – don’t over think this.

Context Applied to Readability and Ranking

Don’t think this is about the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale – it isn’t. There are times when that’s useful, but by now, most of us should have a pretty good grasp of determining who our audience is and how we should be writing to them.

This deals more with how to write for both the readers AND the search engines, without either of them suffering from our divided attention. We’re just moving the slider on that division… substantially.

Now that Google’s semantic ability has improved to the point that they can often determine what a document is really talking about, copywriters are largely liberated of the burden of having a separate thought process about writing “for search engines”. In other words, they can concentrate more on writing for the readers (which is really the way it should have been all along, right?)

Context should be the focus

That doesn’t mean that Google can always read the context accurately, of course – far from it. But over the last couple of years, their ability to do so has improved dramatically. And if the writer has a basic understanding of how Google works, it’s relatively easy to know when a particular document may be difficult for Google to understand, and modify the writing style accordingly.

So what can Google understand easily?

The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is keywords… that’s probably the first thing that most of us learned about online copywriting, early on. That naturally led to a good bit of abuse, though… such as:

Search-engine-optimization- Wow… just wow!

After a while, Google built a massive library of synonyms, so that terms like built, erected or constructed were recognized by their algorithms as referring to the same thing. So the abuse shifted a bit:

So-an-SEO-copywriter-walks-

The ability to use synonyms and still get the point across helped copywriters a little, but of course, the owner of the bar in the joke above now wanted to rank #1 for all those terms.

Fortunately, Google has invested a lot of engineering hours into developing algorithms that can look beyond just headings and keywords to determine what a page’s main topic is… and while they’re not where they want to be yet, they’ve come a long way.

For instance, take the term jaguar are we talking about the car, the football team, a big cat, the Java browser or the Mac operating system?

An algorithm that can look at a document in its entirety can often determine the context in which the term is used and rank it accordingly, under the correct topic. That’s some progress.

Now take into consideration the tremendous amount of information that Google has digested over the years and the context takes on new depth.

A discussion of 11 players should quickly let Google see that you’re talking about football or soccer.

Adding east coast and Florida narrows it down to either Miami or Jacksonville.

Toss Gus Bradley into the mix, and the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team is obviously the topic of discussion.

Google relies heavily upon its Knowledge Vault (previously referred to as the Knowledge Graph), which derives its initial knowledge of facts from Freebase, Wikipedia and the CIA World Factbook, among other sources. The facts contained there figure prominently in the functions of various algorithms.

But more importantly, for our purposes, many of the algorithms that Google has developed are actually “learning” algorithms. That is, they recognize mathematical patterns and use evolving iterations of them.

That’s still not artificial intelligence, but it’s a critical step in the right direction.

So if you write a piece about the Jacksonville Jaguars, and mention some other verifiable fact that is relevant, but not yet in Google’s database, the algorithm may catalog that fact, along with its relationship to the Jaguars. Algos may understand things in a somewhat different fashion from humans… but they learn in much the same way. Exposure – understanding – acceptance – storage – and finally… use.

What does this mean to you? Simple! It means you can write in a much more natural fashion… in a manner that is more easily understood by readers and is more engaging, without being nearly as concerned about keyword usage.

That doesn’t mean stop using keywords altogether… just that you need to consider how you use them. Obviously, they should be employed in such a way as to be relevant to the topic at hand, but for our purposes, it’s equally important to consider how they relate to the rest of the content.

What can’t Google understand easily?

In some ways, Google is like that not-so-bright cousin some of us have… some things go over its head. Sarcasm, humor, irony…. even some humans don’t catch on to those easily… a machine will have an even tougher time of it. Vague references, especially using modern street vernacular, may be misunderstood or ignored entirely, as well.

That doesn’t mean you should leave those out of all your writing… just understand that they may not contribute much, in the eyes of the search engine. In extreme cases, they could even hurt.

The context must be clear

The main topic of a page should be abundantly clear – don’t wander between loosely related topics. A diet blog page may very well touch on things like fitness, health and energy, but two paragraphs on the benefits of a good night’s sleep might confuse the algorithm about what the page is talking about.

Sure, there’s a connection, but if the connection is either tenuous or not obvious, you might be better off making just a passing mention of it.

Or…. perhaps adding it to a bulleted list or as a sub-heading of direct effects of an improper diet. In the right hierarchy, Google is much more likely to understand how adequate sleep deserved a mention on that page.

AND, you’re one step closer to possibly ranking for a search term like inadequate sleep causes, causes of insomnia or sleeplessness remedies.

What does this all mean?

As already stated, it means you can write more naturally, without spending quite as much effort worrying about how to let Google know what you’re writing about. It also means that as a site publishes more and more quality content on a particular topic, the site will be increasingly associated with that topic (think “authority“).

Obviously, many of your clients are still going to be going on and on about keywords and ranking. You can now explain to them how keywords are beginning to take more of a backseat to context. And for the same reasons, ranking for a particular term is becoming a much less important goal. Although perhaps more attainable, it’s now much more difficult to measure.

Remember: Because the SERPs can vary substantially for different users, due to geo-location, search history, social connections and more, term rankings are often no longer a viable metric.

For example, returning to the jaguar term, a rankings check will tell you where you sit amongst all of the 184 million pages returned for that search.

But how many of those searchers were looking for information on the car, the jungle predator, the browser or the operating system? You need to be concerned with only the portion of those results that relates to your context.

Context is suddenly a nebulous aspect of ranking (not that it was really all that visible before), so rankings are becoming increasingly meaningless as a metric.

The focus should always be on CONTEXT!

Fun with words: Tips for Effective Copywriting

Landing a copywriting job is the real deal – now you have to produce. If you’re lucky, the job is in your niche, which should make things a lot easier. And it does … at first. Exulting in the glories of an HVAC service with outlets in every town on the map requires fresh copy – for every location.

Before you know it, your highly informational, sincere copy has turned into a sleaze-filled pitch worthy of any greasy-haired, plaid-suited used car salesman. Me? No way, creepy marketing prattle is beneath me … I routinely sneer at such dreck.

But wait, there’s more! Let’s face it – the constant need for quality content is part of effective copywriting. Your job is to attract visitors to a website and convert them into leads and customers. Consistently producing powerful, high-quality copy is tough, but not at all impossible. Here are several tips on how to lose the drivel and write honest copy that sells.

Do more research

early copywriting crew

Yes, more. Even if you’ve been a factory-certified Mercedes mechanic for the last 20 years, someone out there may have streamlined a process or invented a new tool. The more information you have, the more ideas you can play with.

Simplify your copywriting

This step needn’t involve ditching pertinent technical jargon and writing to a seventh-grader’s comprehension level – it means getting your message across clearly and concisely – especially when you have a specific audience. Don’t oversell or talk down to an audience already familiar with the product or process.

Don’t be overly clever

Writers play with words – it’s what we do. Sometimes that’s okay when writing copy, although it depends entirely on the brand personality and the type of content you’ve been asked to write. Most of the time, though, being clear and straightforward works better than being a clever wordsmith.

Break those grammar rules

This cannot be stressed enough, although this goes against every grammar rule you ever learned. Some of the best all-around writers know how and when to break the rules of proper grammar, syntax and mechanics. Speak directly to your audience in easily understood language.

Write in the vernacular

No, this is not a continuation of the above tip. Speaking to an audience in a style they recognize helps you connect and build a relationship. They know where you’re coming from – they dig what you’re saying and will be more open to your message. If you’re selling retro furniture to baby boomers, learn the lingo.

Focus on the benefits

Talk about what your product does, not is – and demonstrate this with descriptive copy. Everyone knows what a kitchen blender is, but what does yours do that makes it special? Make every feature you mention into a benefit to anyone who owns the product or uses the service.

Set the instant gratification hook

Give your readers satisfaction from merely reading your copy. When you promise them something valuable right up front, they’ll keep reading because they believe you’ll deliver on your promise. This curiosity factor drives them right through the meat of the copy and into your call to action.

Use the right words

All too often, writers use adverbs or adjectives in order to make an okay word better. Stop doing this. Now. Hunt down the best word you can find in order to convey an image, emotion or your message. It will not only strengthen your copy, it takes you (the writer) out of the picture by letting the words speak for themselves.

Use active voice

Here’s another tip that cannot be stressed enough. Writing in an active voice necessitates using short, strong sentences, which improves your writing right there. It’s fast, firm, on point and to the point. “We are” beats “We have been” every time.

Stand your ground

Don’t take the easy way out by avoiding the use of strong words like “can” and “will” when referring to your client’s services or product(s). It not only makes your copy flat and flavorless, it makes you sound like your client is unable to deliver. Confident writing builds trust and a customer base.

Prove it

Confident writing is one thing – backing up a promise with facts and/or statistics is another. Your credibility grows when you can back up benefits or claims with concrete proof. Facts, numbers, case studies and success stories can win over skeptics while demonstrating that you know what you’re talking about.

Watch your “you” and “we”

Effective copywriting connects with the customer in the first sentence, not the business you’re writing for. That’s why copy that speaks directly to the audience gets more results. When you make sure your copy uses “you” at least twice as often as “we” or the company name, it’s obvious that your focus is aimed at your customer’s needs and desires.

Finally …

Copywriters read other copywriters’ work all the time while doing research, looking for ideas or checking out something of interest. Why not consider building a swipe file containing the best examples of copywriting you come across. In addition to building a collection of great copywriting techniques, tips and references, you can keep better track of your own creative ideas. It’s a great way to keep everything under one roof, as it were.

“Resist the usual.” – Advertising wizard Raymond Rubicam.

Works for me.