‘Growth hacking’ is very much a Silicon Valley phrase: a term used to cover a range of tactics used by startups when they’re trying to build a big audience very fast, in their early years.
Yesterday at Music Ally’s Sandbox Summit conference in New York, Vevo’s business operations and strategy manager Greg Duffy applied the term to music: specifically to music videos.
Among the lessons he delivered: while YouTube’s algorithmic recommendations drive 74% of views for Vevo’s catalogue, it’s playlists (rather than individual ‘suggested videos’) which are the number one source of traffic.
Before explaining the implications of that, Duffy broke down YouTube’s algorithm into the key qualities that videos need.
“If you focus on ‘time spent’ and audience retention… then you will get algorithmic support,” he said. Doing everything to ensure that viewers don’t get bored and click / tap away mid-video is very important for sending the right signals to YouTube’s algorithm.
Duffy added that it’s harder to get a ‘big hit’ on YouTube in 2019 than ever before – at least in terms of staying power. Vevo’s analysis shows that in 2017, the average amount of time that a hit song spent on YouTube’s global chart was 22-24 weeks. Now? It’s eight or nine weeks.
“This is a really interesting trend, and alarming for people who think about working tracks for a period of time: probably longer than eight weeks! The ability to drive views and engagement with any one single video has dropped by about 66% from 2017 to now,” he said.
“The creators on the platform who are putting out more content with more frequency are able to surface more frequently in the charts,” he added. That’s a challenge for artists and labels, who can’t pop out a new music video on a daily basis to compete with vloggers, gamers and other YouTubers. Or can they?
“How do we create content in and around the music video?” said Duffy. “You don’t need to have a music video for every track on your album, but you do need to know this is a trend that is happening on the global charts.”
He then explained the evolution in where music-video views are coming from. “Playlists driving views to video content have risen about 60%. The number one driver of views to music video content are now playlists,” said Duffy. “Suggested videos are basically dropping at the rate that playlists are growing.”
(Note, this is still the algorithm at work, creating playlists on YouTube. Duffy wasn’t referring to the kind of human-curated playlists familiar from Spotify, Apple Music and other audio-streaming services.)
Duffy showed a graph of audience retention for a music video that also featured about two minutes of the artist talking – an artistic decision that made a lot of fans drop out, or even click past the dialogue to get to the actual music. That’s not a dynamic that will aid the video in getting onto YouTube’s algorithmic playlists.
“This is a potential problem for artists to work through as they think about the expression of their art. So if the official video is going to use dialogue, make sure you have another asset that fits within playlist constraints,” he said.
In fact, for this particular track, a “pseudo” video using static artwork, without the dialogue, got 1.5bn views – driven by playlists – compared to 750m views for the official video.
Duffy’s talk also emphasised the importance of details, particularly thumbnail images, which Vevo has spent a lot of time recently working with artists and labels to optimise
“High contrast, high brightness, artist’s face first and foremost, featured,” is how he summarised what works, pointing out again that musicians are competing for attention on YouTube with YouTubers – who know these tricks off by heart.
“The brain processes images before it processes text. If you think the [text] title of your video featuring a big star is going to do the work for you? It’s not.” It’s the thumbnails that do the heavy lifting.
In a sample of around 4,000 catalogue music-videos that Vevo had optimised, the company saw a 10% lift in views. That’s significant, with a knock-on effect for newer videos. “Your old videos are going to be driving algorithmic links to your new videos,” said Duffy.
He accepted that there might be tensions with some artists over optimising their videos for YouTube’s algorithm, if they feel it’s messing with their creative expression. Duffy was sympathetic, but also blunt.
“There are players in your ecosystem who are playing by the rules, and succeeding because of it. And if you don’t do so, you might suffer.”