Art museums and YouTube: Current practice and potential strategy
Emily Robbins, SFMOMA, USA
AbstractSocial media and online content play an increasingly important role in the efforts of museums to reach audiences, including online video distributed over sites like YouTube. Taking into account the established goal of museums to educate the public and previous literature on museums' uses of social media, this study investigates how museums currently use YouTube, and whether their strategies are successful in gaining desired viewership numbers. Data collected on a large number of art-museum YouTube accounts establishes trends in video content and reveals which types of videos are more successful than others. The study also evaluates the impact of video-titling practices and presence of celebrities or well-known artists on video view counts. The data suggests that it is common for museums to use YouTube channels for both content-marketing and traditional-marketing purposes, and that content-marketing videos can be categorized as either "inward looking"—videos about museum activities and practices—or "outward looking"—videos about art, artists, or other educational or entertainment content. Data analysis reveals that "outward-looking" content tends to perform better on YouTube, and sheds light on the importance of choosing video titles that are familiar to a general audience in order to gain views. Additionally, many examples of popular non-museum educational YouTube channels were analyzed in order to provide suggested tactics to the museum world. Synthesizing these findings, the author offers possible recommendations for YouTube channel enhancement, including search engine–optimization consciousness, hosting of a channel by a dynamic on-camera personality, and honing of video content to the YouTube audience.
Keywords: video, social media, YouTube, strategy, content
YouTube is both a content publishing platform and a social-media site, both a promotional tool and a venue for entertainment and learning. Increasingly, businesses and organizations of all types are venturing into the realm of content marketing, creating online content that serves a promotional function but does not engage in overt salesmanship, on the principle that delivering valuable content to consumers builds brands and creates loyal communities (Content Marketing Institute, n.d.). Video, and in particular YouTube, is well suited to this dual purpose, and museums are in a uniquely advantageous position to employ content-marketing strategies as part of their online presence. While most for-profit companies must expand outside of a traditional model of salesmanship to build communities of audience members around broader interest groups, museums can organically produce informative and storytelling content as part of fulfilling their educational directives.
This paper analyzes current trends in museum YouTube videos through a study of forty-one museum YouTube channels, which examines channel organization and compares a sample of recent videos to a sample of highly viewed videos in order to identify successful YouTube tactics. A survey of popular educational YouTube channels also reveals potential strategies to be adopted by the museum world.
2. Literature review
As one aspect of social media, museums’ YouTube practices relate to larger museum social-media frameworks. Kidd (2011) describes prevailing modes of social-media use in museums, and examines their consequences. She identifies three frameworks: the marketing, inclusivity, and collaborative frames. The marketing frame promotes the museum’s brand and events, but does not encourage conversation or interaction. The inclusivity frame features an active community that participates in conversation and back-and-forth exchange. The collaborative framework lets visitors participate in creating content, and in doing so gives them some measure of control over the museum’s messaging. According to Kidd’s evaluation, the marketing frame falls short in the realm of imagination (Kidd, 2011: 67). She also cautions that adopting an inclusive approach will not guarantee engaged online communities (Kidd, 2011: 69). However, she believes that if well carried out, the inclusive and collaborative frames can provide value to museums and their audiences.
Drother and Shroder suggest that while some museums prioritize factuality and authority in response to the murkiness sometimes present in online information, the social side of the Web requires an approach more focused on “intent and impact, and much less to do with provenance and authorship alone” (Drother & Shroder, 2013: 25). Richardson (2014) points to a need for an authentic, friendly, and casual tone in museum social media.
Participation in online video platforms has grown meaningfully in the last several years. As of 2013, 31 percent of American adults had uploaded a video to the web, and 72 percent had viewed a video on YouTube or Vimeo (Purcell, 2013). Especially relevant to museums video practices, educational videos are the second-most popular genre of web video content—50 percent of all online adults view educational videos on the Web.
YouTube, which acts as both a publishing and social networking platform, is the dominating force in the world of online video. Its first popular channels were highly personality driven, featuring grassroots “YouTube stars” (Burgess & Green, 2013: 59). Today, top-viewed channels largely continue to rely on the personality of the channel host, aside from those channels owned and operated by major traditional media companies, such as the Disney-owned Maker’s Studio (Cohen, 2014).
Dobrzynski (2009) identifies early uncertainty about the value of museum video production and the best strategies for gaining an audience for museum videos: “Should they spend precious resources generating video content? And when they do, is it easy enough to find?” In 2008, Alexander et al. conducted a study of museum YouTube channels, which looked at videos produced by five museums. They found that most of these videos served traditionally promotional or archival purposes, and that museum videos consistently garnered low viewership numbers. They expressed doubt that museums might ever receive particularly large video audiences, but also made suggestions for content production and channel management that might help to improve performance. Their recommendations included producing videos on topics that have an existing community of interested viewers, and placing a single person or team in charge of a channel. Notably, they also advised, “[M]ost visitors to YouTube aren’t inherently going to search for the term ‘museum,’ and are instead interested in topics and looking for contents around those topics” (Alexander et al., 2008).
3. Study of museum channels and videos
Museums selected for the study were taken from The Art Newspaper’s list of the one hundred most-visited museums of 2013 (The Art Newspaper, 2014). Only museums in majority English-speaking countries were included in the study, to ensure that the English-speaking researcher could accurately understand and evaluate content. This resulted in a sample size of forty-one museums; of those, thirty-five had YouTube channels and therefore were included in channel and video evaluation.
The study examined two samples of museum videos. The first included the three most-recent videos from each museum’s YouTube channel, in order to establish a snapshot of current trends in content being uploaded. This group was then compared to a sample containing the three most-viewed videos from each YouTube channel, to determine whether these videos displayed characteristics that differentiated them from the majority and accounted for their greater success.
Both samples were analyzed for video content, title content, and distinguishing factors that might contribute to views, such as the presence or mention of a celebrity, subject matter focusing on a well-known artist, or the presence of another familiar artifact of popular culture. In addition, the sample of most-viewed videos was evaluated for patterns of view accumulation and number of views.
Data gathered on museum YouTube channels as a whole included subscriber count, number of videos on the channel with a view count higher than twenty thousand, and an evaluation of the extent to which videos on the channel displayed consistent branding and organization that linked them together into identifiable series.
Assessment of the data revealed four general categories of video content. The first type, defined as “outward-looking” content, was primarily about art, artists, artworks, or other educational or entertainment-oriented subject matter. Subtypes of this category included artist profiles, mini documentaries, lectures, performances, “how to” and process videos, and some profiles of exhibitions, specific works of art, or museum objects. The second category, defined as “inward-looking” content, was primarily about museum programs and activities. These included installation videos, profiles of museum programs and events, vox pops, and some profiles of exhibitions or individual works. Videos containing a fairly even combination of these content types were placed in the third “both” category, mostly consisting of exhibition and work profiles.
These first three categories contain the videos that can be defined as “social-media content,” “Web content,” or “content marketing,” the distinguishing factor being that while they may serve a greater or lesser marketing function, they contain content meant to be viewed in its own right. The final category identified was promotional videos. These were usually short advertisement-style videos intended to serve a more traditional marketing purpose in order to promote an exhibition, event, or the museum as a whole, with no additional content.
Video titles were evaluated based on how familiar the contents of a title were likely to be to a potential viewer with interest—but not necessarily expertise—in art and art history. Names of artists and artworks that hold a well-known place in art history—determined by Google’s list of “Artists frequently mentioned on the web” (Google, n.d.) or a high level of popularity—determined by top-100 placement Artnet (Artnet, 2015)—were considered “familiar,” as were names of celebrities and other people, places, or things that could be considered part of “general knowledge.” By these criteria, artists such as Matisse, Turner, Yayoi Kusama, and Ai Weiwei were considered “familiar,” while George Bellows, Max Ernst, and Yves Klein were not. Phrases such as “Egyptian book of the dead” and “Contemporary art of South Korea” were considered to be “familiar,” based on being well known or self-explanatory, while titles of specific exhibitions or museum programs were not.
Familiarity is difficult to quantify precisely, and may be more meaningful depending on what is or is not recognizable to a desired demographic. For this reason, the results of this categorization may be looked at more as suggestive than determinative.
Titles fell into five categories: those that were likely to be completely familiar and understandable without context, those in which the title mainly referred to the museum and would therefore be familiar to anyone aware of the museum, those in which part of the title referred to the museum and would therefore be partially familiar to those aware of the museum, those that were partially familiar based on some elements being well known or self-explanatory, and those that were not at all familiar or understandable without context.
Distinguishing factor categories
Three categories of potentially distinguishing factors were noted to determine if they had significant effect on a video’s view count. These were the presence or mention of a celebrity, an especially well-known featured artist (as determined by the same criteria used to determine “familiarity” in the previous section), and the presence of or allusion to an element of popular culture. Examples include videos featuring Yoko Ono’s performance art, an explanation of a portrait of Julie Andrews, and a video demonstrating how to “Tut,” a popular style of dance.
Video view patterns
For videos in the most-viewed sample, view accumulation data was gathered from the “statistics” tab beneath the video, which was not available for all videos. Of the 105 videos sampled, 81 contained view accumulation statistics.
Two major patterns of view accumulation were identified among the videos from the most-viewed video sample. View accumulation was classified as “quick” if most views occurred during a viewership spike, and was considered “gradual” if views primarily accumulated over a long period of time. Some videos displayed a pattern of significant viewership upon immediate posting, followed by sustained gradual view accumulation, and were therefore classified as “both.”
Videos were defined as being part of a series if the following elements were present: five or more videos in the same playlist, consistent branding with opening titles, consistent visual style, and consistent formatting. Data was gathered on whether a channel’s videos were mostly organized into video series; whether some series were present but most videos were not part of a series; whether some, but not all, elements of series could be identified in some playlists; or whether no significant video organization had occurred.
Of the forty-one museums in this study, 84 percent operate YouTube channels. Of those channels, four (11.4 percent) had over ten-thousand subscribers, fifteen (42.9 percent) had between one-thousand and ten-thousand subscribers, and sixteen (45.7 percent) had fewer than one-thousand subscribers. Seventy-one percent of channels had videos with a view count higher than twenty thousand, while only 29 percent of channels had ten or more videos gaining that many views.
Channels with higher subscriber numbers tended to have more videos with view counts over twenty thousand: among the top seven most-subscribed channels, there was a direct correlation between the number of subscribers and the number of videos with over twenty-thousand views.
The top three channels in both number of highly viewed videos and number of subscribers were also those that most actively grouped videos together into series with uniform structure, style and branding.
The sample of most recently uploaded videos contains a relatively even mix of inward-looking or museum-oriented content; outward-looking content focusing on artists, artworks, or art education; and promotional videos, with slightly larger numbers of outward-looking videos (Table 1). However, among the sample of top-viewed videos, the number of inward-looking videos falls dramatically, while outward-facing content makes up the majority of most-viewed videos at 51.4 percent, and promotional videos continue to make up a large share at 27.6 percent. Outward-facing content continues to be more and more strongly represented as the sample is narrowed to videos with higher and higher view counts, while the presence of inward-looking and both inward-and-outward-looking videos fluctuates. The presence of promotional content remains fairly steady until view counts are narrowed to the over-one-hundred-thousand range, at which point it drops significantly. Among this sample, consisting of twenty-four videos, the vast majority of videos were outward-facing, with all other categories showing equally low representation.
|All top videos||11.40%||51.40%||9.50%||27.60%|
|Over 10,000 views||12.50%||55.60%||11.40%||26.10%|
|Over 50,000 views||5.10%||66.70%||5.10%||23.10%|
|Over 100,000 views||8.30%||75.00%||8.30%||8.30%|
Table 1: video content-type percentages
The majority of recently-uploaded videos contained titles in which the whole title or the title excluding the name of the museum was likely to be unfamiliar to a general audience (Table 2). Videos with these types of titles are much less represented across the sample of top-viewed videos, while videos in which all or part of the title was likely to be familiar to a general audience were more strongly represented.
|All||All Including Museum Name||Part||Part Including Museum Name||None|
|All top videos||33.30%||4.80%||31.40%||14.30%||16.20%|
|Over 10,000 views||33.00%||6.80%||31.80%||14.80%||15.90%|
|Over 50,000 views||33.30%||2.60%||38.50%||15.40%||10.30%|
|Over 100,000 views||29.20%||4.20%||45.80%||12.50%||8.30%|
Table 2: name-familiarity category percentages
The inclusion of a famous person or pop culture allusion was higher in the top-viewed videos sample than in the sample of recent videos, but was still relatively low in the former sample at 30.5 percent, a number that remains fairly consistent even among the highest-viewed videos (Table 3). Among videos with over one-hundred-thousand views, the notable person tended to be a particularly well-known artist rather than any other type of celebrity.
|Celebrity||Pop Culture||Well-known Artist||Totals|
|All top videos||14.30%||3.80%||12.40%||30.50%|
|Over 10,000 views||14.70%||4.50%||9.10%||28.30%|
|Over 50,000 views||10.30%||10.30%||17.90%||38.50%|
|Over 100,000 views||4.20%||4.20%||20.80%||29.20%|
Table 3: distinguishing factor-type percentages
View accumulation patterns
Patterns of view accumulation were compared with content type among videos in the most-viewed sample (Table 4). A strong majority of all types of content-heavy videos, both inward and outward looking, accumulated views gradually over time, while an equally strong majority of promotional videos garnered most of their views over a short period of time.
|Quick||Gradual||Quick then Gradual|
Table 4: percentages of view patterns types across content-type categories
The strong representation of outward-facing content and promotional content in the most-viewed sample suggest that these are the two content types best positioned to do well on YouTube. However, the differences in their patterns of view accumulation indicate that they succeed for different reasons. Promotional videos are time sensitive, usually intended to draw attendance to specific one-time events. As such, they have a limited shelf life and are unlikely to remain relevant to audiences once the event in question has passed. Their large numbers of views accumulated over a short time may indicate that these videos are more actively “pushed” on social media and other marketing channels than non-promotional content, which may also account for their relatively strong representation among most-viewed videos. Outward-looking content, which was most successful at accruing large numbers of views over a longer period of time, likely gains viewership gradually through YouTube searches, indicating that this is the content type most relevant to YouTube audiences.
Presence of a celebrity or other well-known topic can improve video performance, but it does not appear to be an overwhelmingly significant factor. More general title and subject-matter familiarity appears to have a much stronger effect on viewership. The relatively low viewership of videos with a museum name as the only familiar title element suggests that, typically, museum brands do not command the sort of widespread interest that can garner particularly high view counts on their own.
Nearly all of the channels with the highest subscriber numbers and largest numbers of highly viewed videos belonged to museums that were among the top-ten most-visited museums of 2013, which may be a partial contributing factor to their success. However, there was a much stronger correlation between channel performance and channel organizational strategy than with museum attendance. The three museums with the highest numbers of both subscribers and highly viewed videos were those that made good use of playlists to group videos into well-branded series, and these channels vastly outperformed other top-ten museums whose channels were less organized.
Both user experience and search engine optimization help to explain these results. YouTube’s search engine prioritizes the use of playlists and the presence of keywords in titles and descriptions (Dean, 2014). The name of a lesser-known contemporary artist, specific exhibition, or museum without top-ten brand status is unlikely to ever become a popular YouTube keyword. From a user’s perspective, it is easier to predict a video’s content and its likely relevance to his or her interests if the title contents are familiar. A title whose only indication of content is an artist or work name with which the user is unfamiliar is not only unhelpful but potentially alienating. Conversely, if a viewer has found and enjoyed one video of a series, the similar format of other videos in the series provides an ambient indication that the rest of the series may also be of interest.
The high performance of outward-looking content and familiar titles, taken with the lower performance of video titles with only museum name as a potential keyword, suggests that Alexander et al.’s advice in 2008 that viewers are more likely to seek out content related to general topics of interest than topics related to museums remains relevant today.
4. YouTube educational videos
Drawing from previous research (Robbins, 2014), I have also looked to educational YouTube content from outside of the museum world to explore some factors that contribute to their success. Channels focused on science (Vsauce, Vertasium, TheBrainScoop, Smarter Every Day, Sixty Symbols, SciShow, Periodic Videos, MinutePhysics, MinuteEarth, Kurzgesagt, It’s Okay to be Smart, and AsapSCIENCE), cultural criticism (PBS Idea Channel), mathematics (Vi hart and Numberphile), or a wide range of facts and trivia (Mental Floss and CrashCourse). Each channel selected had a subscriber count of over eighty thousand, with some having subscriber numbers in the millions. Typical view ranges on these channels were between ten thousand and several million views per video.
Notably, it was difficult to find channels with high viewership related to arts education, which may indicate either an open niche ready to be filled or a limited demand for content of this type. However, given that few art museums seem to have employed the strategies identified in other educational videos, it is not safe to assume that demand is absent.
The following section lists trends that were identified across these channels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these elements are also common conventions in popular YouTube channels outside of the education context.
Videos on the same channel tend to follow similar formulas, have a consistent visual style in shooting and graphics, maintain consistent titling conventions, and often have a title sequence that is featured in all videos. Playlists are sometimes used to divide videos by theme or subject matter, but stylistic consistency is maintained across all videos on the channel, allowing each channel to be understood as one overall video series.
Most channels have one or two host figures who appear in all videos, either on camera or in the form of voice-over. Hosts explain video content, interview guests, and sometimes have other roles in the production process, such as producing hand-drawn graphics. Across all of the observed channels, hosts employ a friendly, casual tone, even when discussing technical topics. A typical hosts has an upbeat, naturally charismatic demeanor, easy camera presence, and a memorable, distinctive style of speaking. Hosts also make themselves a key element of videos by discussing their opinions, experiences, and personal lives alongside the primary content of the videos, producing a sense of intimacy between host and viewer.
On many channels, hosts explicitly acknowledge viewers by looking directly at the camera, extending a greeting, and reminding viewers to provide feedback and engage with the channel by liking, commenting, and subscribing.
Many channels incorporate viewer contributions through question and answer videos—in which hosts answer questions requested from audience members—and through highlighting and responding to comments left on previous videos.
Connections between YouTube channels were common among the evaluated educational YouTube accounts. Many of these are part of channel sets produced by the same creator or creative team, including SciShow, CrashCourse, and MentalFloss, which are all produced by the “Vlogbrothers,” Hank and John Green; and Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, and Periodic Videos, which are all produced by creator Brady Haran. These channels cross-promote through the “subscriptions” and “featured channels” functions, helping to direct viewers who have discovered one channel to the creator’s other channels.
Stand-alone channels also actively highlight other channels with related content through these features, indicating a practice of mutually beneficial cross-promotion between independent YouTube practitioners. YouTube hosts also occasionally comment on each other’s videos, or even guest star in videos on other channels in their subject-matter network. This cross-promotion creates the sense of an active community participating in a back-and-forth conversation, demonstrating the social component to YouTube that goes beyond simply publishing content.
Approaches to subject matter and video structure varied across channels, but some common strategies could be identified. Science-oriented channels like SciShow, MinutePhysics, and AsapSCIENCE often focus videos around answering a specific question, using that question as the video title. It’s Okay to be Smart and MentalFloss have both utilized the strategy of listing groups of facts on a similar theme or topic in a video. Most videos are very focused in subject matter and are centered on topics, questions, or themes that do not require deep subject-matter knowledge to grasp. This does not mean that higher-level concepts or academic content are never discussed, but they tend to be woven into conversations framed in much more general and accessible terms. For example, PBS Idea Channel discusses Etienne Wenger’s concept of “communities of practice,” which may not be familiar to a general audience, as part of a video titled “Are There Internet Dialects?” a question that can be readily understood by a wider group of viewers (Rugnetta, 2014).
Affiliation with institutions
While most of the channels discussed in this section are not affiliated with any educational institution, there are a few examples of channels that are. TheBrainScoop, hosted by Emily Graslie, is affiliated with the Field Museum in Chicago, and many of Brady Haran’s channels are affiliated with the University of Nottingham. Interestingly, however, the branding connection between these channels and their institutions is subtle. TheBrainScoop’s banner includes the subtitle “at the Field Museum” in a fairly prominent place, but it is visually subordinate to the channel and host names. Brady Haran’s videos include a tail graphic crediting the University of Nottingham, and links to University of Nottingham pages appear in video descriptions, but a first glance at the channels gives no indication of a university affiliation. It may be that by including branding discretely, these channels avoid giving the impression of existing primarily for marketing purposes.
Drawing from the analysis of museum YouTube channels and other educational channels, this section outlines suggestions for the improved performance of museum YouTube channels.
Series or whole-channel branding
The ideal form of channel organization appears to be the presentation of one YouTube channel as a single unified series, with playlists serving to organize sub-themes within that series. Museum YouTube channels seem to have resisted this model, perhaps looking to YouTube to serve many functions and meet the needs of many stakeholders within large institutions. The result tends to be channels whose content appears disjointed, with organizational structures imposed retroactively on vaguely related videos, if they are employed at all.
If unifying all videos within a single series is not feasible for museums, regular use of playlists to organize videos will also aid overall performance. For the best results, videos within playlists should be planned from the outset as a grouping and should maintain consistent style, branding, and formatting throughout.
Promotional content that is successful mainly due to social-media pushes may not need to live side by side with other YouTube content. It may make more sense to remove ads for past events from a YouTube page, or publish them on other platforms, such as Vimeo, Facebook, or an embedded media player on a website page. Keeping promotional videos separate from other content will improve a YouTube viewer’s likelihood of perceiving a museum channel as a learning or entertainment resource rather than a selling tool.
Search engine optimization
Liberal use of keywords is a major factor in YouTube’s search prioritization. Keyword-optimized titles and lengthy keyword-laden video descriptions draw in viewers using YouTube’s search engine to find videos. Typing potential titles into YouTube’s search bar and examining autocomplete and search results can help determine which keyword phrases are popular, and whether videos utilizing proposed keywords are having good results. The best keywords will be both popular enough to inspire a large number of searches and specific enough to fall into a niche and avoid competition with the most popular videos. Some keywords are also better optimized for video in Google’s search engine, so observing which keyword searches in Google return video results can also aid in keyword selection (Dean, 2014).
Hand-in-hand with optimizing video titling, museums should mold content to correspond with themes and subjects that are frequently searched for. Based on the comparison between inward- and outward-looking content, and the superior performance of videos with familiar titles, it is less optimal to focus videos on museum-specific topics and lesser-known artists or artworks. A better strategy would be to weave this content into videos whose primary subject is a broader and more readily comprehensible topic. The ART21 series offers one model of this strategy, by titling and organizing episodes based on themes in the featured artists’ bodies of work. Tate’s Unlock Art series on YouTube has reaped some success with videos on topics in art history, such as Pop Art, Women in Art, and Surrealism. Other organizing principles might include artwork subject matter, material, or production process.
Depending on their inclination and ability to invest in finding an on-camera personality, art museums could attempt a model similar to that of TheBrainScoop and other educational channels by employing a regular video host. If a museum adopts this route, the best channel-branding strategy would likely focus primarily on the host and content subject matter, with museum branding being secondary. The ideal host would maintain a casual and enthusiastic tone, possess a genuine interest in art-related content, and address the viewer as a peer rather than an educator or authority figure. Personality is a major driver of YouTube engagement, and a compelling host could help strengthen viewership of videos with less-popular content.
Networking between channels
With or without the presence of a host or creator figure, museum YouTube practitioners will benefit themselves and each other by engaging in YouTube community building. Making use of subscriptions to form networks, highlighting other museum channels with the featured channels function, and commenting to offer support and start discussions will invite users in with the appeal of social activity and further improve search prioritization. Along with optimizable elements like titles that individual posters can control directly, YouTube’s search prioritization favors channels with high levels of activity in the form of video likes, comments, and subscriber numbers (Dean, 2014). Like other networking YouTubers, members of the online museum world can help each other form more fertile environments of success for videos in their subject niche by subscribing to and engaging with each other’s channels.
This study works from the assumption that museums desire high numbers of views on their YouTube videos. However, high viewership may not necessarily accomplish institutional goals. Some museums may aim to target as wide and large an audience as possible, while others may want to focus on engaging a specific demographic more deeply. Some institutions may want videos to serve primarily marketing purposes, while others may use video content to teach or build communities. In order to determine whether a YouTube strategy is working, museums should have a clear sense of their goal in publishing content, and publishers should know how to interpret video analytics to determine if these goals are being met.
YouTube is not the ideal platform for all types of video content. If a museum’s video-production motivations do not align with the types of content that are likely to succeed on YouTube, it may be more efficient and practical to publish only on platforms that are more suitable. If strong performance on YouTube is a goal, museums should be aware of the nuances, culture, and tropes of YouTube as a publishing platform, and mold their videos to suit YouTube’s environment and audience.
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