How Vox have built a YouTube behemoth: This Thing & Why I Like It #1

I’m obsessed with Vox’s YouTube channel. And with you being the kind of erudite digital-native who still has enough time on their hands to be reading ‘thought pieces’ on Medium, I’ll assume you are too.

It’s no exaggeration for me to say that I’ve watched every video Vox have published for months. There’s only a handful of other YouTube channels I can honestly say that about and most of those I worked on. Like many others in the confusing and semi-defined world of ‘content strategy’, I’ve been pondering what it is about their channel that makes them stand out in such a competitive landscape. Beyond the simple answer that they create awesome Emmy nominated videos, of course. That would make for a very short article.

To put their success in perspective. Vox launched their YouTube channel in July 2014. Two years ago (July ’15) they had 138,000 subscribers, a year later they had 900,000, at time of writing (Aug ’17) they have over 2.6 million. For a relative latecomer to the YouTube game, that’s remarkable. Consider that CNN launched their channel 9 years ago and have around 2.1 million subscribers and you clearly see how Vox’s growth in such a short period of time is genuinely meteoric.

Incidentally, CNN (or more broadly Turner) also have an interesting YouTube strategy that appears to be paying dividends — they recently announced considerable investment in their fantastic original content channel Great Big Story and Beme News headed up by a duo of YouTube royalty in Casey Neistat and Jake Roper is on the verge of launching — but I digress. Much has been written about Vox’s growth in the trade press, but I thought I’d look into Vox’s approach to content strategy from a good old-fashioned YouTube Certified audience development perspective.

First things first. Timeliness and relevance.

This feels like a no-brainer — if the Superbowl is coming up, make a video about American Football. The difference with Vox compared to many other content creators is that they always take a new and intriguing perspective on these ‘tent-pole’ moments. They don’t just churn out a Superbowl video for the sake of it. This ensures they stay part of the wider conversation without alienating their core audience. Fundamentally, they never forget the key motivation behind their own content proposition — understanding the news, rather than just broadcasting it.

They also have an agile and nimble production model ensuring that they can turnaround relevant video content in response to rapidly changing events — and rarely in history have events been so rapidly changeable! This is most notable in Ezra Klein’s videos. A simple production set up of a well-informed talking head, archive footage and simple but good looking graphics. I’m speculating here but I would suggest that Vox can create these videos in a matter of hours, thus ensuring that when the news breaks they are one of the first digital-first publishers on the scene with editorial commentary.

Platform and discoverability.

Vox CEO Jim Bankoff in conversation with Digiday noted that “It’s not just about creating great content. It’s also about getting an audience for it, being able to transact efficiently and being able to target efficiently.” This is, of course, about building a community on social but it’s also about bringing in new audiences and a core factor in this is metadata.

A former colleague of mine, Tom Martin — founder of FAQTube and now Head of Audience Development at Endemol Shine — sums up the whole ‘content vs metadata’ question brilliantly: “A mediocre video with great metadata will always outperform a great video with bad metadata”. Fortunately, Vox have both great content and great metadata. But that’s built on the fact that their writers and producers each have a deep understanding of the platform they’re creating for. How viewers will find your video should always be the first consideration in your commissioning process — it sounds ruthless but in the YouTube game if you can’t think of a title for it, don’t bother making it.

Authenticity and authorship.

Vox’s Borders series is produced, presented and self-shot by Johnny Harris

This is something lots of publishers and brands struggle with. Unlike independent creators, they struggle to build a one-to-one connection with their audiences purely because of the nature of their businesses. Sure, you can have a consistent presenter but it’s tough to make that land as truly ‘authentic’ and ‘authored’, particularly if said presenter goes elsewhere. Vox’s model, however, is to have their video producers take the story from inception, through research and production right on to delivery. They also have on-screen presence, their own signature styles and, most importantly IMHO, are credited at the end of each video. A cursory scroll through the comments and you’ll see viewers referencing the producers by name, and almost always in a celebratory manner.

Consistency and simplicity.

Vox’s videos carry a consistent, unique and recognisable aesthetic

While each producer gets the freedom to have their own stamp on the content, there is still a remarkable level of consistency of tone-of-voice, editorial and, most pertinently, visual identity. They’ve created a graphical short-hand that is so distinctly ‘them’ that one can spot a Vox video from a mile away. It shows that when brand guidelines are scalable and digital-first, there are limitless opportunities to tell the story. This consistency and simplicity of style is also beneficial for turnaround times. When you can tell a story with a graph and some VO, you can work from templates and there’s no need for all that messing around with location or green screen shoots.

Collaborative and open.

Earlier this year, in my previous role at BBC Earth, I had the pleasure of working with Joss Fong and the Vox Observatory team on a three-part series looking at the technology behind Planet Earth II. Our production model in this case was to share some of the vast BBC Earth archive and exclusive footage from Planet Earth II as well as sharing our natural history expertise and originally shooting interviews with the show’s producers in Bristol. This was a strategically driven partnership based on audience insight that delivered over 2.8 million YouTube views to help promote the landmark series in the United States.

They’ve also joined forces with 99% Invisible, Twenty Thousand Hertz and the University of California — each of them relevant in terms of audiences, valuable to the creative concept and credited appropriately. Collaboration is one of the most effective ways to bring in new high-affinity audiences to your channel but it’s also about being a good community player — something the world of YouTube, viewers and creators alike, appreciates.

Now, the eagle-eyed YouTube audience development and community management bods out there will have noted that these are essentially the core tenets of the YouTube Creator Playbook. This is what YouTube themselves have been saying for years that every brand or publisher on the platform should be doing. So why have Vox cut through in such a big way when others have stumbled or, at least, plateaued?

Interviewed in the a separate Digiday piece (sorry Digiday, I only purloin because I love you so), Andrew Golis GM of Vox, claimed that “What the team has really done is build trust with the audience. It’s a deeper relationship, and it’s not fast growth based on tricking the platform.” And this is true. They’re certainly not gaming the system.

But Gollis is perhaps modestly underselling a key factor in their success: platform is at the heart of their content commissioning and creation process. Each and every piece they make is created with the platform in mind. It’s not a text article crowbarred into a video with some stills and a bit of sloppy Ken Burns (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!), or made-for-TV content rehashed for digital audiences. It’s YouTube-first, narratively driven, short-form video. And as such, the audience responds.

Vox are pretty unique in the industry at cracking all these things at once, and I’m certainly not suggesting everyone goes out and builds a news-room of journalists and a full digital video production unit, but what this does highlight for brands and other publishers is the value of content strategy at the heart of the creative process. It’s something embedded into our culture and our work here at Trailer Park London — our modus operandi is to make, market and move content for entertaining brands and insight-driven strategy is at the heart of everything we do. If you want to have a chat about what we can do for you and your brand, get in touch!

Leo Birch is a Content Strategist at Trailer Park London — we Make, Market and Move content for Entertaining Brands. Get in touch on leo.birch@trailerparklondon.com

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Strategist / Creative at ENGINE. Ex @BBCEarth & @BBC_TopGear. Informed opinion on TV and digital things. Ill-informed hyperbole on rugby and football.

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Leo Birch

Leo Birch

Strategist / Creative at ENGINE. Ex @BBCEarth & @BBC_TopGear. Informed opinion on TV and digital things. Ill-informed hyperbole on rugby and football.

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