YouTube’s billion-plus hours of daily watch time offer an unparalleled window into the state of culture around the world. It’s a window that has given us a lot to absorb during a year marked by a pandemic, the economic uncertainties it’s created, and the racial inequities it’s exposed.
The pandemic accelerated our use of technology and new inventive behaviours.
The virtual substitution of real-world connections dominated 2020. While this has been foreshadowed for years, the pandemic accelerated our use of technology and new inventive behaviours. On YouTube, this played out in behavioural shifts that signalled larger changes in popular culture.
Here are three key shifts that marketers should know about. These provide a picture of where we are as a global community and a preview of where we’re headed.
1. The creator archetype evolved
In an authenticity-driven digital space, creators and their audiences now reflect each other more than ever. Due to increased access to technology and distribution, we saw the rise of new types of YouTubers in 2020, most notably older adults, virtual creators, and Indigenous language rappers.
Research shows that baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — go online to soak up information. A staggering 78% of them say they still have a lot to learn, and YouTube is their most commonly cited platform for learning something new.1
Perhaps because they’re keen to learn from each other, we saw a growing number of boomer creators surface around the world this year, from Mexico to Germany to Korea. One topic that’s increasingly popular among older adults is beauty tutorials. Views of beauty tutorials, for example, increased nearly 50% this year.2 In Canada, Quebec creators like gardener Serres Li-Ma and artist Atelier Rene Milone are seeing large increases in viewers and subscribers.
And notably, it’s not just boomers watching boomers. In the United States, for example, one of this year’s breakout creators was Rob Kenney, a self-described “regular dad” who grew up without a father. To date, his channel, Dad, How Do I?, has amassed over 12 million views and nearly 3 million subscribers by teaching kids basic life skills, like how to unclog a toilet or tie a tie.
In Latin America, rap music went mainstream as several creators with Indigenous ancestry used the music genre to preserve their languages and tell the story of their communities and cultural heritage.
In Japan, we saw creators evolve to include virtual YouTubers. Called VTubers, these creators come alive through motion capture technology, which produces voice actors as animated avatars. They combine unique elements of gaming, animé, and idol culture to serve up a whole new type of creative expression. In 2020, videos from channels that describe themselves as some variation of “virtual YouTuber” averaged over 1.5 billion monthly views.3
Indigenous language rappers
Throughout Latin America, rap music went mainstream this year as several creators with Indigenous ancestry used the music genre as a way to preserve their languages and share stories of their cultural heritage. In fact, six of the top Indigenous creators in Ecuador alone brought in more than 100 million views in 2020.4
2. Communal experiences enhanced how we watch
As the coronavirus forced restrictions on most aspects of daily life, online video played a critical role in the global community’s adjustment to the pandemic. More than ever, we saw YouTube viewers seek out opportunities to connect with others through content, suggesting that the future of video may increasingly be influenced by interactive experiences that enhance how we watch.
When quarantines went into effect, “cowatching” provided a safe way to continue to consume content and live events in groups. In April, for example, Travis Scott held a virtual concert in Fortnite attended by over 12 million fans. While anyone could experience the concert by logging into Fortnite for free, many chose to watch their favorite creators watching the concert through live streams instead.
Online video played a critical role in the global community’s adjustment to the pandemic.
While this kind of intersectional audience experience has long been customary in gaming, where competitive gamers stream gameplay simultaneously to allow fans to choose who they want to support, cowatching took off on streaming platforms in early 2020. As well, when live professional sports paused, Canadian sports broadcaster Sportsnet kept fans engaged through “digital watch parties” around classic games on Youtube.
It was on display again over the summer, as professional sports leagues resumed play in empty venues. With stadiums and pubs closed, tens of thousands of sports lovers began tuning into watch-along parties, where the game day experience became less about the games being watched and more about a shared experience with other fans.
We also saw audience connections spike around community activism and civic duty. In June and July, K-pop fans began channeling the record-breaking cooperativeness they are famous for into digital political activism, extending the shared experience beyond their favorite artists’ music.
And in the southern hemisphere, as the Brazilian government urged citizens to stay home, Brazilians tuned in to music live streams with the hashtag “comigo,” or “with me,” in record numbers, as an act of collective civic responsibility.
3. Video helped grapple with a changing world
Beyond offering a safe way to connect with others and experience content together, people turned to YouTube for help coping with and making sense of challenges and uncertainty.
Many viewers persevered through the early months of the pandemic by developing a new skill. For some, this meant learning something relatively simple, like how to start a garden. For others, it was a more complex undertaking, such as making your own mask. Globally, videos with variations of “beginner” in the title have earned more than 7 billion views and average daily views of these videos have increased more than 50% since March 15, 2020, compared to the rest of the year.5
By early summer, as protests against racial injustice spread across the world, people gravitated to online video to scrutinize history; explore identity; and call for advocacy, allyship, and action. As public interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, its popularity also grew on YouTube. In the first 10 days of June alone, views of videos related to Black Lives Matter surged more than 4X compared with last year.6
And the conversation played out here in Canada and globally, as viewers searched for information on the Black experience across countries, including Germany, Hungary, Japan, and the Netherlands, and across industries, like fine arts and tech. As people pledged their support for the movement, video viewership around allyship and advocacy topics spiked. Within the first week of June, views of videos with “how to be an ally” in the title increased 23% from viewership in all of May.7
What these shifts mean for brands
Boiled down, the YouTube watch behaviours we witnessed this year are the consequence of real human needs being met in unconventional ways, through technology and creativity. Whether the motivation was community connection, finding resources to stay resilient, or exploring new ways to be seen and heard, audiences and creators showed us that adversity drives innovation.
Making an impact in 2021 will be about continuing to meet these evolving needs and doing so in the creative ways that YouTubers and their viewers have already begun seeking out.
To learn more about how video is shaping culture, visit the YouTube Culture & Trends site.