The YouTube-ification of Vimeo: Now with more baby videos

If you’ve hopped on to the New York City L train recently, chances are that you’ve come across a sea of blue: shrink-wrapped subway cars, plastered with Vimeo messaging. “If other video sites are the BQE, Vimeo is the High Line.”

The hyperlocal references aside (BQE represents freeway gridlock; the High Line a pleasant, grassy stroll), Vimeo’s most aggressive ad campaign to date makes one thing clear: the video-sharing alternative to YouTube is stepping up its branding game and locking horns with the Google giant directly.

The campaign, conceptualized and designed in-house, kicked off last month, when Vimeo rolled out its first-ever nationwide TV spot as part of what it calls its “Worth” campaign — an attempt to make the platform more accessible to all consumers. The tagline: “If it’s worth something to you, it’s worth sharing on Vimeo.”

The subway-specific campaign launched last week — even taking many of Vimeo’s employees who ride the L train by surprise — and will be extended to New York’s back seat taxi screens next week. It follows a recent update to the platform’s iOS app– which makes it easier for users to directly upload videos from their photo streams to Vimeo.

The campaign represents a deliberate shift for Vimeo, a platform that once prided itself as a community of creators and auteurs. If YouTube was for the masses with their cute baby videos and pirated clips, then Vimeo was for budding cineastes with grander ambitions. That distinction is eroding, somewhat.

Mike Weissman, the general manager of the creative platform at Vimeo told Digiday that the platform is deliberately courting users beyond the professional creative community that swears by it, and introducing more people to its quality video player, with powerful privacy controls and no interruptive ads. A YouTube representative declined to comment.

“The campaign extends our quality to anyone — that can be a small business, that can be a consumer who’s trying to upload family videos, that can also be someone like an action sports enthusiast who wants the best home for his ski videos,” he said.

This pivot does not come without its challenges. While Vimeo’s parent company IAC has reported a 60 percent revenue increase in the latest quarter and comScore reports that its total unique visitors have increased considerably over the past year from nearly 23 million in May 2013 to over 34 million in July 2014, it still doesn’t compare to YouTube’s 150 million-plus visitors.

Yet, Vimeo is adamant that it is not competing directly against YouTube. One reason is that its business model is very different from YouTube’s “disruptive” ad-revenue based structure. Vimeo runs no pre-roll ads, and instead derives its revenue from its subscription packages: Vimeo Plus and Vimeo Pro. It also has its own “Vimeo on Demand” service — which allows anyone with a Vimeo Pro account to put their videos up for sale and keep 90 per cent of the profit — another feature it is promoting heavily with this campaign.

“For us, putting pre-roll ads on our videos would be like walking into your house and taking out your family photo album and splashing our brand stickers all over the cover,” Jessica Casan-Antonellis, the director of communications at Vimeo, told Digiday, “Vimeo is to online video what HBO is to TV — if you pay for it, there are no ads, and it can be really great.”

It is also not engaging in a direct face-off. The Angry Video Game Nerd, for example, is a popular Web series by James Rolfe that went viral on YouTube and eventually became a full-length feature documentary on Vimeo on Demand. Vimeo is encouraging Rolfe to promote on rival YouTube.

James Fox, the CEO of Red Peak Branding said that Vimeo’s campaign is a good start.

“It speaks to the current users by emphasizing the high quality of the videos, but at the same time it broadens the platform’s appeal by highlighting features that would resonate with the masses– security and lack of ads,” he said.

Duy Linh Tu, director of digital media and professor at the Columbia Journalism School, said he wasn’t surprised with the effort, looking at how YouTube has been going all out to promote creators and attract more professional talent.

“They’re not selling out, they’re trying to sell more,” he said. “You can’t tell the people to come to you anymore, you have to go where the people are.”

However, not everybody seemed impressed. Dan Rayburn, an avid video blogger and principal analyst at Frost and Sullivan, questioned Vimeo’s value proposition.

“The problem is that people want premium video, but they aren’t willing to pay,” he said. “YouTube gives them that for free, so why would they subscribe to Vimeo?”

Either way, the platform hopes that the campaign will drive traffic, and ultimately generate more subscriptions to the premium accounts and Vimeo on Demand. And it is also running  a social component as part of the campaign asking its Instagram followers to share pictures of themselves with the Vimeo-wrapped trains using the hashtag #snakesonatrain, and rewarding winners with free premium accounts.

These efforts will be extended to align with the broader campaign launching next week, across all social channels.