YouTube is focusing this year’s upfront pitch on its most TV-like content in an effort to convince advertisers that it can compete with traditional TV.

YouTube has been able to attract some ad dollars away from traditional TV in recent years. But to more fully contend for advertisers’ budgets in the upfront ad-buying cycle, the digital video platform needs to overcome advertisers’ perceptions that it is complementary, not comparable, to TV. It also needs to address their continued concerns that their ads may be delivered against unsafe content or not soon enough to reach their entire target audience.

YouTube will now consider production quality and the likelihood that people will view videos on TV when selecting channels to include in its Google Preferred program, which packages the top 5 percent of YouTube channels into category-specific bundles that advertisers. Additionally, the company will break out its streaming TV service as a standalone inventory option and will start to premiere YouTube Originals shows on its free, ad-supported tier.

TV is the through line of YouTube’s upfront pitch for good reason. Many digital advertisers may not be able to afford or willing to agree to the large minimum spend commitments that YouTube seeks for its upfront deals, said an agency exec. A YouTube spokesperson declined to say how much money YouTube will ask advertisers to commit to spend on its platform this year; in 2015 YouTube’s annual minimum spend requirement was $2 million. TV advertisers, on the other hand, have large budgets, and TV ad buyers are getting antsy about finding cost-efficient alternatives to linear TV, where viewership is declining but ad prices are rising.

However, for YouTube to win more money from TV advertisers, it needs to prove that it can compete on the same level — as well as the same screen — as TV networks. “There is this idea that being on a big screen is more valuable than being on a video anywhere screen,” said the agency exec.

Google Preferred on the big screen
At the center of YouTube’s upfront pitch this year is Google Preferred, as it has been since the company introduced the program in 2014. “Google Preferred remains the heart of our upfront offering,” said Tara Walpert Levy, vp of agency and brand solutions at Google. But YouTube is making tweaks to Google Preferred to make it more attractive to TV advertisers by highlighting its TV viewership.

YouTube uses what it calls a “P Score” to determine which YouTube channels should be included in Google Preferred. The P Score consists of criteria that all start with the letter “p,” such as the popularity of a channel (i.e. its viewership) and the passion of its audience (i.e. repeat viewership and viewers’ willingness to share a channel’s videos). Last year, YouTube added protection as a criterion following brand safety issues that led the company to have people review every video uploaded by Google Preferred channels. This year, YouTube is adding two more criteria to the P Score: platform and production, which means content watched on a TV screen, and higher quality videos.

In October 2017, the company said that people were spending more than 100 million hours per day watching YouTube videos streamed to their TVs. That figure has now surpassed 200 million hours per day, according to the company.

YouTube TV and TV-like shows on YouTube
In addition to arranging Google Preferred to deliver more ads on TV screens, YouTube is looking to sell more ads against TV-like and actual TV content.

As Digiday previously reported, YouTube will offer YouTube TV as a standalone option for advertisers in this year’s upfront, though they will need to buy Google Preferred in order to access the YouTube TV inventory. That separation will help advertisers to more easily align YouTube TV with their addressable TV buys, but YouTube is also doing something to make it easier for advertisers to align it with their national TV buys.

When advertisers buy YouTube’s YouTube TV inventory, they will be able to exclude specific shows from carrying their ads, either because they already bought ads against those shows from the TV networks or because they do not want to be associated with those shows. YouTube will also allow advertisers to target specific audiences within YouTube TV beyond viewers’ age and gender and will offer Nielsen-backed audience delivery guarantees to advertisers.

This means advertisers will be better able to use YouTube TV to fill in the gaps of their traditional TV campaigns in order reach audiences that may be more difficult, if not impossible, to find on traditional TV, said the agency exec.

YouTube is reportedly scaling back on some of its TV-show ambitions, though the company denied that it’s getting out of the scripted programming market.

YouTube will premiere its version of TV shows, YouTube Originals, on its ad-supported tier before putting them back behind its ad-free paywall, where they have historically been held. YouTube is still firming up for how long shows will be available on the ad-supported tier but Walpert Levy described the ad-supported window as “substantial.” The company declined to say whether advertisers will be able to buy ads specifically to run against YouTube Originals shows during that ad-supported window.

YouTube also plans to provide advertisers with more sponsorships opportunities to have their brands be part of the show by working with show creators on custom integrations and custom formats that will be similar to what’s possible on traditional TV shows, Walpert Levy said.

Brand safety and reach concerns
As YouTube takes aim at TV advertisers, it will have to contend with a couple of primary concerns this cohort has with advertising on YouTube: the safety of its platform and its ability to deliver large audiences in a short period of time.

Historically, YouTube has pitched Google Preferred as its most prized and brand-safe inventory. Since the brand-safety issues that initially came to light in March 2017 and led YouTube to step up its video review processes over the past two years, there have been “virtually” no brand safety issues related to videos within Google Preferred, said Walpert Levy.

However Google Preferred has not been entirely isolated from YouTube’s brand safety woes. In YouTube’s latest brand safety issue — when sexually suggestive remarks were discovered in comments left on videos of children — there was one video from a Google Preferred channel that featured such inappropriate comments. “There was nothing brand-unsafe about the channel. It was just a handful of comments,” said Walpert Levy.

Following the February comments controversy, YouTube disabled comments on videos featuring minors in an effort to assuage advertisers, such as AT&T, Disney and McDonald’s, that pulled their ads from the platform. “There were a few folks that paused, and there are a few folks who are left paused, but I think most of them have come back,” Walpert Levy said.

Despite broader outcries over YouTube’s brand safety issues, ad buyers have largely shrugged at the controversies. Nonetheless, brand safety remains a concern for clients. When another brand safety issue on YouTube comes to light, “we get requests from C-level teams on the client side for an immediate response and recommendations,” said the agency exec. These concerns can color into clients’ level of interest in striking upfront deals with YouTube because upfront commitments typically mean an advertiser pledging to run ads on a platform for 12 to 18 months, the exec said.

In addition to advertisers’ long-term brand safety concerns, there are concerns about YouTube’s ability to help advertisers reach a large number of people in a short period of time. Because of TV advertising’s broadcast model, advertisers are able to reach a large number of people relatively cheaply, which is why advertisers continue to spend there despite prices increasing. Because ads are served individually on YouTube, advertisers worry that viewers in their target audiences won’t see their ads in the time they need to reach them, said the agency exec.

To address advertisers’ reach concerns, YouTube conducted an internal experiment to compare reach on YouTube versus national TV by evaluating the two channels’ ability to hit a certain target rating point (TRP), which is a version of TV’s GRP that is limited to the advertiser’s target audience. In this case, YouTube’s target audience was adults 18 to 49 years old. The company set a ratings goal of 125 TRPs and ran two tests to evaluate its ability to hit that goal. For one week it ran ads on national TV but not YouTube, and then another week it ran ads on YouTube and not TV. According to YouTube, the ads on YouTube hit the reach goal as quickly as TV and surpassed the initial goal to hit 153 TRPs at a 10 percent to 15 percent lower cost than TV and with an average audience age that was eight years younger than the TV audience.

YouTube has been chipping away at the TV advertising market in recent years. Last year the platform was able to steal dollars away from TV networks, agency execs told Digiday recently. However, YouTube stands to siphon even more spend with linear viewership expected to continue to decline and advertisers pressured to redirect their dollars to keep costs in check — if it can prove to advertisers that it can deliver TV-level reach against TV-quality content on TV screens.

“I definitely think they’re positioning themselves to capture more of that [TV] spend, if not this year then in the next two years,” said the agency exec.

This article has been updated to reflect that Tara Walpert Levy’s title is vp of agency and brand solutions at Google.

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