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How did YouTube promote itself and acquire users early on?

YouTube is a cultural phenomenon. It’s the second most visited website/app in the world, second only to Google.com, and is a home for millions of people to entertain, educate and even establish a full-time career. It may seem like YouTube was always destined for greatness given its swift popularity, however in its early days success was far from guaranteed. Dailymotion was founded one month after YouTube and for a while remained a viable competitor. Google Video (originally located at video.google.com) was an alternative space for people to upload video content and perhaps served as the greatest competitive threat to YouTube by virtue of its vast resources and formidable brand name.

Despite the competitive pressure, YouTube excelled and became millions of users’ first port of call as soon as they logged onto the internet. How did YouTube do it? How did YouTube promote itself and acquire users early on, especially against competition from Google? It turns out the way YouTube did this wasn’t particularly revolutionary or different to methods used today. Many were good old fashioned promotion techniques that have stood the test of time. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Clarifying it’s free: This may sound irrelevant given the way YouTube has operated for years. Of course it’s free. Why would that be important!? But going back to 2005, the internet was a very different place. The concept of uploading and storing large video files would’ve been associated with a paid service. YouTube made it clear that users didn’t have to pay anything.

YouTube's Help page in 2005, explaining that YouTube is free.
YouTube’s Help page in 2005.

Competitions: These have been an age-old time-tested method to get users and/or customers for a service. There’s often some criticism about using competitions because it suggests people aren’t actually interested in the product you’re promoting. Instead they just want to win the item on offer. Others, however, argue that competitions are run to raise awareness. Sure, many people came here because of the chance to win something. But the important point is that they came here and now know about our service.

In November 2005, YouTube had a ‘November Nano-a-day Giveaway’ in which they gave away a 4GB iPod Nano from November 1st to November 30th. In an early play on viral marketing, they leveraged the idea of referrals by increasing a competitor’s chances of winning if they invited friends to YouTube. And they did the same for signing up and uploading videos. Each entrant would get ‘1 entry’ for signing up to YouTube, for every friend invited and for every video uploaded. So not only did the competition raise awareness of YouTube, it also encouraged user sign ups and content creation.

YouTube homepage in 2005 with an arrow pointing to the November Nano-a-day Giveaway.
In 2005, YouTube ran a competition to give away an Ipod Nano every day for the month of November.

Contests: In contrast to competitions in which people could win an item, YouTube ran contests to promote user videos and to help channels gain exposure. Although YouTube’s partner program wasn’t around back in 2005 (it officially launched in December 2007), there was sufficient incentive, given the fast growth of YouTube, for people to want exposure for their videos and their channels. Each month YouTube held a contest with a specific theme or subject matter. Users were advised to upload videos with the ‘contest’ tag and then at the end of the month, YouTube staff would select a winner. The winners would be featured on YouTube’s homepage.

YouTube's Monthly Contest instructions in 2005.
YouTube’s Monthly Contest in 2005.
Winner of the August 2005 YouTube Monthly Contest
YouTube’s August 2005 Monthly Contest winner was COURTIZZLE.

Embedding: Remember when Myspace was a thing? Back in 2005, Myspace overtook Ask.com, Wikipedia, eBay and Amazon in monthly visitors. It was taking the world by storm and YouTube, as a promising new company, saw an opportunity. In July 2005, YouTube made a Flash application that could be embedded into your Myspace page. By being able to embed YouTube videos onto other sites, YouTube could enhance its reach considerably. It also provided an alternative, as it does today, to uploading videos directly onto a self-hosted website, which can take up considerably bandwidth.

YouTube blog post in July 2005, explaining that they've created a Flash application that can be embedded into your Myspace page.
A YouTube blog post in 2005, explaining how to embed YouTube videos onto your website.
Embedding helped expand YouTube’s reach by reducing the server load of hosting videos on people’s websites.

Community: In 2005, social networking sites were taking off. Facebook had launched a year earlier and Myspace (launched in 2003) was one of the most promising and fastest growing sites in the world. Friendster and Hi5, both also launched in 2003, were making waves too, and so YouTube decided to capitalise on the the idea of socialising the user experience. YouTube originally had a “Friends” feature with which one could, as you’d expect, add friends and even send private messages.

In order to help visitors find new channels, get to know other users and to make “friends”, YouTube displayed a widget that showed the last 5 users online. Next to their usernames was the number of and links to their videos, favourites and friends. YouTube’s “Friends” feature was later discontinued because of the confusion and overlap between Friends and Subscriptions, and the notifications users would get for both.

YouTube homepage in 2005 with an arrow pointing to the Friends tab.
Adding friends was a YouTube feature in 2005.
YouTube widget in 2005 showing the last 5 users online.
Last 5 users online widget from YouTube in 2005.

Feedback: Today it seems like YouTube has a hard time listening to users. From widespread discontent about removing the dislike button, to constant queries about the algorithm and questionable disciplinary measures taken against content creators, YouTube is inundated with messages. It appears TeamYouTube relies on automated responses and the community is encouraged to help each other. But in YouTube’s early days, it actively sought feedback. In order to grow, YouTube wanted to know what users thought and what features they’d find useful. On 7th July, 2005 YouTube launched a blog to communicate improvements and changes, and following blog posts included messages that we’re not used to seeing today such as: “As always, while you’re perusing the site, if you notice anything you’d like changed, please feel free to shoot us a message” (18th July, 2005) and “Once again, thanks for using the site! Please contact us with any suggestions or feedback” (12th September, 2005).

Requests for feedback on YouTube blog posts in 2005.
YouTube frequently asked for feedback in 2005.

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