Have IGTV and YouTube’s subscription services changed the social media picture for sport?

Instagram and YouTube have both made significant developments on their platforms in June in a bid to attract and hold on to more engaging video creators. But how do these changes affect sports organisations’ priorities in publishing online video content?

Have IGTV and YouTube’s subscription services changed the social media picture for sport?

In mid-June, both Instagram and YouTube launched new sets of features that brought different elements to their digital media offerings.

Facebook-owned Instagram, having broken the billion-user barrier in June, announced the creation of IGTV, bringing long-form, mobile orientated video to the platform for the first time, with an experience more like surfing channels on a television set than perusing a social feed. 

Users will be directed towards videos uploaded by any people or publishers that they already follow on the main Instagram platform, as well as popular, trending or recommended videos. 

“It’s mobile-first, it’s simple and it’s high quality,” said Instagram chief executive Kevin Systrom at the launch of the service. 

He added: “Teens may be watching less TV, but they are watching more creators online.” 

Meanwhile Google’s YouTube, which pioneered long-form internet video and is still synonymous with it in scores of markets, has expanded its own subscription infrastructure – Initially in the US. Creators will be allowed to offer additional premium content through ‘channel memberships’ for US$4.99 a month. 

Channels with more than 10,000 subscribers will also be able to sell official merchandise on the platform as part of a partnership YouTube has agreed with custom goods company Teespring. Other features include being able to pre-record videos and upload them as ‘premieres’, allowing users who have paid a subscription to get their comments noticed earlier by creators for enhanced engagement. 

What’s the target market for IGTV and what are brands doing so far?

“IGTV gives rights holders the opportunity to upload longer-form, premium video to Instagram, which for many is the app where they are seeing the fastest growth,” says Lewis Wiltshire, a consulting partner at digital sports consultancy Seven League. “Previously, Facebook and YouTube – and owned websites – were the primary destinations for this kind of content. All three of those options had – still have – their advantages but also their challenges.  

“On Instagram, the algorithm and the rapid iteration of tools are all working to the advantage of rights holders but before this, the missing part was longer-form videos. Now that blocker has been removed.” 

For users, the introduction of IGTV marks a further move for Instagram away from the simple photo-sharing network that Facebook bought for US$1 billion back in 2012 to a fully fledged, multimedia content platform. That journey has been largely driven by the growth of the ‘Stories’ feature, a way for users and publishers to string together photos and videos in a single post that disappears after 24 hours. 

Stories was developed after Facebook failed in a US$3 billion bid for rival social platform Snapchat, which pioneered the format, and the imitative version has since flourished on Instagram. According to data published by the company at the end of June, 400 million users are now using Instagram Stories every day. Snapchat owner Snap Inc reported in its Q1 2018 earnings report that the platform has 191 million daily users in total. 

IGTV, however, has a different aesthetic from both the main feed and particularly the Stories function. The vertical format retains a sense of intimacy and immediacy. At the same time, full screen lends itself more readily to higher-quality or produced videos and many publishers, as well as sports organisations like the National Basketball Association (NBA) and International Cricket Council (ICC), have begun their lives on IGTV by repurposing some of the more eye-catching premium content they have available.   

“It's good to adopt a 'try it and see' approach in the earliest days of a new platform like IGTV,” says Wiltshire. “There isn't a huge amount of audience benefit in the very earliest days, before the mainstream have adopted the new experience, but the only way to understand a platform is to use it. Seven League is currently advising clients to repackage some of the best, premium video or shoot new, vertical film just to get a feel for IGTV – its functionalities, its analytics, etc.” 

Some of the content created for the platform has been more obviously experimental than the rest. The only entry so far from Netflix, for example, is a reissue of a one-minute video of Riverdale actor Cole Sprouse seductively eating a hamburger – in a 59-minute, 59-second cut. But the early signs are that alongside that more esoteric material, IGTV will become home to original programming, interviews and documentaries. 

Will YouTube’s subscription offer make it a potential rights player? 

 YouTube has partnered with pay-TV service BT Sport to provide free-to-air live streams of recent editions of the Uefa Champions League final

In the premium sector, not least in sport, YouTube has already made a number of moves to become an important part of the ecosystem. In the UK, for example, it has partnered with pay-TV service BT Sport to provide free-to-air live streams of recent editions of the Uefa Champions League final. In September, then-WBO world heavyweight boxing champion Joseph Parker took on Hughie Fury in a fight broadcast live on a YouTube pay-per-view service.  

In the US, the YouTube TV service is perhaps the most significant effort to date at creating a digitally native, cable-style bundled offer of premium channels. Priced at US$40 a month, it allows viewers to stream dozens of TV channels, including ESPN and the major networks’ sports channels as well as MLBTV, NBATV and the Olympic Channel.  

These latest developments, however, are less about top-end rights holders and more about the kind of video producers – from those with a few hundred followers to those with tens of millions – who are YouTube’s bread and butter and secure massive engagement for the platform. 

“Make no mistake – IGTV is a move against YouTube as much as it's part of Instagram's ongoing battle with Snapchat,” says Wiltshire. “The battleground between YouTube and Instagram is for creators, mostly. Many creators have built their careers on YouTube because of the revenue-share model. It will take a lot to shift them wholesale on to Insta, but if anyone can do it, Instagram can.”

In the creator space, YouTube is responding not only to Instagram and Snapchat but to Patreon, a service which helps artists and commentators create premium subscription offers for their followers for written articles and podcasts as well as video. A further roll-out of its subscription service will naturally lead to questions about whether premium providers – such as sports rights holders – might want to make use of them to create a direct revenue link to fans, but it may not be suitable for all. 

“For organisations, paid subscriptions on YouTube feels like a more leftfield monetisation choice but it could work,” says Wiltshire. “Some football clubs with a global fanbase have historically found success with subscription video offerings – MUTV, Celtic FC – and this is a similar model.  

“For those without subscription TV channels, paid subscription on YouTube is an intriguing option, but it's likely that most clubs will prefer the most expedient way of monetising social media, ie content partnerships with commercial partners.” 

Where does this leave the social media space and how should sports bodies react?

Facebook does not quite run the social media table but it has plenty to play with. It has shown an increasing appetite for live sports on the main Facebook platform and for sports content on its Facebook Watch video service. 

In recent weeks, Facebook has picked up rights in the US to PGA Tour golf for Watch and is said to have snapped up live coverage of soccer from Europe’s Uefa Champions League in Brazil. Reports also suggest it could secure the rights to English soccer’s Premier League in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. And while Facebook has been highly selective in major rights bids – a failed US$610 million pitch for Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket rights would have been its biggest play to date – its giant audience and assortment of promotional and hosting activities still make it an essential part of any engagement strategy.  

Twitter continues to enter video streaming partnerships but has been burnishing its reputation as the home of news and live engagement, most recently using the Fifa World Cup to showcase its live event centres which collate posts on a single topic in one place.

On the other hand, Snap has been doubling down on its repositioning as a ‘camera company’, rather than a messaging platform. It offers simple-to-use but powerful AR within Snapchat and has relaunched its troubled Snapchat Spectacles – sunglasses which can be used to record and export video but which sold poorly in their first iteration after a misjudged distribution strategy. Version two offers superior video quality and length, and a better upload process, as well as underwater capability, and analysts now speculate whether each iteration will now be intended to take users closer to a wearable AR experience. Videos can only be exported to Snapchat in the first instance but they can be customised from there with animations and ‘stickers’. 

The likes of Copa90 have signed up as content partners with Snapchat (pic YouTube/Copa90)

Snap, notoriously secretive at the peak of its powers, saw its stock value plunge earlier this year after missing revenue targets in the last quarter. It continues to face the twin challenges of Instagram’s rise and a lukewarm response to a redesign of its own user interface.

A response has been founded on attempts at a more open and constructive relationships with publishers and creators. In May, it held its first ‘Creators Summit’ to further a dialogue with key influencers. Former Nike and Apple executive Lauren Gallo was appointed as head of talent partnerships in March, while Snap has also begun moving away from a licence fee approach to explore splitting ad revenues with publishers and creators.  

In sport, it has established partnerships with publishers ranging from the BBC to Copa90, and encouraged more companies on board to create branded content, with Nike and Fifa World Cup sponsors Adidas and Budweiser among those to sign up in the last few months. Recent deals with Fifa and Uefa around the World Cup and Champions League final respectively are examples of this, with users offered the option of sending messages with official ‘lenses’ and ‘filters’, as well as animated 3D user avatars called ‘Bitmoji’. 

All of this offers a range of publishing options for organisations in sport – some complementary, some competitive, and all within a shifting marketplace. Ultimately, however, priorities can only be assessed by performance in each case against measurable targets. 

“Digital should always be a lever to achieve organisational objectives,” says Wiltshire. “Used strategically to this end, there are few tools more powerful. Used in isolation as an end in itself, it will deliver poor ROI.  

“The questions to ask before redeploying resources to any new platform would be: what objective are we delivering? Where does this fit into our long-term strategy and planning? Is this a priority platform for us? What audience does it deliver? What content will engage that audience? How will we measure its success? Trying new tools is good, and innovation is good, but always within that framework.”