How Fullscreen Became a YouTube Giant (Almost) Overnight
Just a few years back, Fullscreen was nothing more than an idea. Now, it’s one of the biggest players on YouTube — and it’s still growing.
If anyone needs proof that the online video world is a highly dynamic place and that major companies can still arise, look to Fullscreen. Born in January 2011, it’s been the No. 2 YouTube partner for many months, according to comScore, trailing only Vevo. It’s a multichannel network (MCN) that helps its partners succeed on YouTube while creating a vast advertising network with the kind of scale that brands demand.
A few years ago Fullscreen was only an idea, and now it’s a major player in the YouTube ecosystem. Founded by George Strompolos, now the CEO, it already counts more than 150 employees and 5,000-plus channels. To find out how Fullscreen grew so quickly and where it’s going next, we spoke to Brendan Gahan, its vice president of brand strategy.
“At the end of the day, the MCNs are essentially rolling up YouTube channels to create an advertising network using YouTube as the platform for ads,” Gahan explains. “I think where George saw the big opportunity was really in leveraging technology to support creators, and that was pretty breakthrough at the time.”
MCNs operate in different ways. Many are like traditional talent agencies, representing clients and bringing them deals with the goal of expanding their brands. Strompolos, who prior to founding Fullscreen was a YouTube exec working with top content producers, took the approach of offering video creators technology solutions to help them succeed on YouTube.
Fullscreen’s biggest partner asset is the Fullscreen Creator Platform. People in the Fullscreen network can log in and access a variety of tools to grow their audience, engage with their fans, and track how their channels are performing. The dashboard also shows them how much money they’re generating and offers recommendations for what they should be doing to optimize their content and continue to grow.
“It’s like a one-stop shop hub for most everything you need as a creator, versus more of a hands-on approach through production or having an agent,” Gahan says.
Unlike other YouTube partners, there’s no central idea or theme that unites the Fullscreen network. The company isn’t aiming at one particular demographic or providing one type of video. Instead, it tries to help all creators with useful technology. By doing so, Fullscreen can build up a large number of unique viewers to better sell ads. Gahan describes it as a more democratic approach. Critics call it scattershot and say that Fullscreen cares more about quantity than quality.
“We’re built around ‘how can we empower all creators to do their best work?’” says Gahan. “I think that’s where the tech comes in. We can’t be hands on with everybody. Nobody can. So how can we do the best with the people that are in our network and provide tools and add value for them without having to be super hands on and stuff?”
As for the scattershot approach, Fullscreen will take all comers who demonstrate a commitment to its channel. They need to post original brand-safe content according to a schedule. But since Fullscreen aims to help creators grow bigger, it isn’t concerned with the size of the audience. While Fullscreen has an in-house team who identify and reach out to upcoming talent, the network also accepts applications. Posting consistently, engaging with the fans, creating strong content, establishing an identity, and developing a winning format are all the hallmarks of an attractive partner, says Gahan. Current Fullscreen success stories include pop singer Sam Tsui (currently 830,000-plus subscribers) and comedy team 5-Second Films (currently 326,000-plus subscribers).
A Few Words on Fullscreen’s Short History
While Fullscreen wasn’t the first MCN, it took an unusual approach from the start. Strompolos saw that most MCNs were focused on top-tier talent, leaving a lot of strong mid-tier performers with nowhere to go. He built the company’s technology platform so that Fullscreen could offer assistance to video creators at scale. Fullscreen titled away from the classic agency model to a production model. Its stable of creators now gets 2.5 billion views per month.
Since its launch, Fullscreen has expanded beyond just working with creators. Gahan is on the Channel Plus team, which works with brands and media companies to help them manage their YouTube properties. That includes optimization, best practices, and overarching YouTube strategies. Fullscreen also has a sales team who work with brands on their influencer strategies, including media buying on YouTube. Fullscreen even does hands-on management for a select few performers.
The YouTube partner program that Strompolos spearheaded marked the first time that YouTube rolled out advertising to content creators. The program started slowly, since YouTube needed to be selective where it placed ads. The partner program let established creators that met specific criteria opt in and display ads on their channel. That led to Strompolos seeing how he could work with creators to grow their channels and generate more revenue.
The fact that Strompolos moved away from YouTube and founded his own company is symbolic of how the most interesting work on YouTube doesn’t actually happen at YouTube. While YouTube’s execs can throw money at channel creation, as with its $100 million original channel initiative, that doesn’t guarantee success. More often it’s people outside the company who see the opportunities YouTube offers.
“They developed a platform and I think that’s where their core skillset lies: creating a great platform, letting people have the technology to communicate with all of these people,” Gahan says. “Where MCNs and a lot of other people in the ecosystem are finding the big opportunities is in becoming category specific experts. How can we help brands and the talent work together in a hands-on way?
“At the core, that’s okay because those guys — they’re Google, they’re tech guys. Not to say we aren’t — I think we are — but we’re really focused on bridging these two worlds which are not speaking the same language most of the time — like very much so not speaking the same language. So I’m not necessarily complaining that YouTube’s focus isn’t necessarily aligning with that day-to-day.”
How Fullscreen Will Grow
What’s ahead for Fullscreen will mirror what’s ahead for YouTube, and Gahan sees a lot of changes coming to YouTube. For one thing, it won’t feel as geared toward young viewers.
“YouTube rolled out an initiative about how they’re going to really try and clean up a lot of the YouTube comments. So they’re pushing basically towards having your real name as your login and that’s part of the Google+ integration. They’re pushing a lot more of the community and social media features,” notes Gahan. “I think a couple of things will happen as a result. One, you’ll see a lot more quality comments. Two, I think you’ll see it expand and become more of an approachable platform for a wider audience, because right now it’s definitely skewed young. People who maybe never logged into YouTube will actually go and participate versus just watching it not logged in or just when it’s embedded on a blog.”
By placing an emphasis on subscribing to favorite channels and getting people to sign in with their real names, YouTube will change its culture. Anonymous comments lead to some pretty raucous discussions on YouTube, and that makes the site seem inhospitable to many viewers. As YouTube adopts more social media best practices, people familiar with social networks will respond, Gahan believes.
As YouTube becomes more hospitable to older viewers, they’ll subscribe more often to the channels that appeal to them, and come back to watch new content. That should boost the viewership of channels that appeal to mature viewers and lead to an expanding field of YouTube talent.
“I would say that’s where the biggest opportunity is moving forward. Right now, we’re set, we’ve got tons of millennials, but I think there’s a big opportunity to expand beyond that moving forward,” Gahan says. “I think diversity is really important.”
One area where Fullscreen hopes to see a lot of growth is in ad revenue. The point of an MCN is to attract TV ad dollars to online video, and there’s still much to attract.
“I’m not going to shy away from the fact that we want those dollars. We want the big Super Bowl budgets, absolutely. And it’s interesting because we can deliver on those more efficiently. And we’ve got an insane amount of scale and the engagement that can be driven within this category is pretty solid,” Gahan says. “There’s a lot of room to grow in terms of revenue. I would say right now people who are advertising are probably getting a great deal, comparatively speaking.”
The key right now is encouraging community: building large audiences of like-minded viewers that will increase subscriber counts and help promote channels they love.
“The value, I think, in the long run lies with building that community and being able to leverage that for any number of opportunities,” Gahan says.
As the YouTube world continues to change, look for young and dynamic Fullscreen to stay one step ahead.
This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “How Fullscreen Became a YouTube Giant (Almost) Overnight.” Read more here