Industry Voices—Groch: YouTube TV sits on the marketing sidelines during COVID-19 streaming surge

Amazon YouTube TV
Instead of using existing assets and shifting ad spend, YouTube TV decided to simply stop marketing. (Amazon)
Emily Groch Industry Voices

The COVID-19 crisis has driven significant increases in video consumption. At the same time, however, the gaping hole where live sports once lived on many platforms is causing challenges. In particular, virtual MVPDs have had to shift away entirely from marketing that highlights their sports coverage at a time of year that is usually packed with key events. Some providers, such as Hulu with Live TV, have been better positioned to roll with the punches, and others, such as Sling TV, have leaned into free content to provide value to consumers. Then there’s YouTube TV, which, like the sporting events that typically populate its channels at this time of year, has apparently decided to just sit this one out.

I anticipated that YouTube TV was going to have the toughest time pivoting its value proposition during this sports-free “new normal,” because despite the fact that it offers a wealth of content options, it has structured its marketing strategy around reaching sports fans. Although its marketing messages are often broad, with statements such as “Live TV from 70+ channels,” or “History happens live,” ads are placed where sports fans are. According to Mintel/Pathmatics, YouTube TV historically runs its digital marketing campaigns only during baseball season, and 95% of its ad spend is with Plus, YouTube TV has been the presenting sponsor of the World Series since 2017, and data from Media Radar show most of the brand’s national TV ad spend typically occurs during professional football, basketball, and baseball programming.

Since YouTube TV offers a wide range of content, and many of its existing ad creatives are not tied specifically to its sports coverage, it didn’t seem like it would be a significant undertaking for the brand to pivot its marketing strategy once sports were pulled. It could pivot to run ads for the service during highly viewed national TV programs, for instance, instead of dropping its national TV ad spend to almost nothing. And with consumers living so much more online, including on Google-owned, it would seem logical for YouTube TV to invest in digital, where it could hype live news coverage and popular networks available on the service. However, instead of using existing assets and shifting ad spend, YouTube TV decided to simply stop marketing. In addition to dropping its national TV ad spend 99% year over year, it has completely pulled out of digital channels as of mid-March—no desktop or mobile display ads, no desktop or mobile video, no Facebook ads.

Meanwhile, top competitors have continued marketing. It now seems prescient that Hulu with Live TV ran an expensive and buzzy Super Bowl commercial amplifying its key message, “Hulu doesn’t just have live sports” in February. It got the word out then, and continues to now, about the various types of content available on Hulu with Live TV. Sling TV has taken a different approach, as it gives away free content – including live news – each day during “Happy Hour,” showcasing how useful its service is for keeping consumers informed and entertained.

YouTube TV has decided to focus firmly on sports fans, likely preserving its ad budget for the eventual return of sporting events, particularly the delayed launch of the baseball season. But it offers so much more (again, 70+ channels as its marketing proclaims), and its insistence on marketing only to sports fans will be to its own detriment. The fact that YouTube TV has reduced its share of marketing to nearly zero, at a time when consumers are streaming more video and watching more news than ever, does not bode well for the brand’s success during recovery. And we still don’t know how long and lasting COVID-19’s impact on sporting events will be – the brand could be dark for a very long time if it insists on this myopic focus on sports fans.

If you ask advertising experts like Peter Field, as well as countless others, they will tell you that right now is a really bad time for brands to stop marketing, especially those brands that compete where consumer demand is heightened right now, like streaming video. According to Field’s (and others’) research on past recessions, those that continue building their brand during an economic downturn are likely to see the best results during recovery.

I’m not suggesting YouTube TV increase, or even maintain, its typical seasonal ad spend levels. But to be absent right now is unwise. YouTube TV is giving its competitors a clear opening to gain share of voice during a crucial time. Not investing in the brand at a time when consumers are especially glued to their screens is so counter-intuitive that I question how serious Google is about YouTube TV long-term.

Emily Groch is Comperemedia’s Director of Insights, Telecommunications. She pairs her deep knowledge of marketing within the telecommunications industry with Mintel’s consumer research, trends, and competitive marketing intelligence to build timely, meaningful stories for Mintel and Comperemedia telecom clients. Emily travels throughout the US and Canada to present industry marketing trends and insights to major TV, Internet, and wireless service providers, and their advertising agencies.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceVideo staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceVideo.