YouTube meets The ManTargeting your video message to the community you want to reach

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I had a great conversation on Saturday night with Kate Trgovac on Sean Holman's Public Eye Radio. The topic was Petro-Canada's foray into the video-sharing world of YouTube, a project Kate got rolling for them before moving on to her new gig. (The videos purport to explain why gasoline prices are so high.)

A good time was had by all... and something Kate said struck me. She likes the initiative, but finds the Petro-Canada videos themselves to be too corporate.

She's right – and on many levels.

Being "too corporate for YouTube" isn't just a question of slick production values. Greenpeace UK's anti-SUV video and the trailers for An Inconvenient Truth are highly professional, yet have had tremendous viral uptake. And with inexpensive or free video production tools in the hands of so many users (even if the skills to use them well aren't quite so broadly distributed), a large and growing number of user-contributed videos are looking awfully good.

The issue is more one of value to the user. Petro-Canada's videos are ultimately self-serving (with the exception of one that offers tips for reducing your vehicle's gas consumption). So, for that matter, is the supporting Pump Talk web site: the subtext is "There's a good reason you're paying us lots of money, and you'd better get used to it." And although the company's communications shop tries to position this as employees communicating with the public, the results are anything but; this is straight PR-department copy with a light folksy patina.

Even that might work if Petro-Canada had a base of loyal, enthusiastic customers like, say, Apple does. Apple's fans were more than happy to hear and repeat tropes from Apple's PR department, such as the megahertz myth. Even straight advertisements have gone viral. (It isn't hard to find lots of enthusiast sites still pointing to the very first Mac TV ad, "1984.") In that case, the value to the user is being armed with support and validation for their enthusiasm and loyalty.

Humour works well too, as do pointed jabs at a shared antagonist, catching an opponent in an unguarded moment and appealing for support for a sympathetic underdog. Best of all is actually useful information.

And a lot of the most successful material on YouTube – apart from the strictly entertaining – has a subversive tone to it. Those video-makers are sticking it to The Man, as are their viewers when they watch and forward it.

All of which gives Petro-Canada a problem:

  • Raving fans for a gas station chain are few and far between.
  • The clips the company has created aren't funny.
  • The corporation and its customers don't have a shared antagonist or opponent.
  • Petrocan's hardly an underdog.
  • With one notable exception, the information isn't really useful.
  • And forwarding a video clearly scripted by Petro-Canada's corporate communications department isn't taking a swipe at The Man; they are The Man.

Does that mean YouTube is a mistake for PetroCan, or anyone else who doesn't have a certain amount of street cred? No. There's little to be lost by posting the videos, provided the company is actually interested in pursuing a dialogue (their failure so far to respond to two-week-old critical comments from users raises a few questions on that score).

But they could still do a lot more with this.

One example: If you want to convince me about oil prices being out of your hands, don't have that information coming from a Petro-Canada employee who's in an obvious conflict of interest. Find someone else who doesn't have a dog in this fight – say, an economist with a gift for plain speech. (They do exist. McGill has been running a captive breeding program that's showing tremendous promise.) Have them hash it out with an angry consumer, and put that up on YouTube.

Or create a pumptalk tag, and announce you'll respond – either through comments or with a Pump Talk video – to anyone who creates a video question or commentary with that tag. And include those videos in your own video replies. Set some ground rules to weed out cranks and verbal abuse, and you have a conversation going on.

Again – provided they respond to the comments people are leaving on the YouTube pages, Petro-Canada hasn't lost anything by doing this:

  • There's a certain talking-dog effect around YouTube, so the very act of using the site buys them some interest.
  • It's not like every YouTube user is looking to smash the corporate state, so they will reach some people.
  • And those videos will be very handy for front-line employees; faced with angry customers, it's great to be able to point them to a resource that answers their questions. (It's not hard to imagine a beleaguered Esso or Chevron cashier passing along the URL, either.)

There are lessons here for more than just large resource companies with vast networks of retail outlets. If you're trying to use YouTube, think about these factors first:

  • You're starting a conversation. Are you prepared for that? How can you make the most of it?
  • Think about what your videos will do for you... but even more important in a viral era, what they can do for a viewer... and why anyone would want to pass your clips on to a friend.
  • Is your video interesting? How about to someone outside your organization?
  • What about your video is authentic, and gives voice to something genuine and vital about your organization?

Just as it has with every other new web technology, YouTube's omigod-you're-on-YouTube- that's-so-kewl phase is rapidly coming to an end, just as it is on the wide range of other video-sharing sites. And just as it has with every other new web technology, now comes the hard part: compelling content and vibrant community.


A little background for those who haven't followed the rise of YouTube: YouTube's combination of easy video uploading and republishing and social networking features has made it the platform of choice for unsigned bands, microbudget filmmakers and others hoping to get their efforts in front of some eyeballs.

Some videos get forwarded and reforwarded in a snowballing process called "going viral", and are viewed tens or even hundreds of thousands of times. The site makes it easy to send videos by email or publish them to your blog, adding to the potential for viral contagion.

Some competitors include Google Video,, VideoEgg and OurMedia.


Ruby on Rails says

August 30, 2006 - 5:41pm
I'm not sure I totally agree that YouTube is too corporate. They do of course watermark all their videos but they are using a giant amount of bandwidth and most of the time we're not forced to see too many ads. I think more people value it then despise it.

Rob Cottingham says

September 1, 2006 - 3:24pm
Just to clarify, it isn't YouTube that Kate was saying is too corporate – it's the PetroCanada videos themselves, which she was suggesting are too corporate to fit in well with YouTube, its online community and the phenomenon of viral marketing.

frank says

May 1, 2009 - 9:49am

Interesting read.

I think any company on YouTube has to be careful about how they use it. If it's self serving all the time then people will now 'latch-on'.

Nonprofits are in a similar place. With YouTube releaseing their new 'call to action' feature Nonprofits have the ability to drive traffic back to their sites to help raise awareness/money ( ), but with that comes the need to use the medium and new feature cautiously.

I'm diggin' your blog. Just found it recently. Thanks for the good stuff.

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